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Curing corruption

The way many in Pakistan have been focusing on corruption since the Panama Papers hit the headlines in April last year it seems they all have persuaded themselves into believing that the expulsion of one individual or a few associated with him at the top would be enough to set the country free from the menace of corruption. This would be like self-deception of a classical kind because a network of the corrupt that has entrenched itself in the body and soul of this country has been exploiting a system that Pakistanis have all along allowed to evolve over the last 70 years and from which they have averted their eyes. This network is empowered now and will prove resilient. Punishing overt corruption is not likely to rid the nation of this menace. What is needed is to focus on establishing behavioral norms that would head off such wrongdoing before it takes place.

These three preceding paragraphs are actually a liberally paraphrased version of some of the striking observations made by Robert I Rotbert in his book The Corruption Cure: How citizens and leaders can combat graft. The book has been reviewed by Sara Chayes (Kleptocracy in America – corruption is reshaping governments everywhere) for September/October 2017 edition of Foreign Affairs.

According to Rotbert, this reform movement would bring an end to the practice of writing the rules of the political and economic games in ways that favor those who have already amassed excessive power in both domains. It would craft and enforce the rules so as to afford a dignified living to those who perform underappreciated tasks (schoolteachers, those who care for the elderly, small farmers) or who have chosen to build their lives around nonmonetary values.

A policy programme to achieve that kind of change would begin with placing sharp curbs on campaign contributions (in the case of Pakistan, a significant reduction in the limits of electoral expenditure a candidate can make for his electioneering) and ending the anonymity that many significant political donors enjoy.

Shifting to public-only financing for campaigns may seem radical, but that would be the best solution, he suggests and adds that lobbying regulations must be tightened and fiercely enforced, conflicts of interest must be defined more broadly, ethical breaches must be swiftly sanctioned in a rigidly nonpartisan fashion, so as to change the incentive structure that currently rewards impropriety and not simply singles out isolated offenders.

Recent events, according to him, have demonstrated that the gentleman’s agreement governing the ethical practices of officeholders is toothless in the face of a determined violator. In general, federal regulatory agencies must be provided with more resources and independence, not less. But behavioural norms, he says, are not just a matter of legislation. In his opinion, they are a matter of culture, and those who would seek to improve the integrity of the government must address the cultural shifts that have made the slide toward corruption possible.

For example, they could devise a detailed integrity pact and pressure elected officials across the political spectrum to sign it. It could include a pledge to release all tax filings and disclose all outside affiliations, to spend a certain minimum amount of time interacting with ordinary constituents, and to work for more stringent campaign finance, conflict-of-interest, and oversight legislation and enforcement. Voters could use such pledges as a base line for rating the performance of their representatives.

Most important, would-be reformers, he says, must develop an inspiring vision that elevates values other than material growth and the accumulation of money-a vision that celebrates being satisfied with having enough, for example, or the effort to repair battered people and things, or the nurturing of the beauty around us. They must seek to transform the way people understand and measure the success of their society. In his opinion lately, it has become harder to deny that corruption lies at the root of many first-order global problems, such as the spread of violent religious extremism or the civil strife and mass casualties witnessed in a number of countries.

To fight corruption, a good domestic legal framework is “at least a start,” Rotberg writes, as long as it clearly defines illegal behaviour and its consequences. According to book’s reviewer Sara Chayes, Rotberg, like so many authors before him, depicts corruption as an inchoate, corrosive force that seeps into governments that readers might presume are otherwise sound. “The metaphor he keeps reaching for is a medical one. Corruption is “an insidious cancer,” a “plague” that “infects,” “metastasizes,” and “cripples.” Cure the disease, as the title of the book suggests, and the healed body politic can go out and play.

“But where does the sickness come from? In explaining how such a malady might take hold, Rotberg resists the temptation to moralize, venturing that corrupt officials may be behaving rationally. ‘By adopting a conscious strategy of self-enrichment through corrupt behaviour, they merely . . . act within the often zero-sum expectations of their class and their condition,’ he writes.

“Yet that portrait of widespread but uncoordinated opportunism miscasts the nature of contemporary corruption. Rather than a weakness or a disorder, it is the effective functioning of systems designed to enrich the powerful. Rotberg gestures at this fundamental reality toward the end of the book, when he paraphrases an assessment made by Guatemala’s UN-backed anticorruption commission: That country’s ruling Patriotic Party “was more a criminal gang than a political party. Its role was to ‘rob the state,'” Rotberg writes. In Guatemala, elites “constituted a criminal organization-a kleptocratic conspiracy capable of capturing a national revenue stream, a mafia running a state.”

“These networks come in different forms in different countries. Consider the roles played by the Karzai family in post-9/11 Afghanistan, which I had the opportunity to observe at close quarters when I ran a nongovernmental organization established by President Hamid Karzai’s older brother Qayum. Karzai served in office for nearly 13 years. Qayum acted as a behind-the-scenes power broker, with a stake in a consortium that won millions of dollars in contracts from the U.S. government. Another brother, a self-proclaimed apolitical businessman, owned a cement factory and part of the country’s largest private bank, which was later found to operate like a Ponzi scheme. And a third brother served as both a local official and a main facilitator of the region’s prodigious opium traffic.

“In countries such as Azerbaijan, the overlap between the public and private sectors is even more complete, with the ruling family controlling no fewer than 11 banks and sprawling consortia that net the vast bulk of public procurement. In Egypt, the military’s control over the economy has vastly expanded under the presidency of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

“The kleptocracy over which Honduran President Juan Orlando Hern├índez is striving to gain control remains somewhat more loosely structured: private-sector actors, government officials, and drug traffickers exchange favors and often overlap but maintain a certain degree of separation.

“In such networks, the role of members who hold public office is to craft laws and regulations and tailor their enforcement in ways that serve the network’s aims. In return, they get to loot public coffers or siphon off government revenues; they also get cuts of the bribes extorted at the street level or shares in the companies that their practices benefit.

“If their activity ‘destroys developmental prospects’ and is ‘antithetical to economic growth and social betterment’ in their country, as Rotberg puts it, that is of no concern whatsoever. Bettering their country’s prospects is not their objective. Making money is. “The first of Rotbert’s 14 steps for a country fighting corruption is that it ‘seeks, elects, or anoints a transformative political leader.’ In other words, reforming a severely corrupt country requires nothing short of regime change.”

In this sense, according to Sara Chayes, The Corruption Cure offers a critical warning: once you’ve toppled your government, make sure you pick a new chief of state on the basis of his or her concrete intentions with respect to corruption. Don’t be distracted, for example, by a prospective leader’s identity as a political outsider or stance on religious law: look closely at the actual content of his or her anticorruption platform.

For although regime change may be necessary to anti-corruption reform, it is clearly not sufficient. Corruption networks are deceptively resilient. Many have survived dramatic efforts to uproot them, ranging from the imprisonment of their leaders to violent revolts against their power. What is the relationship between kleptocracy and democratic practice? Answering this question Rotbert says modern democracy, after all, was developed as a means of guaranteeing government in the public interest. If firm leadership from the top is so critical to reform, is it even possible for a democracy that has grown systemically corrupt to change course?

“The United States has become a testing ground for that question. The country’s slide into a kind of genteel kleptocracy began many years ago, arguably in the 1980s, when deregulation fever hit. The lobbying profession exploded, and industries began writing legislation affecting their sectors; public services such as incarceration and war fighting were privatized; the brakes on money in politics were released; and presidents began filling top regulatory positions with bankers. An economy of transactional exchanges took hold in Washington.”

M Ziauddin, "Curing corruption," Business Recorder. 2017-08-23.
Keywords: Social science , Behavioral norms , Corrosive force , Political spectrum , Bribes extorted , Prospective leader's , Opium traffic , public services , Corruption , Pakistan , America