Jamaica's losing battle with corruption
Published: Sunday | March 8, 2009
Ian Boyne, Contributor
Jamaica ranks 96 out of 180 countries in Transparency International's 2008 Corruption Perception Index, with only Guyana, Haiti and the Dominican Republic ranking lower in the region. Between 2006 and 2007 alone - just one year - Jamaica fell from 61st to 84th place, and last year we tumbled even a farther. Jamaica gets only a four out of a possible 10 in the grading.
Referring to the fog from the Riverton City landfill which sometimes envelops the Coperate Area, a United States Agency for International Development (USAID) corruption report on Jamaica last year says Jamaica is "covered by a blanket of corruption". According to statistics from one 2006 study, an alarming 70 per cent of Jamaican youths between ages 18 and 25 acquiesce with corrupt practices, and 57 per cent justify "doing the runnings" as a necessity. A stunning 96 per cent of Jamaicans consider corruption to be pervasive in Jamaica.
In the critical area of trust and social capital, a University of the West Indies (UWI) study in 2006 found that few countries on Earth score as low as Jamaica. Only 14 per cent of Jamaicans agree that "most people can be trusted" in Jamaica, with the USAID study commenting that "not even Kenya's ethnically divided and violent polity scored as low".
Corruption has reached such endemic proportions in Jamaica and is so all-pervasive that a Don Anderson poll found in July last year that 57 per cent of Jamaicans saw only crime and violence ahead of corruption as "the main thing wrong with Jamaica".
"We are now at a serious crossroads with this corruption issue," Professor Trevor Munroe, head of the Centre for Leadership and Governance at the UWI, told a group of opinion leaders summoned last week to discuss corruption.
At the end of January the UWI's Centre for Leadership and Governance launched a two-year initiative called the National Integrity Action Forum aimed at facilitating an effective national mobilisation against corruption. On Wednesday morning Munroe left no doubt that Jamaica was at the edge of the precipice. He was saying to us that we had the opportunity now to pull the country back or to lose it forever.
Not being alarmist
Empirical and anecdotal information resoundingly testify that Munroe is not being alarmist. A paper by Sasha Parke titled, 'Jamaica's Youth: Building Healthy Attitudes Toward Democracy and Developing Their Role in the Political Process', says, "Coupled with the lack of civic education, the reality that young people see and live every day has contributed to an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and there is little or no faith that the 'system' works and works for them.
This reality includes rampant corruption, largely inefficient and ineffective law enforcement and justice systems, escalating levels of crime, political violence, limited or no access to social services, poor quality and delivery of those services and high levels of inequity and stigma associated with class, poverty and where persons live. Much of this reality has become normalised and has entrenched views of hopelessness.
As we broke up in groups on Wednesday morning I couldn't help but feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge we face in reducing corruption. As one colleague began to speak about the importance of family life and another chimed in about values (the two are Christians), yet another colleague cautioned that we not rehash generalised solutions, but cut to the chase and get to some practical proposals. I sensed that my colleague was really trying to say in a polite way, 'Now let us cut the philosophy and theoretical moralising bit. Let's just get down to some specific, practical proposals.'
I then intervened, saying that no matter the mechanisms and systems we put in place to reduce corruption - and irrespective of their effectiveness and practicability - we would not be able to successfully tackle corruption in its broadest manifestations unless we tackled it philosophically and culturally. That is, I told them forthrightly, creating institutions, administrative infrastructure and new systems of accountability and enforcement would have limited success unless there was an overarching moral and cultural infrastructure which supported the anti-corruption drive.
"Systems, not men", I agree, in a number of instances, will be what is needed. Danville Walker did not take much to convince us that by adding some simple procedures of accountability, significant levels of corruption cold be eliminated. Some corruption is facilitated by simple inefficiency and excessive bureaucracy which induce even upstanding citizens to be immoral by making it so hard to play by the rules and still get services in a timely basis. I know all of this.
know that some people, with all the preaching and moral suasion in the world and all the socialisation, will still be corrupt and you have to find effective ways to punish them when they do, and to deter others who will never be changed through resocialisation. We must have the most efficient, speedy and punitive means of catching and making an example of the corrupt, especially the Big Fish. Too many sprats are being caught and used as scapegoats (excuse the mixed metaphor), further breeding cynicism.
So again I stress, I am for systems, controls, enforcement. But there are a number of ingenious and subtle ways to bypass them. And there are ways of thinking and habits of the heart; ways of seeing the world - in other words, values and attitudes, which people can draw on to fight the temptation of corruption, even when they could get away with it.
Most significant source
I told the group on Wednesday that a society which values money, material advancement, getting ahead or just physical survival above all else has drained itself of the most significant source of anti-corruption. In other words, if you have a society in which people put money above everything else and in which there are no principles worth dying for and standing up for at all cost, all your institutional reforms and enforcement procedures would have limited value.
The day before our meeting, a prominent media practitioner told me, and argued his case vociferously, that there was nothing more important than money. I though I mis-heard him. No, I did not. He said it was only well-fed, idealistic people who held the view that there were things more important than money. This is a prominent media personality, well-known throughout Jamaica.
On that morning of our meeting, on the Breakfast Club the "celebrated" deportee Vivian Blake, ex-leader of one of the most dangerous gangs ever to hit the United States, the Shower Posse, (recently featured prominently in the American Gangster series on American television) said something startling.
Asked if he had his life to live over again whether he would do anything different, he said, without hesitation, "No". Get a copy of that American cable show or the book written by Blake's own son to see the atrocities of which the Shower Posse was accused. Blake was insistent and stressed: "After I lost my job, I had to live. I had to live. I had my children to look after and my grandmother. I used to see her fridge empty. I had to live", by any means necessary. That is why he could say openly that he had no regrets - for anything is justifiable to live. The hosts must have been too stunned, too polite (or too afraid?) to challenge him on that reprehensible statement.
Many 'decent' Jamaicans
But Vivian Blake's views represent those of many Jamaicans who were never gangsters. There are many "decent", everyday Jamaicans who believe that humans should do anything to survive (except to engage in homosexuality, of course). That's the only exception they seem to have; the only thing worth dying over! In these harsh economic times, to say that you are "standing up for principle" or "morality" (who can eat that?) and that you are not engaging in "the runnings" to "eat a food" is to laughed at or seen as a fool. How you fight corruption in a culture like this?
You don't have a society with a set of values which says these values are worth suffering deprivation for and even dying over. Our forefathers believed that the lives of their children and their children's freedom meant more than their own lives. They sacrificed their lives for us. We lionise people who threatened their lives to win our freedom and who stood up against oppression, but that's only in another narrative. In the real world we believe that is rubbish, that "man haffi survive", by any means necessary.
There have been all sorts of people - communists, Muslims, Christians, Hindus, black power nationalists, anti-colonialists - who have put liberation, the ending of oppression, the fighting for an ideal, for justice, for human rights, above their own personal welfare and personal advancement. If you have a society where the greatest value is money, we cannot fight corruption.
Keep their cushy jobs
People in positions of power and responsibility in the public service will bow to the politicians who ask them to bend the rules and to facilitate their whims and fancies because they would rather keep their cushy jobs rather than fight any corrupt encroachments.
This is why this country does not begin to realise the value it has in Greg Christie. We will never begin to understand what a treasure Greg Christie is and we can never pay him enough for his uncommon courage, fearlessness, inflexible commitment to integrity and even his feisty temperament.
Sure, he is sometimes unnecessarily contentious, obtrusive and sometimes will overstep his bounds. But I much prefer him to err on that side than to quiver before government ministers or even to the prime minister. We need independent people in the public sector who can stand up to prime ministers, ministers of government and any Mr Big Man from any big-name family. People who would rather lose their well-paying jobs than compromise an ounce of integrity.
Unless you have people with this kind of character - this kind of commitment to a set of moral and philosophical principles - all your institutional reforms and enforcement procedures will be woefully inadequate. Necessary, but not sufficient. You need moral capital.
We desperately need more anti-corruption champions like Greg Christie. And more people to follow his example.
Ian Boyne is a veteran journalist who may be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.