The system that enables powerful politicians and their business cronies to act as if they are above the law in Bangladesh has been horribly exposed by the rising death toll at the Rana Plaza building, which collapsed last Wednesday. The death toll now exceeds 400. More than 3,000 people were employed by the five textile factories in the building -- working to supply international retailers in Europe, Canada and the United States.
The impunity of powerful Bangladeshis before the courts is a prime cause of high levels of corruption in the country. Similar situations exist in many other very poor countries. Maybe this horrendous tragedy will finally convince official aid donors to Bangladesh and countries like it, as well as multinational corporations like Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney, GAP, Benetton and Primark, which have long been major purchasers of textiles from Bangladesh, that they should no longer sit idly by. Indeed, an initial meeting in Germany, involving Wal-Mart, GAP and H&M, among others, took place on April 29 to start planning a constructive approach.
Too many multinational corporations share the same sole value as their Bangladeshi business partners: produce garments at a rock-bottom price. As the official Rama Plaza death toll continues to rise I am reminded of a discussion some 15 years ago about global corruption at the board of the U.S. Ethics Resource Center where the ERC's then-chairman and head of Merck, Raymond Gilmartin, said of his firm, "We will not do business in Bangladesh. The ethical standards there of the government just do not allow us to operate in accord with our corporate standards."
Strengthening civil society efforts to oppose systems of selective justice that enable powerful people to evade the law, as has often been the case in Bangladesh and many other countries, is rapidly rising on the agenda of non-governmental organizations. For example, the Washington, D.C.-based Partnership for Transparency Fund announced on April 30 the launch of just this kind of approach named after one of its founders, The Barry Metzger Rule of Law Initiative.
All the facts are not yet known about what happened at Rana Plaza, but Iftekhar Zaman, executive director in Dhaka of the national chapter of Transparency International, which has several thousand members, told me:
"The proprietor of Rana Plaza, Sohel Rana, a leader of the youth wing of the ruling political party, collected 'permission' from the local municipality, which is an illegal act of collusive corruption by both the municipality and the proprietor. Then, the Rajuk Capital Development Authority, whose responsibility it is not only to approve construction on the basis of specific designs, but also to ensure the construction meets the relevant building codes and rules, took no action against this illegal development. Moreover, the illegal municipal approval was for a 6-story building, while Rana constructed a 9-storied building. It is a clear example of abysmal failure of enforcement of laws and rules leading to a growing culture of impunity thriving on illicit triangular collusion between business, politics and law-enforcement."
The close association that Sohel Rana had with powerful politicians may well have convinced him that like his patrons he had, in effect, legal immunity. The factory owners in Rana Plaza, who have also been arrested now, never voiced concerns about the quality of the construction, not even last Tuesday when large cracks appeared.
What has happened in Bangladesh could happen in many other countries that enable powerful politicians and their business cronies to act all too often as if they are above the law. This is evident in many of the countries that score very poorly on the annual Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index -- Bangladesh, which ranks at 144 out of 176 countries, finds itself in the company of such countries as Pakistan, Nigeria and Cameroon. Kamal Hossain, a former Bangladeshi Minister of Justice and a co-founder of Transparency International, has passionately argued for years that development in his country needs to start with establishing a system of justice that treats all citizens fairly and equally. For example, in the foreword to the 2007 Global Corruption Report, he wrote that in Bangladesh:
"The executive branch of the government controls the appointment, promotion, posting, transfer and discipline of almost all tiers of judges -- this defies both the constitution and public demands that these powers should be the sole prerogative of the Supreme Court, thereby ensuring the separation of power and the delivery of impartial justice."
There have been terrible tragedies in Bangladesh before, but no reforms. Textile workers are badly paid, they have minimal rights and their working conditions, as the Rana Plaza situation highlights, can be deathly.
My colleague Iftekhar stressed to me:
"While the primary onus is on the governmental, political and accountability institutions of my country, foreign companies doing business for cheap garments also have to share responsibility. Such companies cannot be perceived to be helpless in the face of corruption and impunity of their business partners. It is not enough for them to stop importing when there are violations of worker rights and safety issues, because by that they only punish the workers by rendering them jobless. Better ways must be found. The importing companies can be closely involved in preventive measures, like ensuring strict compliance with safety and rights standards as part of their business deals."
This is only likely to happen when the official aid donors to very poor and very corrupt countries provide more support to local civil society and exert greater political pressure and when the customers of the giant apparel retailers in Europe and in North America start to protest. The companies need to face protests by their own customers --- as Nike well knows, this has happened before and has led to major constructive reforms. Such pressures are urgent before there are more horrendous tragedies of the kind that we have just seen at Rana Plaza.