More than 52pc of SMEs paid bribes to receive govt service: Study

Visitors look at the products at a stall at the National SMS Fair organised by SME Foundation at Bangabandhu International Conference Center (BICC) in Agargaon, Dhaka, 17 March 2017.
Prothom Alo file photo

More than 52 per cent of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) paid a bribe to avail essential services at various government offices in the year preceding Covid-19 pandemic, according to a study.

These services includes acquiring and renewing licenses, using public utilities, obtaining a Tax Identification Number (TIN), and obtaining a Value Added Tax (VAT) certificate.

The Center for Governance Studies (CGS), in partnership with the Center for International Business Enterprise (CIPE), has recently surveyed the current status of the SME sector of Bangladesh.

The survey was conducted among 800 nationally representative SMEs, including 400 manufacturing and 400 service sector enterprises.

The study was carried out between mid-October and mid-December 2021, and the finding are published on CGS’ and CIPE’s websites.

The study said, in terms of perception, almost nine out of ten SMEs believe corruption is pervasive in the SME sector. Some 62.4 per cent of SMEs believe that corruption is well-rooted or integrated in the system, and an even higher number (71.3 per cent) believe that resorting to corruption can increase market competitiveness.

More than half of respondents believe that restrictive government regulations encourage corruption, and this opinion is especially more prevalent among smaller businesses.

Because of these perceptions, the majority (61 per cent) of surveyed SMEs have chosen to bypass regulations and operate informally.

Bribery was particularly prevalent in the services of acquiring and renewing trade licenses (36.4 per cent and 31.8 per cent, respectively). Two-thirds of individuals who paid bribes felt it was necessary to do so in order to acquire the services, and the second most popular reason was to save time.

The license and registration authority (28.8 per cent), the tax office (21.6 per cent), the local government/city corporation/municipality (19.5 per cent), the property registration office (13.5 per cent), the environmental department (12.9 per cent), and law enforcement agencies (10.6 per cent) were the most frequently cited recipients of bribes.

The data indicate that the offices where enterprises must interact for essential public services are the main locations of corruption.

According to the majority of respondents, the desire for money or possessions as well as a lack of transparency at the higher government level inspires this systemic corruption, but they also listed a slew of other contributing causes.

The reasons most frequently stated by SMEs included enforcement of anti-corruption legislation (86.2 per cent) and non-enforcement of anti-corruption regulations (79.5 per cent).

The lack of professionalism of public officials (77.4 per cent) as well as their requests for kickbacks in contract awarding (73.9 per cent) contributes to concerns on the demand side, while corporations seeking benefits by giving bribes or demanding special privileges (73.9 per cent) encourage corruption on the supply side.

Inadequate media coverage of corruption (72.8 per cent) is another contributing factor, according to the respondents.

Bribery (77.9 per cent) and the use of political influence (60.1 per cent) are the two most commonly reported forms of corruption among SMEs. Extortion (46.3 per cent), nepotism (43.9 per cent), and excessive patronage (43.1 per cent) follow the list.

These types of corruption mirror the larger social and political situation, which generally affects the economic sector. Corruption in local government affects SMEs more than corruption in national government (27.6 per cent).

Bribery, relationships with influential people (68.4 per cent), and networking with public officials are considered the simplest ways to obtain public services and survive illegally (68.4 per cent).

Despite the prevalence of corruption, enthusiasm for submitting complaints to authorities remains low. Only 2.3 per cent of the respondents have ever reported a complaint, yet more than 70 per cent of those respondents reported a negative outcome to the complaint process.

Despite the government's repeated claims of a "zero-tolerance" policy, less than half of respondents (46 per cent) felt local and national governments had taken steps to reduce corruption.

Most of this group did not believe these actions had a positive impact. The corruption reporting mechanism was one of the primary concerns investigated in the government's anti-corruption process.

Two elements were examined: effectiveness and ease of use. Both have yielded nearly equal numbers of divided responses. This suggests that the procedures were not appealing to SMEs. The diminishing protection of whistleblowers is another critical issue where the vast majority of respondents (72.8 per cent) voiced dissatisfaction.

While the majority of SMEs (55.1 per cent) were satisfied with the work of chambers of commerce and business associations in combating corruption in the public sector, more than 78 per cent were willing to join a private sector coalition for collective action to promote business integrity and lead an anti-corruption effort, according to the study.