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Promoting culture of political integrity

What happens when a politician writing a law on garbage disposal happens to own shares in a company that specializes in disposing of garbage? Or, if that company has donated millions to the ruling party’s election campaign? Or, if it has paid lobbyists to make the case for little to no environmental regulation of the garbage disposal industry?

Most well-informed Pakistanis know the answers to these three questions. Every government that we have had at least since 1958 military coup has served as a lucrative source of unearned income for a select group of our feudal aristocracy and big business. Representatives of these groups when they reach parliaments (by hook or by crook) where laws are written for the well-being of the nation at large are known to have used these positions to benefit their own selves or groups they belong to rather than the nation to serve whom they were selected or elected.

These groups with vested interests reach the law-making houses by spending millions as election campaigning in Pakistan has, over the years, become too expensive—an activity which only the well-heeled can afford.

Once in, they use their positions not only to ‘earn’ back (through dubious means) the amount they had spent on winning elections but also to protect and promote their original sources of businesses by framing ‘appropriate’ laws. The agriculturists see to it that no law is framed to bring their incomes under the income tax net. They also write laws that offer enough support prices for their produce to bring these at par with international prices.

And the representatives of big business frame laws that enable them individually and/or their particular group to enhance their margins at the expense of the nation at large. They invariably succeed in getting special SROs issued to, say for instance, reduce and/or abolish import duties on particular items and as soon as the required quantity of these items reach home another set of SROs are issued to re-impose the duties making for themselves a killing in the process.

The best example of how those elected/selected politicians use their positions for making lucrative profits is illustrated by the phenomenal growth of our sugar industry, known the world over as a sun-set industry. This is happening despite the fact that it is lot cheaper to import sugar rather than produce it domestically and that too with raw material (sugarcane) requiring excessive water when looming water shortages are facing the country.

The corruption that flows out of the element of conflict of interest is actually known as the mother of all corruption. And unfortunately, it is continuing currently in Pakistan right under the nose of a leader who never tires of speaking about his mission to eradicate corruption from the country. Prime Minister Imran Khan seems to have convinced himself that once he has taken care of the past ‘corruption’ and forced those who had indulged in it to return the national wealth they had ‘looted’ Pakistan would be completely cleansed of the menace and would then have a smooth journey back to the Riyasat-i-Madina. The corruption that is taking place under his own watch, unfortunately, does not appear to bother him!

The opening paragraph of this article is the verbatim reproduction of the first paragraph of Jon Vrushi’s article (Open data and political integrity) published on November 1, 2019 in the Newsletter of Transparency International.

It appears from this paragraph that the element of conflict of interest is a serious problem even for the economies of the developed countries and the emerging economies. As such, a group of researchers, policy analysts and advocates from Transparency International, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Government Transparency Institute got together in Berlin recently “to dive into datasets that can offer answers to the three questions”.

The aim, according to TI, was to shine a light on the intersection of private and public interests, and learn about the role of open data in enhancing political integrity. It would be advisable for Pakistani policy makers, especially those who have been assigned the responsibility of curbing the menace of conflict of interest element to closely monitor the research being conducted by the TI in this regard and try to learn from the outcome how best to enhance political integrity among the Pakistani legislators.

Transparency International staff in eight EU countries (France, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Slovenia and Spain) are said to be currently building or updating their own Integrity Watch online data platform to track these issues, following from the success of Integrity Watch EU.

According to the author, political integrity means that people with political power consistently act in the long-term public interest while providing equal and meaningful access to those affected by their decisions.

“We can only monitor and promote political integrity if we know the private financial interests of our politicians, who have access to political decision-making, and the means through which they gain such access. This is where data comes in.

“A few key datasets have the potential to let the media, civil society and even government oversight and law enforcement institutions exercise the accountability needed for a robust political integrity system: Asset and Income Declarations for politicians and high-ranking public officials, Political Party Donation Registers, and Lobby Registers.

“However, the practical use of this data seems to run into the same obstacles almost everywhere: poor quality data, for example with duplicate entries, typos and missing information; the same or similar names for firms and individuals; and inconsistency in how sectors (energy, manufacture, extractives etc.) are categorized. Then there are issues with the format. Poorly scanned PDFs are obviously bad but so are extremely complex JSON or XML files, which introduce technical barriers to data access.”

The author’s considered advice is to come up with a template, or a data standard, for Asset and Income Declarations, Political Party Donation and Lobby Registers. This template would include the fields and attributes needed for all datasets, the format of the data files as well as templates for online publication and visualization.

The Open Contracting Partnership and their very successful Open Contracting Data Standard are said to be a great role model in this field. Crucially, these datasets need to speak to each other and to other relevant databases, such as company registers, voting records and data on government spending, public procurement, and so on.

Institutions in charge of collecting, verifying, publishing and analysing this data, the author says, should be given the mandate and resources they need to work well. This means they need to be fully independent from the government and from political interference. They need, according to him, to have the budget, staffing and technological know-how to be able to perform their tasks. Until that happens, there is nothing to guarantee that public officials are accurately reporting their outside income or financial interests, he adds.

“These institutions also need to improve communication among themselves. International open data standards would facilitate that process. Different government agencies and institutions, from tax offices to election management bodies, to supreme audit institutions, financial intelligence units, anti-corruption agencies and so on, would be able to exchange information much more easily if their datasets can easily be connected and cross-referenced.

“Access delayed is access denied. Even the best data standard is useless if information is not updated in a timely manner. Timely disclosure of these datasets is vital for ensuring a robust political integrity data ecosystem.

“The ultimate goal is not to detect and sanction corruption, but to prevent it and to promote a culture of political integrity. It is therefore crucial that we use these datasets to identify and reward integrity wherever we see it.

“We will support state authorities which strive to improve their capacity and independence so they can collect, verify and publish relevant data. We will continue to work with other NGOs as well as with journalists and academics in analysing data and sharing our findings with broad audiences.

“While we will focus on the tools, including data standards and methods for the identification of red flags, we will never forget that the production, analysis and dissemination of such data is ultimately political and has vast implications. As good activists, we will always look at who stands to lose and who stands to gain from data disclosure and will work to empower those who stand to gain from transparency and accountability.”

M Ziauddin, "Promoting culture of political integrity," Business Recorder. 2019-11-06.
Keywords: Political science , Economics , Political issues , Income tax net , Election campaign , Selected politicians , Elected politicians , Emerging economies , Political integrity , Financial intelligence , Corruption , Imran Khan , SROs , NGOs