Today we conclude this three-part article arising out of the publication of the 2008 Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International which ranked Guyana at a lowly 126 out of a total of 180 countries surveyed, with a score of 2.6 out of 10. No one can say whether the ranking is correct in the strict sense. That would require knowledge of the other countries surveyed or assume an unerring degree of consistency in the process across all of them. What we can say, however, is that the methodology and sources meet the reliability and credibility test, and any government serious about the image of the country ought to take the perception very seriously.
No one needs to be convinced that corruption and its sidekick, bad governance, have developed in Guyana into a culture of impunity fuelled by an unacceptable level of public tolerance. Inconsistent with its boasts of achievements in rooting out corruption, the government fiercely resists any demand for public scrutiny and readily attacks anyone who questions its decisions and actions. Corruption finds shelter in opacity and over- centralisation of power, non-transparency in major financial dealings and contracts, absence of accountability, and excessive red tape in government departments − conditions that exist here.
There is no longer any question whether there is corruption, but only the extent and cost. One columnist described the situation as a “kleptocracy,” a term applied to “a government that extends the personal wealth and political power of government officials and the ruling class at the expense of the population.” Corruption takes many forms and the cases are legion. It can be the straight bribing of politicians and officials to the extension of concessions, contracts and benefits to those in power. It can take the form of scholarships and plum jobs for relatives of those in power, advisory positions for party officials and all kinds of personal benefits for the politicians. All of these have a real cost to the economy and explain why despite all the tax write-offs and excessive taxation on the backs of the poor our per capita GDP is a mere US$1,000.
Compare Guyana with the African island of Mauritius, which at its independence in 1968 was more dependent on sugar than Guyana was. Its per capita GDP was a mere US$200 and its future gloomy at best. Forty years later, despite the absence of oil or mineral resources and having to import most of its food and energy, the country has a diversified economy and enjoys a per capita GDP of US$7,000. It was rated at 41 on the TI Index and is considered the top African country in the Doing Business Series of the World Bank.
Cost and cancer-effect
Corruption costs the treasury, but also the ordinary person and as one friend wrote to me in an e-mail, “Corruption is not just a morality abstraction. It can and does indiscriminately hurt persons, groups, organisations, communities and nations in concrete and practical terms. For example, the untutored motorist who has corruptly paid for their driver’s licence ‘under the table’ is really a lethal weapon that may be heading your way. And every time you pay for a public service which is nominally available without cost, you obviously and unnecessarily diminish your disposable income and your child may have to do, at least temporarily, without a school book.”
Parts one and two of this article showed that instead of the government taking action to curb corruption, it has dismantled, emasculated and politicised key institutions with the result that corruption goes undetected and unpunished. The question is why is there an absence of outrage at the failure of the government to deal with corruption, and whether it has now gone out of control?
It may be that we have been so accustomed to corruption that it is now part of one’s existence, part of doing business in Guyana. It is also cancerous as businesses find it necessary to adopt corrupt practices to compete. It may also be that corruption takes so many forms that it may not be immediately seen for what it is. The country failed to see the creation of Pradoville, the Cabinet Outreach to get Amerindian votes for the 2006 elections and the virtual abolition of the Office of the Ombudsman and the Integrity Commission either as themselves corrupt practices or the facilitators of corruption. Not even the emasculation of the Audit Office, the abuse of the Lotto and NICIL funds and the misuse of state funds for personal benefits arouse any attention these days.
Tackling the problem
For there to be any real war on corruption requires political will and personal and institutional commitment, all of which seem in very short supply. Threats by the President to deal with corruption and to bring the perpetrators to justice are almost a monthly joke. The PPP/C came to power with a pledge to deal with corruption and its own manifestos may offer some solutions. Here are some of its pledges:
1. Its 1997 Manifesto pledged to have a Freedom of Information Bill approved in the 1997 Parliament.
2. In 2006 it promised, among other things, to:
i) introduce fiduciary oversight reforms that will give greater oversight responsibilities to parliament to monitor executive programmes;
ii) to reform and strengthen the Integrity Commission to carry out its functions of holding public officers to account;
iii) strengthen the Audit Office; and
iv) work with Parliament to establish the Procurement Commission.
As Business Page has shown over the past weeks, the government has not only failed to deliver but has gone into reverse, even as its political control has increased.
The parliamentary opposition chairs the Public Accounts Committee but the PNCR which holds the chairmanship seems to have run out of ideas, energy and capacity to make a real impact. The AFC failed to win government support for a Freedom of Information Bill in Parliament and it and the PNCR have not been effective enough in asking searching questions in the National Assembly that would help to expose and reduce the level of corruption.
That leaves us with ‘civil society,’ which however defined, has shown little or no interest in stemming corruption. For all its feigned complaints about corruption, the private sector is willing to ask for and accept concessions which it knows smack of corruption and which compromise their independence. Beneficiaries themselves of goodies from the government, they are recycled into various forms and on successive days they are members of this or that commission or body, then the next they are in religion and the next, part of the EPA coalition. As a result civil society is so weak that even when it extracts a commitment from the government as in the aftermath of the Lusignan Massacre, it could and did nothing when the President broke his promise to have the outstanding constitutional commissions set up by May, 2008.
In the course of this article I have called on key members of civil society to play their part in cleaning up corruption in their own areas. Significantly this included the Integrity Commission that has been disgraced as much by the politicians as by the Commissioners. A similar call was made to the Gecom commissioners but that too has been ignored. Hopes then are receding and the fear is that things will get even worse.
This may be a last chance for the so-called ‘silent majority’ to find its voice and get involved in the fight against this cancer. Entering the public debate, pushing for resuscitation of the powers of the Office of the Ombudsman, mobilising public support against corruption, demanding accountability for public funds and lodging complaints when approached for bribes are all actions that the lowliest among us can take, so the excuses that we cannot change the situation are just that: a copout. Advocacy in the form of sustained pressure from civic groups and private sector organisations for fundamental reform of how government runs its business can be effective and save the country billions. For starters I would support the recommendation of the friend from whose e-mail I quoted above that we have a country chapter of Transparency International appropriately structured and populated. Any interest anyone?