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Light on Corruption | The perennial anti-corruption deficit looms large - Public policy at serious risk in Jamaica

Published:Monday | August 14, 2017 | 12:00 AM
Yonique Campbell

Irrespective of who is participating in the discourse, I am always impressed with the fervour displayed when the topic of discussion is corruption.

There are very good reasons for this: the normalisation of corruption is, of course, frightening to those who are aware of its negative effects; corruption has a corrosive effect on public policies and can adversely affect policy outcomes; corruption is a cultural and societal problem; corruption is antithetical to good public management, and it undoubtedly poses serious development challenges.

There is also a feeling among many persons in Jamaica that there is differential enforcement of our anti-corruption laws. Most significant, perhaps, is the fact that our key actors have not tackled the problem with the commitment and vigour required to arrest the problem, before we are down the abyss.

To appreciate just how dangerous corruption is, we need only look at some of the problems confronting the security sector and the complex web that has been woven between so-called legitimate and illegitimate players, and the devastating impact this has had on the moral and social fabric of the society. The State has played an active role in creating and, dare I say, institutionalising the corruption monster, and now it must demonstrate its willingness to take the hard decisions to solve the problem. It must sacrifice the personal gains guaranteed by corruption for the common good in the society. Our leaders, and those who aspire to leadership, must leave no doubt in our minds about their willingness to halt this dubious practice.

The problem, as we are aware, does not necessarily lie with the laws and institutional framework, but with the failure to punish violators and hold them accountable. Consequently, the perennial implementation deficit looms large. But this is not the only problem. The absence of sustained public outrage and a dedicated, collective group, which cuts across age, class, and educational barriers, to demand accountability and push for change, constitutes another failure. The participation of civil society is critical but civil society champions should reflect and be more representative of the diverse Jamaican public.

The impact of corruption on public policies: Money, politics and the neglect of the public interest

Once in office, every government has the power to make, change and implement policies across a wide array of sectors. This, of course, is one of the most practical manifestations of governmental and political power. Public policy is the means through which governments make decisions about how to attend to various problems in the society: education; crime; health; taxation; poverty, and so on. Such decisions should be informed by the public interest and the development goals of the country. However, corruption has ensured that, too often, private interest takes precedence over, and is not balanced against,the welfare of the general public.

Some of the prevailing cultural values in our society are so questionable that corrupt everyday citizens, party affiliates,party campaign donors and corrupt public officials can easily thwart the attempts of those who have a genuine interest in doing what is right and in solving public policy problems.The government, acting in its own self-interest,might also pursue a course of action with no potential to solve a public problem. In fact,in an attempt to genuflect to the wishes and aspirations of those who wield power, financial, social or political, the government might make a decision that exacerbates the problem the society is expecting it to solve. This, indeed, is why it is so crucial to consider the serious implications of allowing corruption to thrive in our society. It is a clear danger to development and a problem-solving approach.

Money is an important source of power and influence in any society - this is not a moot point. Money is often used to bribe public officials, and money laundering and other financial crimes usually involve some kind of fraud or bribery. There are very good reasons why countries such as Denmark, New Zealand, Finland and Sweden have not only put measures in place to tackle the problem of both active and passive bribery, but have also enforced these measures.These are countries that are serious about social well-being and economic stability, and have consistently ranked high on the Human Development Index.

Erosion of state legitimacy: Corruption and organised crime

If legitimacy is about the relationship between the governed and the government and the extent to which the latter is able to secure recognition, consent and obedience from the former, then we must admit that there is a serious problem with legitimacy in Jamaica. A government bedevilled by corruption scandals cannot hope to secure voluntary compliance or obedience from its citizens. It is no wonder organised crime is such a vexing public policy issue in Jamaica.

There have been numerous allegations concerning state officials and the manner in which state contracts are awarded. These contracts are sometimes awarded to criminal dons, in garrison spaces, as a way of rewarding them for their loyalty and continuing control over such spaces. Garrisons deliver safe seats to politicians, and this has been a major bargaining chip. Unsurprisingly, one of the main challenges to enforcing criminal laws has come from these same communities. If state officials are engaged in corrupt dealing with criminal dons, why should criminals comply with our criminal laws? These are some of the narratives shared by criminal dons, 'who are now educate to the system.' This is why it is so important for state officials to adhere to the prescribed rules and laws that govern the conduct of individuals and institutions that carry out important duties and functions.

But make no mistake, garrisons are not the only problem. Transnational organised crime, which includes white collar crime, is a significant part of the problem. The gains from organised crime, whether involving gangs, state officials or businesses, can be used to corrupt public officials, especially those who work in an environment where opportunities for corruption exist. This has affected policing and efforts at professionalising the police force; the manner in which investigations are carried out and the outcomes of such investigations.

Although state legitimacy has been eroded by corruption, Jamaica has an independent judiciary, which has largely been insulated from corruption and politicisation. If we want this to remain, we should make every effort to enforce the law and punish violators who pose a threat to the fundamentals of our democracy. The Dudus extradition case was a clear indication of how executive power, and an already captured executive, can overreach into other areas of government.

The corruption-cyber crime nexus

Worryingly, too, there are even greater opportunities for corruption in the digital age. Cyber-crimes are becoming ubiquitous, and Jamaica has to be prepared to deal with the implications of this for the practice of good public management. There are arguments that corruption helps to fuel cyber-crime in countries like South Africa, with experts pointing out the risks resulting from the human element, which often involve corrupt insiders who accept bribes from cyber criminals seeking to get access to critical state infrastructure. Without proper measures to detect and investigate cyber offences, it might be difficult to prosecute a public official who engages in corrupt practices in the cyber space. Corrupt practices that facilitate cybercrimes will also have an impact on the fundamental right to privacy. Although there is a Cybercrimes Act, the government should move swiftly to pass the Data Protection Act and take the necessary steps to ensure that potential risks to critical infrastructure are minimised.

Dealing with the negative effects of the corruption-cybercrime nexus will, of course, require building the necessary capacities and public private partnerships.

The way forward

The current corruption architecture must be improved to ensure that we are getting the desired anti-corruption compliance. In the first instance, and as a preventive strategy, harsher penalties are needed for breaches of corruption laws. Regulators, prosecutors and anti-corruption agencies should also develop a shared understanding of how they intend to overcome the institutional and other challenges, in order to solve the problem and achieve desired outcomes.The implementation capacities should also be strengthened to ensure strict enforcement of the law,in an indiscriminate manner. This will guarantee perceptions of fairness, which can improve voluntary compliance with our corruption laws. In this regard, the necessary legislation should be passed in a timely manner to ensure that MOCA, a key anti-corruption agency,enjoys the full backing of the law. This will ensure that MOCA carries out its tasks without fear or any kind of reticence.

However, while the matter of enforcement is critical, taking a proactive approach to reduce the incidence and persistence of corruption is, obviously, an equally or more effective strategy. As a way of building shared beliefs about the meaning of corruption and the need for change, Jamaica needs a critical mass of diverse young leaders, social justice advocates and parliamentarians who are willing to be champions of a consistent anti-corruption campaign.Also, a multi-sector strategy with broad-based participation from all groups in the society should be put in place to correct current weaknesses and build awareness about the corrosive effects of corruption on people's daily life.

A campaign of this nature must start with a very open conversation about the main causes of corruption, the winners and losers of corruption, the reasons corruption remains so attractive in Jamaica and the key failings of politicians, policy elites, law enforcement, the private sector, civil society, and ordinary citizens. In other words, the discussion has to be broadened. This will lay the foundation for solutions that are grounded in the truth, an understanding of the complex nature of the problem and the need to solve the problem collectively, using legal, political, social and cultural tools. Failure to arrest the corruption problem will seriously retard Jamaica's ability to achieve its development objectives and re(assert) the legitimacy of the state. It will also frustrate all efforts aimed at fostering values and social processes that are conducive to civic order, discipline, self-regulation and a prosperous society.

- Dr Yonique Campbell is a lecturer of Public Policy and Management in the Department of Government at the University of the West Indies