A seven-member team visited the Philippines and Indonesia on November 4-15, 2019 under a Local Government Division project to gather knowledge of how the village court system functioned.
The team comprised three officials from the division, including project director Roxana Quader, and two each from the Ministry of Finance and the Ministry of Planning.
The officials on the tour other than those from the LGD had no link with the Activating Village Courts in Bangladesh Phase-II project being implemented since 2016.
Within three months after the tour Roxana sought the post-retirement leave in February 2020 while the two other LGD officials still work in the division.
A non-LGD team member said on condition of anonymity on February 10 that it was mostly a pleasure trip for him and others.
He also said that they saw a village centre designed to give services to elderly citizens in the Philippines and met a number of village court arbitrators in Bali, a resort province of Indonesia, during the ‘hectic’ tour.
Roxana did not answer to the question as to how the study tour was useful for them and why officials of the finance and planning ministries were included in it.
The former project director told New Age the same day that she could not remember many things from the study tour.
Pleasure trips in the name of overseas study tours and training under development projects saw little decrease despite repeated warnings from prime minister Sheikh Hasina for the last couple of years.
Planning minister MA Mannan on February 11 admitted that a collusive relationship between project implementing agencies and planning ministry officials could be found behind many overseas study tour and training programmes.
Initiatives have been taken to modify some disciplinary rules for public servants and to develop the criteria for approving development projects with an aim to reduce the number of overseas study tours, especially to exclude the unnecessary ones from development projects, he said.
Unnecessary overseas study tours certainly cost the national exchequer dearly, he observed.
In the 2018–19 fiscal year, about Tk 3,129.59 crore was allocated for the training purpose, of which Tk 1,063.09 crore was meant for holding local training under the operating budget and Tk 2,166.50 crore was spent on training under the development budget.
Study tours on the pretext of better project implementation are mainly undertaken under the development budget.
In 2019–20, about Tk 4,064 crore was apportioned for training with Tk 1,071 crore under the operating budget and the rest Tk 2,993 crore under the development budget.
In the current 2020–21 fiscal year training has received Tk 3,960 crore with Tk 1,131 crore under the operating budget and the rest Tk 2,829 crore under the development budget.
But this year’s fund has remained mostly unused as the COVID-19 pandemic has put a brake on foreign training and study tours since March 2020.
The planning minister viewed that there should be a study to assess the impact of this long break in overseas study tours and training on the implementation of development projects at the local level.
He guessed that no major impact could be found.
Former cabinet secretary Ali Imam Majumder on February 14 said that all foreign tours were not necessary, especially those that accommodate irrelevant officials.
Such tours are a sheer waste of public money, he said.
Besides, many trained officials are transferred to elsewhere where their study-tour experience proves to be of little value, he further said.
A joint secretary took part in at least half a dozen overseas training programmes in the US and Europe on money laundering issues when he worked in the Financial Institution Division under the finance ministry.
He is now serving as a project director of a home ministry project on the establishment of fire stations, said a senior FID official.
Former caretaker government adviser Hafizuddin Khan said that not following the guidelines on the posting, transfer and promotion of public servants was behind the unwanted situation.
The chance of better service delivery from bureaucrats is slim so long they continue to promote interests of the political party in power, he noted.
Despite widespread criticisms and repeated government warnings, project implementing agencies have continued to propose study tours under development projects with the executive committee of National Economic Council approving them.
On March 10, 2020, the Department of Agricultural Extension under the agriculture ministry got approval for its proposal to revise the Year-Round Fruit Production for Nutrition Improvement project with a provision of overseas training and tours at a cost of Tk 10.10 crore.
Another DAE project had proposed training for its 10 officials in Vietnam, Chile, Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia for the cultivation of coffee and cashew nuts in the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
In September, a proposal for sending 500 officials abroad to learn about midday meal distribution under a primary education ministry project drew flak compelling the planning commission to ask the ministry to modify the proposal.
The Mujibnagar Irrigation Development Project with an allocation of Tk 1.68 crore to train two dozen officials in Australia, Germany and the Netherlands was approved by the ECNEC on October 10, 2019.
Three trips have been made by foreign ministry officials to Islamabad since 2007 in connection with the construction of the Bangladesh chancery complex there.
The immediate past Planning Division secretary, Ashadul Islam, suggested that the practice of keeping block allocations under projects for the purpose of overseas tours should be stopped.
Strengthening the monitoring system is the other major recommendation Ashadul made to stop unnecessary overseas tours under development projects.
Transparency International Bangladesh executive director Iftekharuzzaman too noted that the monitoring system should be improved by the planning commission to contain such overseas study tours.
Since the study tours proposed by the project implementing agencies need to be approved by the planning ministry, the presence of planning ministry officials in most of the overseas study tours is common, he added.
Mohammad Mizanur Rahman Talukder, a senior assistant chief at the Agriculture, Water Resources and Rural Institutions Division under the planning commission was included in a study tour to India on January 6-15, 2019 under the Improvement of Ponds, Canals across the Country project of the Local Government and Engineering Division.
He said on Feb 11 that the tour was purely about the survey of land.
He also said that he failed to understand how the trip could be useful for the development of canals and ponds.
According to government officials, many ministries and divisions are forced to include planning ministry officials in study tours as the ministry is the gateway to the approval authority — ECNEC — of the development projects.
Even many officials initially nominated are left out of study tours to make room for planning ministry officials.
Mohammad Kabir Hossain, chairman of Lohalia union parisad in Patuakhali, was a member in the study tour of the Philippines and Indonesia under the Activating Village Courts in Bangladesh Phase-II project in November 2019.
But he said that he could not make the tour due to delay in getting visa.
Kabir said on Feb 10 that he could have gone on the study tour in Indonesia and the Philippines had he contacted some officials earlier.
He also said that he did not get any further call from the LGD to join any other study tour.
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