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Rajpal's Column

21st June 1998

The rise and rise of corruption

By Rajpal Abeynayake

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The Bribery and Corruption Commission is almost dead. In its moribund stage, there are accusations that the Bribery and Corruption Commission was finally knifed and killed by the State because some of the government's own favourite people happened to be the subject of its investigations.

The practise of corruption is "so universal that it receives social sanctions," observes a Third World corruption pundit. Corruption receives social sanction, because of social acceptance that "the end justifies the means."

Governments with the best of intentions find that campaign slogans and incumbency are different stories. Corruption is still not an issue as sensitised as say, the issue of human rights for instance. Governments now like to, or almost have to , wear human rights on their sleeve. Else, there will be organisations such as Amnesty International breathing foul vapour down their necks.

The real reason the West embraces human rights and ignores corruption runs deeper as usual . Its been long since the West officially embraced the human rights agenda. This philosophically maybe because the West had now reached the stage of development that made it convenient for the Western countries to keep human rights at the top of its "'to do" list. Anyway, leaving the homilies aside (these are guaranteed to draw a guffaw from the "globalized" Sri Lankans) the West has not embraced the agenda of corruption in the same way that the West has embraced the agenda of human rights. Partly, that's due to the fact that the West has still not graduated to the point of considering corruption as globally infradig.

The west is still in the Neolithic age as far as the issue of graft and big time international bribery goes. Take this pointer from the source book of the Transparency International, the weaker brother of Amnesty International, as example (TI does exist: the poor cousin of AI which still has to be noticed in the globalized system of nations) Says the source book that the "grand corruption of high public officials often involves large international bribes and hidden overseas bank accounts. Its frequently fostered by exporters from countries (in particular the industrialised countries) which may knowingly or unknowingly offer tax breaks for the bribes paid , and refuse to regard trans - border corruption of public officials as criminal behaviour."

The distillation of that is that a great deal of big time corruption in poorer countries originates from the West. Some western countries, for example in Scandinavia, have graduated to the point where their legal systems have officially made kickbacks to government officials in other countries illegal in the eyes of their own law. But, in most industrialised countries, offering kickbacks to government officials on large deals and tenders is regular practise, the done thing.

Small wonder that Transparency International does not get Western backing as Amnesty International does. (How many of us incidentally know that TI exists?) Corruption is fostered in the underdeveloped world by the industrialised nations, to the advantage of large private conglomerates in these countries. So it makes sense to cultivate the corruption mentality in the developing world.

Thet's are facts that new governments find difficult to face when they come to power, no matter how hard they drove the anti graft message during their campaigns.

The issue of the Bribery and Corruption Commission is a classic example. It became rather ridiculous to make it seem that the commission was tenable when it had only investigated cups and saucer issues. The newspapers were on the other hand exposing wheeler dealing that involved cross border international companies, large kickbacks and massive commissions.

To that extent, the government was perhaps correct to question the viability of the corruption commission. But did the government aim at the corruption czars for this reason, or for other reasons that have more to do with government officials being potential victims ?

That's good guessing, but in most parts of the developing world, anti graft is still in its infancy because the industrialised West fosters the corruption bandwagon. This of course does not mean that "indigenous" forms of corruption do not exist, or that there is no petty corruption involving bribery and graft in mundane matters such as school admissions and car licensing.

The TI sourcebook may well have been talking of the Sri Lankan situation when it observed that "reforms (of corruption tackling) may include eliminating corruption programs which do not enjoy a strong public justification-some programs may have little to recommend their continuance beyond their ability to produce personal benefits for public officials."

The government says that the corruption commission spent a few cool millions to investigate four or five cases.

That's one side of the coin, one probability. But the other aspect is that fighting corruption is an ad hoc exercise in these parts of the world. The PA made it an emotional political device, and dhooshanaya came even before beeshanaya in the PA hit list. But, the PA could not live by the rule book. TI for example says that "credible legal constraints must exist to back up administrative reform. Yet, in most countries, neither the prosecutors nor the judiciary are well respected, and the underlying laws are weak and ineffective.

That's precisely what the corruption commissioners have been saying in their tough letter to the President. But, the fiasco underlines that the top down approach to corruption, ushered in with a flourish by the PA, is a minefield that is integrally flawed.

Corruption is encultured. It is backed by the rich and the powerful, both within the country and without. It starts top down. Therefore, it is not easily reformed by political process, because the rich and the powerful often have a stake in perpetuating graft. Therefore the attack on corruption has to be seen with reference to all its ramifications, philosophical underpinnings. Therein lies the catch.


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