The inside story of the World Bank and the Padma Bridge

This bridge exists due to the determination and courage of the prime minister, who rejected the advice of all those who were against undertaking this task

The Padma Bridge is now a reality, a major step at knitting the country together. This bridge exists due to the determination and courage of the prime minister, who rejected the advice of all those who were against undertaking this task. 

In this article, I will tell the story of the financing of the bridge from what I have learned and about the attitudes of the World Bank. Some of this is rather personal but I thought that with the success of the construction of the bridge I would tell you about the events as I saw them.  

The program to build a bridge over the Padma River was not a light one. The length of the bridge was no problem, there are many bridges that are longer. There were two serious engineering problems:  

First, the river may shift channel as it has done in the past; this can be managed by river training, essentially placing enough rock material on the banks upstream from the bridge to prevent the powerful erosion from the water flowing swiftly southward and pushing against the west bank due to the rotation of the Earth.  

Second, the flow of the river carries a large amount of sediment. This sediment is pushed against the piers holding up the bridge and will erode the concrete of these piers.

Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Managing these two problems was a serious engineering undertaking. Part of the delay in the original schedule was finding an acceptable solution to the silting and construction of piers that would withstand this erosion from the sediments in the water.

Following years of preparatory work, the World Bank along with the ADB and the Japanese government were ready to go forward. 

The first step was to select an engineering company to assist the Bridges Division in the implementation of the project. 

The Bank then decided in June 2012 to drop out of the funding based on alleged corruption in procurement of these engineering services.  The ADB and the Japanese government were apparently not informed in detail of the reason for this action, leaving them with no choice but to also withdraw.

The World Bank actions were remarkably arrogant and the Bank has never made public the basis of their conclusion.  It was evident, however, that one of the main targets of the Bank’s ire was the minister of Roads and Highways, Syed Abul Hossain.  

The corruption or the intent to corrupt was alleged to be the work of a leading Canadian engineering firm SNC Lavalin.  

The World Bank insisted that the responsible officials be investigated and put on trial; they also insisted that the investigation in effect be guided by a committee appointed to the World Bank. This insulting demand was dismissed by the honorable prime minister, who announced that Bangladesh would build the bridge with its own resources.  

Senior officials among the donors smirked at this announcement, confident that this effort would fail.

The World Bank then persuaded the Canadian government to prosecute persons in the engineering firm.  This trial took place, but it developed that the World Bank had some telephone intercepts and they refused to explain how they obtained these.  

The Canadian judge threw the case out after the refusal of the Bank to explain how they had obtained their so-called evidence.  

Rumors were flying around of notes of the Canadian firm’s officers as to conversations and reported claims for percent payments to senior officials, including the prime minister’s economic adviser, the minister and the secretary of the ministry responsible for the project.

Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

Everyone knows that if you are dealing in trying to obtain projects in Bangladesh all sorts of people come up to help you, advising that they know the right people to influence to get the contract.  Naturally, these helpful people expected to be paid handsomely; and of course, they had no contacts or influence.  It is no surprise that the officers of the Canadian company --some of whom were Bangladeshis -- were approached by such helpful people.

Actually, the facts are readily available, but no one has been prepared to publish these.  

Indeed the press in Bangladesh has sometimes seemed to side with the World Bank, determined to find the people involved guilty without any serious analysis.  

I have waited for a long time to see if there was going to be any justice here, but I am sad to find that the only person who has stood on principle is the prime minister.  

The undertone of comment that she is protecting Syed Abul Hossain, an important AL politician, is upside down.  There is no evidence he did wrong and, by rejecting the demand of the World Bank that he be charged with corruption, the prime minister took a lot of criticism for doing the right thing.  

The attack on the minister was an example of the Bangladeshi poison pen at work.  

Apparently, the Bank can make any accusation it wants against a person, but does not have to answer for this.  It completely undermines any accountability on the part of the Bank.  For the World Bank to trumpet its wonderful ideals but effectively be guilty of rights violations is a lesson in arrogance and belief that it is above the law.

People gather to celebrate the inauguration of the Padma Bridge in Kathalbari of Madaripur on Saturday, June 25, 2022 Mahmud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

The second thing that the Bank has done is to use its power to try to destroy the business interests of Syed Abul Hossain.  It is a remarkable abuse of power. 

The executive director who represents Bangladesh at the World Bank should make a major issue of this behavior. The Bank officers who decided to take such a vindictive path of action should be punished.  Any financial harm to the Bangladesh company should be compensated by the Bank. The government of Bangladesh should protect its citizens from abuse by international organizations.

I will review what really happened. To implement the Padma Bridge project a number of contracts were needed. In particular one of the first to be completed was the appointment of an engineering company to supervise the construction companies insuring that the design was correct and followed, checking that materials were of required quality, and providing the government and the lenders confidence that the money was being spent as agreed in the project plans.

A number of engineering companies submitted bids that were evaluated on the basis of quality and price. A total score was established for each company combining the quality score and the price score according to more or less standard rules with very heavy weight given to the quality of the bid i.e. experience of the company, quality of the staff to be assigned, work plan etc.

The committee that did the evaluation was established by the secretary of the Bangladesh Bridge Authority who believed it was necessary to have the best possible technical membership. 

He discharged the existing selection committee which largely comprised bureaucrats. He appointed the three most senior and experienced civil engineers in the country. All with distinguished academic and practical careers. These men are of great integrity and reputation. The World Bank also appointed a member on the committee and the Bridge Authority also had a member.  

The top two ranked companies I call U for the first ranked position and I call C for the second ranked position.  The difference in the scores was very, very small.  C here is the Canadian company that has been the centre of the accusations of planning corruption.  The committee’s rankings were sent to the World Bank for review. The World Bank technical staff that had been working with project had two comments:

Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

One dealt with the cost proposal, i.e. what the engineering firms would charge for the work. The World Bank identified irregularities in U’s cost proposal. The committee was asked to make corrections to make it comparable with C’s cost proposal.  

The second was to review the CVs of staff and see if these were legitimate. 

When the committee took the actions that the Bank requested the ranking was reversed and C was now first and U second. 

It was the action of the Bank staff managing the project that led to the reversal of the rankings and put C in first place. The World Bank operations team approved the final ranking.

While all of this was going on a number of poison pen letters were flying around accusing company C of corruption involving the minister and government officials. The World Bank carried out some investigations and the part of the bank called the Integrity Vice Presidency determined that there had been corruption and recommended to the president that the contract not be cleared.  The operations department on the contrary said that the contract was fine and it should go ahead.  

Let me tell you about the Integrity Vice Presidency.   

In 2011, this organization contacted me to ask if I would assist them in watching over the Padma Bank project. I had no intention of doing so but I asked a senior US intelligence officer with decades of field experience to go over and see who these people were. He did so and told the following based on a couple hours of discussion, meeting a few people and looking around.  

First, he said this group in his opinion had no capability in conducting covert operations, lacking experience and following approaches that were naïve and simplistic.  He advised me to have nothing to do with such an amateurish group.  

He observed that the Chinese Government seemed to be particularly interested in this group.  I want to emphasize that my friend used my name of course but did not discuss the Padma Bridge. He only had a friendly meeting.

The outgoing president of the World Bank faced with what choice to make, between the recommendation of the Operations Group or the Integrity VP, decided to accept the poison pen corruption claim, stopped the approval of the contract and cancelled the Bank’s participation in the project.  

Why did the World Bank president make this choice? He was leaving to campaign for Mitt Romney in the US presidential election and wanted to present himself as a tough guy who was going to stop corruption. Rumour is he hoped to be secretary of state if Romney won. Two US government officials believed this was the reason for his choosing the corruption path.  

The second explanation is that he acted on the advice of the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Note that these two persons were in opposing political parties. 

The World Bank president at the time was a very serious man. But in this case, he appears to have given little serious thought or attention to the decision.  

Actually, the Bank was embarrassed at what had been done as there was no real evidence for the accusation against the Bangladesh officials, nor for canceling the project.  

The case against the Canadian company rested on what they were trying to do to corrupt the selection process in their favour. It said nothing about whether there was actual corruption. 

To cover what had been done the Bank appointed a three person committee to investigate. This group essentially wanted something to justify the action of the Bank if the Bank’s participation was restored.  

The PM refused to give it to them. It is my opinion that the Integrity VP ran a very shoddy investigation without correct attention to conducting covert operations and ended up looking rather foolish.

Unable to save face, the Bank decided to permanently pull out of the project to the dismay of the Japanese government and the ADB.  In the world of big UN organizations there is essentially no real accountability. How ironic when we are lectured constantly about good governance but then the teacher refuses to hold himself up to scrutiny.  

The Bank is hiding behind its own lack of evidence and further more decided to punish the now resigned minister by attacking his business. Despite the fact that they found no wrong-doing, the Bank forced cancellation of a legitimate contract being worked on by the minister’s company. Vengeance? Hypocrisy?  

I say shame, shame.  The World Bank has become a big bully.  Posing as the proponent of good governance it acted on the Padma Bridge in ways that demand apology, compensation, and improved procedures. Perhaps we should stop swallowing every juicy story that comes in a poison pen letter.  

The prime minister comes through this as acting on principle and determined to get the bridge built; the World Bank as vindictive, amateurish, and irresponsible.  

But the bridge is built. It will open up southeast Bangladesh, the improvements in the lives of the Bangladesh people will follow.

This is a revision of an article published in the Independent in 2015