Mon | Jan 21, 2019

Corruption everywhere?

Published:Friday | December 12, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Earlier this week, I was in a discussion where it was suggested that some of us are too quick to bawl out 'corruption', when most of what we see is incompetence. In other words, we are misdiagnosing the situation, and we are being unfair. This is not to say, they might argue, that incompetence is OK and should not be reduced; but to constantly cry 'corruption' when it is not really there is to deaden public sensibility to real corruption.

According to Transparency International's 2014 Corruption Perception Index, Jamaica is ranked in the middle: 84 countries out of 174 globally are perceived to be less corrupt than we are, and 89 countries are perceived to be more corrupt. We earned only 38 points out of 100 for our anti-corruption efforts; Denmark, 92; Canada, 81; Barbados, 74; The Bahamas, 71; St Vincent and the Grenadines, 67; and Dominica, 58. Are we happy with 38?

Is the perception of widespread corruption in Jamaica close to reality, or is the real incidence of corruption overblown by the media and groups such as Transparency International and Trevor Munroe's National Integrity Action?

Many people who feel that the real incidence of corruption in Jamaica is unfairly exaggerated have too narrow a definition of corruption, which allows them to accept as morally acceptable actions that many others hold to be corrupt. For example, you will hear: "He broke no law, so he was not corrupt."

Jamaican politicians have been reluctant to pass efficient anti-corruption laws. Following the Government's procurement guidelines is mandatory for all government ministries and agencies, because these guidelines are designed to inject balance and fairness into the awarding of contracts and the purchasing of goods and services by the State. But Jamaica's lawmakers have not seen it fit to make breaches of the Government's procurement guidelines illegal. And, therefore, many people do not see breaching procurement guidelines as corruption; but it is!

You also hear, "He did not benefit personally, so he was not corrupt." So when a politician or a public servant uses public funds to bail out his friends, or distributes scarce benefits and spoils to party supporters, no one can claim the distributor personally enriched himself or received any material gain. But someone gained. And the political party gained. Corruption is defined much too narrowly when personal gain is made the only yardstick.

Waste and corruption

What about wastage of public resources? Is that corruption? Good governance includes maximising efficiency and reducing waste, but is poor governance the same as corruption? Not all managers have equal competence, and some are better at cost-cutting than others. Maybe there is an acceptable level of pilferage at the workplace - I don't know - no matter how efficient the manager is, but when things continually go missing, when there is chronic leakage of stock, and management does nothing to address it, that is not just managerial inefficiency: that is now corruption.

Everyone knows that motor vehicles are 'passed' at the examination depot without ever going there. Those who manage the examination depot know it, the Island Traffic Authority knows it, the police force knows it, the Ministry of Transport knows it, the Cabinet knows it. When motor vehicle examiners take bribes, that is corruption, and when each and every level of management knows about it and does nothing, that is corruption.

Nowhere is corruption more present in Jamaica than in the interface between politicians and the private sector - the market for cash and favours. It would seem that neither can survive without the other, and both political parties and their funders are agreed that their transactions must take place in secret, without public scrutiny.

It is internationally accepted that the exchange of donations for favours is corruption, and that the best strategy to combat it is to make political donations a public matter. Nowhere is this more needed than in Jamaica, where private-sector donations have been used to buy guns to arm political thugs and, more recently, to buy votes.

Trevor Munroe's National Integrity Action supports the proposed arrangement that political donations should take place in secret; they believe it is better to compromise and have an agreement than to hold out for the ideal and end up with nothing. In my view, the compromise they have agreed to is little more than nothing. With no enforcement in place, no cronyism will be detected, and enough loopholes exist for corruption to proceed apace.

This amounts to only a pretence at fighting corruption. We deserve our low anti-corruption score of 38, and our low global ranking.

n Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to