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When Corruption Becomes Oppression in Bangladesh

This article was originally published on Fair Observer.

By Maria Khwaja Bazi

A city of 16 million people, Dhaka is an assault on the senses. In April 2014, we whizzed through traffic behind the caged door of a rickshaw to visit a small private school. After a few training sessions, the teachers and I sat around a table, fans whirring overhead, and discussed the biggest issues they faced.

Bangladesh, famous in the development world largely for Grameen Bank, Mohammed Yunus and BRAC, struggles from many of the same issues as most developing countries with regard to education: lack of teacher training, low salaries and motivation, absenteeism, poor resources, unreachable rural areas and a lack of resources. Predictably, when sitting around a table with several teachers, the majority of complaints revolved around the rights and position of teachers.

“We only make $100-300 per month in government schools,” the art teacher said, “and in private it can be as low as $25.”

“Everyone says that the teaching profession is not very important,” said the mathematics teacher. “Everyone looks for a higher salary.”

Yet the truth of Bangladesh’s educational issues come down to the labyrinthine corruption of the system. Even in a reasonable school, with a highly motivated child, it is clear that no one could get anywhere without bribery and a solid ethnic or personal network to manipulate.

“What do you really need in Bangladesh?” the headmaster said to me. “Good grades, some connections and a bit of money.”

Investment in school is an ongoing and controversial subject. Although oft-quoted studies suggest a 10 percent return on education per year in school, the reality on the ground seems a bit mistier. The massive focus on primary education and universal literacy appears to work in Bangladesh’s favor, with 96 perent of children enrolled in primary.

However, the issue becomes cloudy in secondary and upper primary, where dropout rates begin to steadily increase, topping out at 65-70 percent. Although these rates have been declining, one can’t help but wonder why a child would choose to stay in school when their family cannot afford to bribe or manipulate their way into a job or university, afterward.

In fact, children and parents still seem to believe that education — primary education at least — is a valuable investment. The proliferation of low-cost private schools attests to this: “We have a commercial issue now, also,” the owner of the school stated. “I had to invest in a school. It was a good opportunity. I was thinking about earning some money.”

The abundance of low-fee private schools, in addition to the prevalence of bribery, unfortunately seems to further exacerbate the inequality in access to Bangladesh’s education system. Transparency International’s report on corruption shows that Bangladesh’s system disproportionately impacts poor families. As the report states: “For [higher income households] the rate of loss of income was less than the average whereas for the lowest income category of household the ratio was much higher, at 5.5 percent.”

It is clear the system fails the children who still enthusiastically dress in crisp uniforms every morning and walk to school, lunch bags swinging. The public’s largely negative attitudes toward education as a means for advancement is a testament to this, as well. Everyone in the country who has experience with schooling highlights the lack of places in universities, the teachers who charge extra for tuition and the random fees that appear in “free” schools.

As a World Bank report states: “But it is not appropriate simply to presume that any spending on schools is a productive investment that will see the returns estimated for attainment. It is instead necessary to ascertain two things: how various investments translate into quality and how that quality relates to economic returns.”

Perhaps a further question is whether investment is worthwhile when there is a social construct that prohibits growth and development for children. Even while corruption in aid and business is posited by individuals such as Bill Gates as being minor, corruption in education is clearly an issue that does require the “zero tolerance” measures if children are to succeed.

Corruption is not simply a “donor tax” in Bangladesh; in fact, it is the cause of, among other things, insufficient university places, poor families scrounging to send their children to schools that may or may not succeed, and children being prevented from learning because of an inability to pay.

The issue, of course, is the proverbial chicken-and-egg of whether people cheat the system because of opportunistic behavior, or whether they cheat the system simply because the system is already a failure. As Transparency International states: “Rather, [families in developing countries] seem to be rooted in the perception that education is failing to deliver what is expected, and that bypassing rules is a possible — and sometimes even the only available — ‘remedy’ for schools.”

It is impossible not to consider corruption in a discussion on education and new programs, like Tanzania’s Big Results Now, which are meant to increase accountability within education. Even Transparency International, with its focus on small-scale community accountability and integrity building, seems at a loss as to how to deal with the corruption epidemic.

As I sat around the table talking to teachers and students, their resignation weighed on the conversation.

“The brilliant students don’t get opportunities if they are poor,” the headmaster said, his hands folded in front of him. “That’s how it is here.”

It seems apparent that, in the case of a country like Bangladesh, education cannot be treated as an issue separate from politics, nepotism and corruption on a larger scale.

Although many organizations and nonprofits treat education as a “common good” goal, as with the Millennium Development Goals, a lack of focus on the fact that politics heavily influence and reduce chances for children may do more harm than good.

“It’s the exams we take in the dead of night because of bribes. The professors who do nothing. The schools with no teachers. These are all politicians,” one teacher sighed.

Perhaps, then, a first step to building a better system is a stronger enforcement of rules and regulations, from the top all the way down. At least in the case of Bangladesh, it appears this would give hope to children who leave school because success is an unattainable dream.

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Maria Khwaja Bazi is the Founder of Elun, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teacher education in the developing world. She is also a teacher and completed her Master's in Education at Oxford University. She is a reporter at Fair Observer.

[Photos Courtesy of Teach Elun and Flickr]

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