Overcoming the corruption beast

By Festus L. Brotherson Jr.
Guyana Chronicle
December 19, 1999

QUITE rightly, President Bharrat Jagdeo is most exercised over the corruption problem in revenue agencies in Guyana.

At the 23rd Annual Miami Conference on the Caribbean and Latin America last week in Miami, Florida, Mr. Jagdeo harshly criticised corruption and pledged to "get rid of this problem".

He spoke of planned law changes to make officers in revenue agencies reveal their assets and income to the Integrity Commission.

"Everyone in my Government would have to conduct their business transparently or they would not have a part in the Government," he said.

It is not readily apparent usually just how wrenchingly destabilising is runaway corruption to democracy. And in a new democracy like Guyana's, which is constantly warding off malice, out-of-control corruption stagnates development and only permits the making of haste slowly towards reform. The corruption beast roams worldwide, but its natural habitat is the Third World. There, whenever native politicians and others give reasons for development setbacks, they tend to focus on foreign exploitation near and remote such as unfair trade practices by the developed world and residues of colonialism. Not nearly enough attention is paid to more domestic inhibitors - especially corruption.

Mr. Jagdeo thus broke the traditional mould.

Some time ago, the Economic and Political Weekly in India also felt compelled to ridicule the mould: "There could be no greater slur inflicted on our capabilities. We are nincompoops, we are unable to ensure a local supply of exploiters, and the process of exploitation has to be initiated elsewhere. This itself is neo-colonialism of a sort."

The point is that as the Third World pursues what seems, at times for most states, to be perpetually elusive development, more native destabilising impediments must be acknowledged and dealt with decisively. And one of these is corruption! A not too well-known fact is that widespread corruption mirrors "creative patronage", as some have described corruption, in Georgian England. It ceased to be acceptable in Britain only in the early decades of the 19th century when a professional middle class began to emerge and wealth began spreading more equitably. At the same time, democratic government became more and more firmly rooted in an unwritten constitution.

This does not excuse corruption as a necessary passage to progress. In the new globalised world of heightened competitiveness and looming political instabilities, it simply points out the urgency of uprooting old, entrenched, corrupt bureaucratic processes, and nurturing and institutionalising a new one that is more wedded to democratic values such as accountability, efficiency, and fair play.

And this is what President Jagdeo's outspoken remarks have captured. One researcher on Third World corruption concluded that, "in the end, good can never prevail where corruption is institutionalised. A professional middle class can never operate efficiently when decisions are made according to graft."

Not so long ago, a Brazilian politician under investigation for corruption gave a novel explanation of how he had become a multi-millionaire in a very short time. He said he had won the lottery several times. In Mexico, creative patronage is highly bureaucratised as has been the case for over a century in Latin America. It is the same farther afield in India and, especially, Pakistan.

So what is it about societies as diverse as these, that the corruption beast can roam in them so freely? The answer lies in the pliable underbelly of bureaucratic institutions in the region. Paradoxically, these institutions can also be so rigid that the dysfunctioning they generate can lead to revolution, as was the case with Nicaragua.

Absence of developed institutions leads to rather loose bureaucratic arrangements where formal rules of standard operating procedures can be bypassed both by lower and higher level personnel up and down the chain of command, and also by politicians. And where rules are elaborately enshrined in constitution and law, they are neither followed nor institutionalised, but depend instead on the exigencies of a given moment for convenient interpretation or ignoring.

The consequences of this looseness become magnified when political systems change from democratic to authoritarian, from capitalist to socialist, and vice versa. While these changes are taking place, the stagnant economies they are intended to jump-start do not respond - except during occasional boom and bust cycles. As a result, inertia and weakness of the bureaucracies spawn informal and widely adapted ways around problems, and produce begrudging satisfactory deals between the general public and officials.

The expanding corruption, unhappy skilled workers, lack of skilled workers and old attitudes among them and in the country as a whole complicate reform. This is because when official behaviours and actions are armed with ideological rigidities, every end is justified by dubious means.

Rigged elections are partially explained this way and so are nepotism and the propensity for amoral attitudes on `kickbacks'.

President Jagdeo is right to try and destroy the corruption beast, but the task is difficult.

A © page from:
Guyana: Land of Six Peoples