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Is the Integrity Commission a sick joke?

Raulston
Nembhard

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

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Two different headlines in the printed media last week highlighted the ongoing scourge of corruption on the country's body politic. In a speech at the Rotary Club of Kingston Metry Seaga, president of the Jamaica Manufacturers and Exporters Association (JMEA), lamented the deleterious effect of corruption on Jamaica's economy. He indicated that about five per cent of Jamaica's gross domestic product (GDP) is lost to corruption on a yearly basis. This amounts to US$758 million. He described corruption appropriately as a disease that is eating away at the life of the nation.

In a not unrelated concern, there was a story which had the prime minister, at the launch of the Essex Valley irrigation scheme in St Elizabeth, lamenting the poor growth in the economy, even though all the macroeconomic indices are going in the right direction, thus establishing a solid platform for growth to occur.

The connection between the prime minister's concern and that of Seaga is clear. If we are losing five per cent of our GDP to as pernicious a disease as corruption, how can we hope to have robust growth in the economy? Add to that the amount of traction we are losing to murderous criminality. If the ministries, agencies and departments of government are faced with corruption, as Holness averred, how can we overcome the two per cent hump in GDP growth that he lamented?

To be sure, that hump is a combination of factors in which corruption in these agencies plays a great role. One of the leading indicators of an economy in which corruption is rampant is low productivity. It is no surprise that Jamaica's productivity levels are the lowest in the Caribbean. There should be no surprise also that Jamaica has slipped to 68th place on the Corruption Perception Index, which measures the level of corruption among 175 countries. Polling data have revealed consistently that most Jamaicans view corruption as a serious problem. One study even revealed that a majority would support military rule in the country as they perceive the army to be less corrupt than the politicians, or would bring the necessary discipline to arrest corruption. I do not agree with this viewpoint, in case you have been wondering. This sentiment goes against the grain of well-established precedent to the contrary where military rule has been in vogue. But I understand the sentiment.

A cursory glance would not miss the connection between corruption and low productivity. Corruption siphons off vast resources from important projects into the pocket of the corrupt; thus the loss in GDP growth. Furthermore, it lowers people's appetite to produce and work hard. If you are working hard and you are not getting ahead, and yet your colleague in a neighbouring department is doing well because there is clear pilfering occurring, where is the incentive to “work your butt off” to produce anything? If a decision is made to do a project, but one mightier than you because of his or her political connections cauterises, frustrates or derails that project for personal or political ends, what does that say to you who want to get ahead? If people can squander public assets or use them for their personal benefit, without any fear of criminal liability, then why should you work at your optimum to achieve your goals? You are not likely to press ahead with any vigour but work minimally at what is required of you, collect your fortnightly or monthly salary, and retreat to your own little space.

We are not growing, Prime Minister, because corruption and low productivity are destined to make us remain poor. The culture of corruption in any country is not anything that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or World Bank can cure. It cannot be lost on any of us that our macroeconomic indices are pointing in the right direction largely because of the “heavy manners” that the country had been put under by the IMF. Left to ourselves alone we would not have demonstrated the necessary discipline or enacted the requisite legislative framework to stem corruption. We did not do this in the past, which is one of the reasons we had the collapse of the financial sector in the 1990s. This is why this latest iteration of the IMF has been a godsend to Jamaica.

We seem incapable, as a people, on our own to trust ourselves to do the things that are right. We have had such a long relationship with the IMF because of our reliance on that body to take us to the woodshed of accountability and transparency, and force us to do the right things. That is why now Opposition Leader Peter Phillips, when he was minister of finance, hoped that the day would never come again when a minister of finance or the country would have to suffer the indignity and humiliation such as he and Jamaica suffered when the People's National Party Government worked out the life-saving arrangement with the IMF.

The truth, Prime Minister, is that we talk a good talk but deliver a limp walk when it comes to corruption. The Parliament has created an omnibus corruption agency to deal with corruption in the public sector. Under the new Integrity Commission corruption by public officials should have been severely cauterised. But this agency seems to be turning out to be a sick joke.

One of its cardinal responsibilities is to see to and report on the statutory declarations of assets that should be done each December by every Member of Parliament. Yet, for the past four years we have had no reports as required by law. Parliamentarians who make the laws are allowed to flout them without any fear of consequences from a seemingly moribund and sleeping commission.

Bigger is proving not to be better in the case of the Integrity Commission. Although I have agreed with the corruption agencies being housed under one roof, I have expressed reservation about the omnibus agency not having the kind of synergy and robustness as a single agency would. My fear had to do with the flow of information from that agency to the public, and the mechanisms of accountability for power within the agency itself. To date, I have not seen anything to suggest that my fear is misplaced. We do not know who reports to whom. There is certainly no information coming to the public. The kind of openness and transparency that was expected of the agency has not materialised. The suggestion is that the public, by law, cannot be apprised of cases under active investigation. The commission seems to be hobbled by a secrecy pact among its members that would make transparency from the Kremlin, the Chinese Politburo, or even the Nicolas Maduro regime something to be hoped for.

If you are so serious about corruption, Prime Minister, it is well within your remit and power to do something about it. You are the man standing on the bridge at this time, and we hold you accountable for your promise to clean up corruption in government. As a people we are sick and tired of the mealy-mouthed posturings that come from our leaders about corruption. It is a well-established fact that neither major political party has a high moral ground upon which to climb where corruption is concerned. But we will lean most heavily against the party in power to do something about it, such as speeding up public sector reform and evolving requisite procedures for board appointments. As long as people feel that they can behave with impunity and get away with it there will never be a check on corruption.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or stead6655@aol.com.


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