Sat, 22 Feb 2003

The roots of corruption

Sultan Ahmed The Dawn Asia News Network Karachi, Pakistan

Indisputably the pervasive corruption in the country cannot be eradicated or slashed heavily unless its root causes are examined. Coping with the symptoms or apparent manifestations of the endemic corruption will not yield adequate results as its history, since the days of the promulgation of Proda in the days of the Quaid-i-Azam, has demonstrated.

The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) with its enhanced powers has come up with a new National Anti-corruption Strategy (NACS) and proposes to focus on the basic causes of corruption. Real political will is needed to make a success of the Strategy, says Lt. Gen. Munir Hafeez, chairman of NAB, launching a new awareness campaign to make the people familiar with the strategy and seeking their cooperation.

To make the NACS more popular and less controversial it is essential that no exception is made in this area, whether in terms of sections of people in the government or individuals. When earlier the armed forces and the judiciary were exempted from the purview of the NAB there were protests in the country and widespread dissatisfaction. And now that formal army rule has ended that exemption has become all the more untenable. And the judges who judge all others should not hesitate to be judged when their turn comes, so to keep their ranks clean and their performance above board.

There cannot be exceptions in respect of politicians either. Gen. Hafeez says politicians cannot be barred from contesting elections until they are convicted of charges against them. He may be right. But the issue here is not only letting them contest the elections but also making them ministers, including the key portfolio of interior minister.

If the rule of laws has to be universal there can be no exceptions in terms of groups or individuals however useful or expedient they are to the ruling system.

The new strategy was drafted as early as last February and has since then been fine-tuned. It has since then secured the approval of the president and the prime minister and is now to be sold to the federal and provincial cabinets, says Gen. Hafeez. That is the small part of the story of part one of the campaign. What matters is its full and sustained implementation. And for that real political will is needed.

The opposition parties in the National Assembly, Senate and provincial assemblies will be in favor of strong action against corruption. But will the ruling coalition led by the PML (Q) be in favor of such strong action because of the compromises and clandestine deals it has been accused of indulging in? Will the bureaucracy be equally supportive? And will the PML (Q) leaders be firm in taking action against senior corrupt officials?

The anti-corruption strategy cannot be a success unless public servants are paid reasonably, says Gen. Hafeez and he is right. At the same time he concedes that the salaries of all the government employees cannot be increased at one go. They number around four million, inclusive of federal provincial and local body employees. He wants that to be done on a selective basis beginning with employees of departments more sensitive or prone to corruption.

But a rise in the salaries of government employees alone would not check corruption. Senior government officers who are also provided with rent-free houses, cars with drivers, domestic servants and so on have not abstained from corruption. If the small officials take to small acts of corruption the senior officials take to larger acts of corruption, commensurate with their scope and rank.

When a poor country becomes a consumer society and conspicuous consumption at the higher levels of society becomes common, the rich would want to become richer and splurge their wealth. Pakistan is exposed to the good and costly things of the world -- all this while 40 percent of its people live below the poverty line of a dollar a day and 40 percent more earn less than two dollars a day. In such a society too many who want to live well rely on their illegal or tax-evaded earnings to be able to spend more. Or they rely on defaulted bank loans.

NAB has also decided to set up an implementation committee and has said that all the stake-holders, including the private sector, will be represented on it. That means the committee will be reviewing the progress of the NACS from time to time and make changes to plug any loopholes to make it a success.

Under the strategy all federal and provincial government schemes costing Rs 50 million and more will be approved by NAB. Does that means it will have an elaborate structure to scrutinize such schemes and prevent their misuse? Gen. Hafeez says the NAB will not be scrutinizing and approving all schemes but rather that it will conduct a random check to examine a few of them.

How this scheme will actually work and eliminate corruption in project financing remains to be seen. NAB's preoccupation with a few schemes may save them from corruption but what about the many other development schemes with far larger funding?

In the earlier years it used to be said that it was not enough if the bribe-takers were punished. Those who gave bribes too must be punished. While that contention was accepted in principle that was not found feasible. Businessman and industrialists bribing the officials on a regular basis, if not for favors, for getting their work done quick, would not complain against the officials they had bribed, including the customs officers. Only when some of these officials made excessive demands did a few of them got exposed.

We have now far more members of the national and provincial assemblies and far more political corruption. A larger assembly does not mean more checks on corruption but larger corruption in the electoral process and thereafter. Those who pay heavily to get a Senate seat will indulge in far more corruption after their election and as they become ministers.

How does the political will to fight corruption develop in such a political climate? The voters or the people are not strong enough to assert their will, and there are limits to the efficacy of foreign intervention in this regard. The only thing they can to do is to reduce their external assistance and monitor its use more diligently which will produce protests from our earning officials.

Thriving corruption and poverty eradication cannot go hand in hand. Nor can there be good governance in an environment of corruption. What this means is we may have an elaborate machinery to fight corruption but with no effective outcome or result. That means we would have more of the same, as in the past more slogans and less substance. More campaign rhetoric and less punishment for corruption.

In such an environment the people want action and relief, and not be made more aware of the corruption amidst them. The question now is what can the government do, what can the political leaders do, and how can bureaucracy be more helpful and less corrupt, particularly the lower order of society with which the people have to deal most of the time?

The failure to provide for good governance will be more crimes and more lawlessness, more political murders and more kidnapping for ransom. The choice before us is obvious: Either we get better, and quick, or we become far worse.