Shuvo shokal from Dhaka,
It’s never a surprise to find corruption where there is poverty. The link is universal and easily explained. The problem, of course, for a developing nation is that entrenched corruption is hard to eradicate, even many years after passing through the pre-industrial phase.
Bangladesh has its share of corruption. In fact, it’s a common explanation among locals for lack of services, poor roads and government inaction. Keeping in mind the likelihood of exaggeration, it’s clear that corruption exists. Some examples are plain to see.
One of your first introductions to Bangladesh is at the airport where a non-uniformed ‘officer’ will want some baksheesh for helping you fill out some form or another. We freely admit that paying baksheesh in such situations rankles a bit but we reconcile that by realising that in other similar places we’d probably be paying for the service in some way or another anyway. The manifestation of corruption is sometimes a spectator sport, too.
One evening I was in a busy shopping centre when a small excited crowd gathered a bit further down the street outside a shop. There, an elephant was demanding what can only be called an elephant tax. The mahout has trained the elephant to block the shopfront, wait with its trunk outstretched and take the 10 taka note from the shopkeeper. The elephant passes the note back up to the unsmiling mahout and moves to the next shop to collect the next 10 taka note. The expectation is that the shopkeeper pays for the elephant to move on. I wasn’t the only pedestrian entranced by the encounter. Quite a few local commuters were also agog with the spectacle.
The corruption inherent in these transactions provokes some interesting questions viz. is this the type of occurrence a developing country should eliminate or is it the type of quirky tourist phenomenon they should keep for future reference (the type of difference which gives a country a tourism comparative advantage). I’m not sure what the answer is. The implicit corruption entailed in the purchase of alcohol presents a clearer case.
John the intermediary
Remember the previous tale of alcohol purchase? This week, we had a hilarious sequel. We were given the name of a contact at the German Club. Incredibly, the contact’s name was John. (This is not the same improbable “John” who was the Indian bookmaker made famous by the Mark Waugh/Shane Warne fiasco.) After a series of telephone calls and text messages we pulled up outside the German Club and rang John to say that we were outside. (This is where I almost mockingly said, “The eagle has landed”. )
brown paper bags
John slipped furtively into the van and accompanied us to another venue where only he could enter. “I’ll be about 10 minutes,” he said, disappearing into a dark alley. After three more phone calls, the driver moved the van to the rear entrance. We waited in semi-darkness, exchanged another few phone calls and finally John emerged carrying a dozen bottles in the proverbial brown paper bags. “Sorry, that’s Bangladesh,” said he, thinking that we had been kept waiting too long. Curiously, John wouldn’t accept the offer of baksheesh, perhaps because he had charged us well over the odds anyway (perhaps because he’s a decent cove wanting to do a good deed to some thirsty foreigners). Some would also have us believe that the cricket world is immersed in the same quagmire of corruption. There the evidence is not so clearcut.
Tamim Iqbal opens the batting for Bangladesh. One of the boys in my class loudly proclaimed his belief that Iqbal was not fit for the honour. “He’s made duck after duck during the last few years. The selectors only have him in the team because his uncle is on the panel and the Prime Minister intervened on his behalf,” said Mostafa (or words to that effect).
Unfortunately for Mostafa’s argument, Iqbal scored a test century that very afternoon – and then another in the following test. I ribbed Mostafa about his fixed belief in corruption in the selection process by reminding him that Iqbal had now scored six test centuries: “That six more than you” I said. So firm is his bias on the subject, Mostafa retorted with “What about the ODIs?” [One Day Internationals]
The type of prejudice Mostafa displays on the corruption question is common around here. Hold the belief: expound the theory, regardless of the evidence. This phenomenon is not peculiar to Bangladesh but the fact that the belief in pervasive corruption is so deeply ingrained that it even extends to sport is an illustration of the depth of the problem.
We find the baksheesh culture mildly annoying. The expectation that every service will draw a tip goes against the Australian grain, I would have thought. It’s no surprise to find corruption in a country where there is such widespread poverty, but it is increasingly our view that it is not a suitable explanation for every evil either.