Dr. Daya Hewapathirane
Corruption is the misuse of power, office or authority for private profit which could occur in the public and private domain. In Sri Lanka, corruption has become so widespread that its harmful consequences are felt either directly or indirectly by every person in our country. However, it is a fact that the effects of this menace are felt more by the poor and underprivileged. It has the effect of entrapping the poor in poverty. On the other hand, most often, the rich and powerful benefit from corruption.
According to retired Judge Ameer Ismail, who was the Chairman of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption in Sri Lanka, any form of behaviour which departs from ethics, morality, tradition and civic virtue could be labeled as corruption and corruption slowly but steadily destroys the fabric of society. Corruption involves the improper and unlawful behavior of public-service officials, both politicians and civil servants, whose positions create opportunities for the diversion of money and assets from government to themselves and their accomplices.
PUBLIC SECTOR PREDICAMENT
It is a fact that corruption has been for decades, one of the primary precursors of economic retardation and social underdevelopment of our country. Corruption of various forms appears to be the fundamental predicament with our public services. This is an endemic problem and is one of the greatest obstacles to development of our country. Pervasive corruption reduces the efficiency of government and gives it a hopeless image. This results in the public losing confidence in the government and its leaders.
Reforms in our public service establishment is absolutely necessary if we are to implement effectively what is stipulated in the Mahinda Chintanaya and to be assured of the beneficial effects of other elaborate development initiatives highlighted from time to time by our national leadership. However sound and desirable our development policies and programmes may be, their success in terms of socially beneficial consequences depends much on the attitudes towards such policies and programmes on the part of those responsible to implement them. Objectives set out in development initiatives including social welfare programmes are not attained as planned, when the bureaucracy responsible for implementation of such ventures is wanting or slack in terms of its commitment, knowledge, competency, efficiency and responsibility. The situation is further aggravated in situations where public officials are prone to corruption, lethargy, indifference and disinterest in their work and are being subject to undue and unwarranted political maneuvering and influence.
What is essential as a priority requirement for success in development initiatives in our country is a committed and enlightened public service. Here, the quality of public officials at higher levels is of fundamental importance. They need to be people with integrity. They should possess leadership qualities with a high degree of professionalism, competency and democratic character. They should be professionals who are committed to efficiency, accountability, transparency and equity in service delivery and are receptive to issues and problems encountered by the general public, especially in their dealings with the public service.
IMPACTS AND IMPLICATIONS OF COMBATING CORRUPTION
Corruption is a global phenomenon, but it has a greater impact on developing nations. The nature of corruption is extremely destructive in the Third World where it occurs upstream. According to retired Judge Ameer Ismail, most of the money gained through corrupt means in the Third World is smuggled out to safe havens abroad. He says that in the Third World corruption is not effectively confronted, but it is sometimes overlooked and not punished. Because corruption reaches the very top in so many societies, a bottoms-up strategy for weeding it is unlikely to work. Instead a top-down approach is needed.
The reality is that while some make a fortune through corruption in the Third World, the majority of the population cannot meet even their basic needs while national budgets have yawning gaps. Corruption in such a scenario, if unabated, will inevitably lead to massive human deprivation and this trend is evident in many poor countries in the world. Combating corruption in the Third World is not just about punishing corrupt politicians and bureaucrats but about saving life and preserving the right to life.
Transparency International raises awareness of the damaging effects of corruption and works with partners in government, business and civil society to develop and implement effective measures to tackle it. According to Transparency International, corruption is notoriously difficult to measure. The complexity and secrecy that shroud corrupt deals mean that it is virtually impossible to quantify the financial cost of corruption. The human expense is clear to see though, and it is the poorest that are most vulnerable. Transparency International advocates stricter implementation of the UN Convention against Corruption, the only global initiative that provides a framework for putting an end to corruption. Across the globe, transparency and accountability are critical to restoring trust and turning back the tide of corruption.
Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) is a National Chapter of Transparency International formed functioning for about eight years, as a self financing, autonomous Chapter of Transparency International with its own strategic directions and priorities. Its mission is to lead and support the collective effort to enhance integrity and eradicate corruption by generating knowledge and stimulating action.
CORRUPTION PERCEPTIONS INDEX
Since 1995 Transparency International has published each year the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). The 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index shows that nearly three quarters of the 178 countries in the index score below five, on a scale from 10 (highly clean) to 0 (highly corrupt). These results indicate a serious corruption problem in the world as a whole. No region or country in the world is immune to the damages of corruption, the vast majority of them score below 5. Singapore, Denmark and New Zealand are tied at the top of the list with a score of 9.3, followed closely by Finland and Sweden at 9.2. As far as CPI of Asian countries are concerned, Sri Lanka ranks below Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, Bhutan, Brunei, South Korea, Malaysia, China, Thailand and India.
THE INDIAN EXPERIENCE AND IMPLICATIONS FOR SRI LANKA
What the Indian Prime Minister has said in a conference in August 2009 at New Delhi, on the menace of corruption in India appears to apply closely to Sri Lanka as well. He points out that corruption distorts the rule of law and weakens institutions of governance and hurts economic growth in a variety of ways, apart from hindering efforts to build a just, fair and equitable society. He stated that the world respects India’s democracy, her plural and secular values, her independent judiciary and the free press, her commitment to freedom and peace and her pursuit of equitable and inclusive growth, but pervasive corruption in India markedly tarnishes India’s image. He shows how it discourages investors, who expect fair treatment and transparent dealings and how corruption has become an impediment to harnessing the best of technology and investable resources.
He continues that important projects, which have huge externalities for growth, do not get implemented in time, and when they do get finished, they are often of a poor quality. Inflated project costs consume scarce national resources which could have been better used in other important areas in the service of the people. India has some of the most ambitious and wide ranging programmes in place today to help the poor and the marginalized sections of society. But, there is a constant refrain in public discourse that much of what the government provides never reaches the intended beneficiaries.
The PM stated that there is no single remedy for fighting the menace of corruption and that the battle has to be fought at many levels. The design of development programmes should provide for more transparency and accountability. Systems and procedures which are opaque, complicated, centralized and discretionary are a fertile breeding ground for the evil of corruption. They should be made more transparent, simpler, decentralized and less discretionary.
The PM said that High-level corruption should be pursued aggressively. There is a pervasive feeling in India that while petty cases get tackled quickly, the big fish often escape punishment. Rapid, fair and accurate investigation of allegations of corruption in high places should receive utmost priority. The ever evolving levels of sophistication and complexity in different cases of corruption present no doubt special challenges for the law enforcement agencies. It is necessary to upgrade capabilities by learning from the best global practices and sharing the best practices with all those involved in the anti-corruption effort.
It must be ensured that the innocent among public officials are not harassed for bonafide mistakes, even while the corrupt are relentlessly pursued and brought to book. Officials have to be encouraged to take decisions, to accept responsibility, to show initiative and, whenever required, to take risks if the bureaucracy is to shed its slothful and lethargic image. Very often, the fear of harassment and damage to reputation makes public officials unduly timid and slow and the whole government machinery becomes ineffectual. The PM insisted that anti-corruption personnel have therefore to develop a system of investigation that factors this element into their thinking processes.
THE EXAMPLE OF SINGAPORE
Singapore, Denmark and New Zealand are countries with the lowest levels of corruption. Singapore is a role model in the fight against bribery and corruption. Prime- Minister Lee Kuan Yew brought the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau under his authority and took a ruthless approach to enforcing the law. This approach paid rich dividends. The incidence of bribery and corruption came down dramatically, and Singapore became virtually free of bribery and corruption. Transparency International has ranked Singapore as among the three least corrupt countries in the world. It is widely acknowledged that the critical factor that helped Singapore achieve this status is strong political will.
Like Singapore, Sri Lanka has the legal and institutional mechanisms to fight bribery and corruption. It is said that Sri Lanka can legitimately boast of the best anti-corruption laws in the entire Third World. However, this has not helped us to check bribery and corruption, which is rampant. Having anti-corruption laws and regulations in the statute book alone serves little purpose, unless these laws are implemented without fear or favour — and with ruthless efficiency and indomitable political will, something we have not seen so far under successive governments.
We have the Independent Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) in accordance with the provisions underlined in the Constitution. It ended its term in March 2010, but a new commission is yet to be appointed. For this to happen it is necessary that a Constitutional Council which is the legal body authorized to appoint the CIABOC is established which is still pending. The appointment of suitable persons to the CIABOC is the responsibility of the President.
If our government is genuinely concerned about arresting bribery and corruption, then the big fish should fry, whether they are in Opposition or on the Government side. Political leaders in all branches of government, legislative and judiciary must necessarily be required to have transparency in their own financial dealings through asset disclosure for themselves and their family members. This should also apply to the bureaucracy especially at the higher levels.
Here is a valuable quote from a speech of the late Laxshman Kadiragamar immediately following a parliamentary election in the early 2000’s. “Corruption is the scourge of our country. It is a plague in our country. The ramifications of corruption run deep in our society. I do not know what we can do about it. If the new Government can summon up the political will and courage to launch, and sustain to conviction, a few spectacular prosecutions against high level offenders, it would have a salutary deterrent effect that might help to haul us out of the mire into which we have fallen. If the new Government also fails to do so, I dread to contemplate the future of the country”.
DECLARATION OF MINISTER OF PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION
It was encouraging to note that our Minister of Public Administration and Home Affairs declared in June 2010, that bribery and corruption and delay in attending to public matters will soon be eliminated. The Minister told a media conference that bribery was rampant in government departments and in some departments, bribes were sought by high ranking officials and labourers to attend to the legitimate requirements of the general public.
He said an effective awareness programme to educate the public officials to refrain from bribery for favours would be launched island-wide. The Deputy Public Administration and Home Affairs Minister said that one of the root causes for the collapse of government services had been inefficiency and lack of interest on the part of public officials serving the public. He said that a constructive employee appraisal system would be introduced while department and sectional heads would have to ensure their subordinates fulfill their responsibilities.
In spite of such bold utterances, the government is yet to put in place a solid set of preventive tools. Codes of Conduct and strong independent oversight bodies can help ensure that the acceptable standards of behaviour are respected in both the public and private sectors. It is necessary to establish a sound code of conduct for government officials certain grades of public officers, should be required to declare their assets.
Corruption must at least be substantially minimized if we are to build a society based on sound institutional foundations. This is a necessary prerequisite if we are to build our nation to be the “Miracle or Wonder of Asia”. For their part, government leaders, politicians and bureaucrats must provide the political will to address all forms of corruption. Governments need to introduce appropriate legislation to reduce corruption and provide whatever means are necessary to ensure that appropriate steps are taken to build systems of integrity and rule of law.
JUDICIARY, POLICE FORCE AND OTHER SECTORS
The basic institution of good governance needs to be strengthened. At the head of this list is the judiciary, which is itself the guardian of laws and integrity. But if the judiciary is itself corrupt, the problem is compounded and the public at large without rule of law. The capacity and integrity of law enforcement need to be enhanced. The best law has no value if it is not enforced. The best judges and magistrates are wasted if cases are never brought to them. Good investigations are wasted effort if the judge or magistrate is corrupt. Widespread corruption in the Police force is a well known fact. It is ironical that the professionals who have as their occupation the maintenance of law and order in the country are the ones who are most prone to corruption.
The media has often highlighted bribery and corruption in the country’s Education and Public Health sectors. It is widely alleged that most principals, vice principals and other key personnel of well known schools take bribes when admitting students to their schools or in the form of various building construction funds. On the basis of the number of corruption-related experiences found within each sector, it appears that corruption exists not only due to flawed procedures within institutions, but also due to the encouragement of corruption by service recipients.
RESPONSIBILITY OF GENERAL PUBLIC
The public needs to be repeatedly made aware of the advantages of good governance and the need for them to participate in promoting it. The public itself bears a large share of responsibility for insisting on honesty and integrity in government and business. The public needs to learn (a) not to let anybody buy their vote (b) not to pay bribes themselves (c) to report incidents of corruption to the authorities; and (d) to teach their children the right values e.g. that integrity is good and corruption is bad.
Ultimately, all parts of society must share the responsibility for containing corruption because almost all are willing or unwilling participants. Each corrupt transaction requires a “buyer” and a “seller.” The government is responsible for dealing with civil servants who engage in extortion and bribery but it is businesses and individuals who offer bribes to civil servants to obtain certain advantages. An active, involved and empowered citizenry is indeed essential to any anti-corruption campaign. Reformers can only achieve real gains when a society changes its expectations and understanding of its entitlement to a government that is not corrupt.
CRITICAL ROLE OF THE MEDIA
Retired Judge Ameer Ismail notes that the Media is a public trust and its functions in the form of reporting and influencing public opinion ought to reflect public interest, societal sensitivity and democratic governance. It has a social responsibility to expose acts of corruption. Effective functioning of the press is dependent upon the public legitimacy of its existence. Educating and involving the public in building integrity is the key to preventing corruption. Public education and awareness campaigns (radio, news papers, TV. Beyond government, members of the media play a critical role in raising public awareness. A free and independent media with professional investigative capabilities can be a “nation builder.” By drawing attention to corruption, journalists can turn corruption from a seemingly low risk, high profit activity for those involved to one that is high risk and low profit. It can be a key player in fostering democratic elections by educating the public as to each political candidate’s philosophies, values and goals.
Dr. Daya Hewapathirane