Mahmudul Islam: Corruption has long been rampant in Bangladesh. The country topped Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) every year between 2001 and 2005. Its position has improved since then, but the scourge of corruption remains pervasive.
In response to opposition lawmakers’ concern over graft in various projects, Planning Minister M.A. Mannan told Parliament in September that corruption had increased in many areas. Just under 70 percent of youths described corruption and nepotism as the main obstacles to the country’s development in a recent survey conducted by Citizen’s Platform for SDGs, Bangladesh.
Corruption is not only an obstacle to national development, however. It also stands in the way of citizens’ happiness, which young Bangladeshis should be equally concerned about.
When it comes to corruption, we tend to think more about its negative consequences at the macro level. We highlight economic loss and inefficiency, public and private sector dysfunctionality, and rigged political systems. But at the micro level, how corrupt your country is having a significant impact on how happy you will feel as a citizen.
How corruption affects citizens’ happiness has not been extensively studied in Bangladesh.
But Western studies have found that bribery undermines victims’ subjective wellbeing while experiencing corruption has a detrimental effect on individuals’ mental health. An interesting finding of a 2015 study was that bribery can negatively affect the happiness of both the victim and the recipient, because people may feel guilt and displeasure about violating the law. Another study showed that being involved in corrupt exchanges makes people unhappy.
Corruption also has a knock-on effect on citizens’ happiness through the element of good governance (or the lack thereof). Corruption is a crucial indicator of government quality; more corruption generally means less effective governance. Many studies have found that good governance is significantly related to citizens’ happiness. Citizens of less corrupt countries are generally more satisfied with their lives than those living in highly corrupt ones.
There are two main reasons why corrupt countries’ citizens feel this dissatisfaction. One, corruption creates a sense of unfairness and inequality among individuals. It transfers resources from the masses to the elites and generally from the poor to the rich. Researchers call corruption an extra tax on citizens, which leaves less money for policymakers to spend on public goods that are necessary for ordinary citizens. This unfair distribution of resources increases citizens’ perception of unfairness and inequality, which is harmful to their life satisfaction.
The second reason is that government officials’ corruption increases citizens’ distrust of the political system over time. Corrupt officials take advantage of their power for their personal gains rather than working for public interests. They make public policies for their private interests and selfish goals. This makes them lose citizens’ trust. As political trust is a determinant of subjective wellbeing, officials’ corruption negatively affects individuals’ happiness.
Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) Executive Director Dr. Iftekharuzzaman said corruption is not only a major impediment to inclusive development, but it also creates discrimination among different groups in society, which then lowers citizens’ life satisfaction. Referring to the TIB’s 2021 national household survey, which looked at corruption in service sectors, Iftekharuzzaman pointed out that bribery is a disproportionate burden on low-income and disadvantaged people, which represents a fundamental injustice. In terms of monthly income, the burden of bribery was found to be seven times higher on lower-income households than higher-income ones.
“Low-income groups are directly affected by the higher cost of public services because of bribery. As they are less capable of paying bribes, their access to services is limited,” Iftekharuzzaman said. “72 percent of our survey respondents said they paid bribes as services were not accessible otherwise.”
The TIB survey found that 70.9 percent of households reported being victims of corruption, with 40.1 percent paying bribes to receive services. The incidence of bribery was higher in rural areas than in cities. Household heads with physical and mental disabilities were more vulnerable to corruption and bribery. Moreover, households headed by individuals having no institutional education were more prone to be the victims of corruption than those with highly educated heads.
“When you face discrimination at so many levels due to corruption, it negatively impacts your happiness and life satisfaction,” Iftekharuzzaman noted.
The annual World Happiness Report released by the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network also explains why corruption is one of the determining factors in citizens’ happiness. The report measures happiness based on six pillars, and corruption is one of them.
Year after year, the countries with the lowest levels of corruption have found themselves at or near the top of the happiness index. The Nordic countries, including Denmark, Norway, and Finland, regularly rank among the least corrupt countries on the CPI. Not surprisingly, they also rank among the happiest countries every year.
Bangladesh, on the other hand, has never ranked even among the top 50 countries on the happiness index, despite enjoying a high GDP growth. Its GDP growth rose to 8.15 percent in 2019 from 7.86 percent in 2018. But its happiness ranking slipped to 125th in 2019 from 115th the year before.
If high GDP growth alone could make a nation happier, Bangladesh’s happiness ranking should have advanced over time. Yet researchers have found that a country’s economic prosperity does not always proportionally raise its citizens’ happiness levels; Bangladesh’s experience supports this conclusion.
When the 2021 TIB national household survey findings were published, Iftekharuzzaman said corruption in Bangladesh had become institutionalized.
Can Bangladesh weed out corruption? Iftekharuzzaman said he is hopeful, but it would be very difficult as the tools to fight corruption are getting weaker in Bangladesh. Explaining further, he said the countries that rank highly on the CPI have four common features.
“First, they have political willingness to fight corruption. Second, they ensure accountability and punitive measures for getting involved in corruption. Third, their anti-corruption bodies operate independently without any political influence. Finally, they organize anti-corruption campaigns to raise awareness in society,” he said.
The TIB official added, “It is our dream that Bangladesh will one day rank among the world’s least corrupt countries.”
Maybe then the country will also shoot up the rankings on the World Happiness Report.
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