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. . . Soft despotism and civil society

The fight for justice against corruption is never easy. It never has been and never will be. It exacts a toll on ourself, our families, our friends, and especially our children. 

–– Francesco Vincent “Frank” Serpico, police whistleblower.

It is always interesting to watch the faces of my final-year students when I ask them whether they were aware of the office of the Ombudsman of Barbados –– and invariably few do. But those who are aware of the existence of the office hold the view it is useless –– rather toothless.

But the office has a rather long pedigree. Developed in Sweden in the 19th century to keep civil servants from committing abusive acts against individual citizens, it found its way into other countries.

In 1962, New Zealand adopted the office, and it has now been increasingly used across the globe not just to control civil servants, but to provide an office, a safe space, where any individual can complain about administrative decisions. It is thus seen as necessary, given the inadequacy and costly nature of existing legal and judicial mechanisms for resolving grievances.

The office is a legally established sometimes by a constitution, statute, or local ordinance, and is responsible to the legislature. Primarily, the Ombudsman receives complaints and grievances from citizens and employees against government agencies and officials and/or takes action on his own initiative. The office is therefore designed to hold public officials liable for their treatment of citizens.

Generically, there are two typologies of the office. We have, for instance, the external model in which the ombudsman and his office are neither situated nor employed by the institution they are reviewing. Thus the office acts more with advocacy strategies, including litigation. In this case the ombudsman is viewed as a friend.

The internal model is where the ombudsman and his staff are an integral part of the system, having oversight for the avoidance of adversarial conflicts, and are regarded as more efficient in resolving problems. Unfortunately, in this sense, the ombudsman is seen as a friend not of clients but of the system itself.

So, I see the ombudsman’s office working in tandem with watchdog agencies and civil society. The fact is that irrespective of whatever we say in our various spaces, and no matter how much the media sound the alarm bells, corruption cannot be contained and controlled without a vigilant civil society.

This is especially so for those civil society groups engaged in political issues. But for both social and political accountability to be effective and civil society to be a capable actor in the control of corruption, it is generally argued four elements need to coincide, irrespective of the level of development.

Firstly, there must be a prevailing culture of honesty and integrity, what Susan Rose Ackerman in 2004 defined as civic capital. Additionally there must be the development of social capital which is basically the routine practice of undertaking formal or informal collective action around shared interests, purposes and values.

Thirdly, there is the necessity to establish a network of voluntary associations (civil society), and finally the above must be accompanied by sustained participation and political engagement; that is, the development of a civic culture.

In the absence of such social accountability, civil society then contributes to the persistence of corruption. We therefore need an enabled civil society, fully engaged, that will force governments, however reluctantly, to undertake much needed reform.

In a previous article, I made reference to Jamaica’s National Integrity Action whose broad goal is to raise public awareness of the existence and consequences of corruption in Jamaica. That the civil-based group is a clear example of success is unquestionable, given the richness of its many interventions and the role which it played in reforming the regime of political money in that country.

Ghana, a much younger democracy than most Caribbean countries, has seen the establishment of a powerful anti-corruption group committed to providing oversight of governmental action, and relentlessly exposing corruption in the country. Ghana’s Anti-Corruption Coalition (GACC) has prepared a comprehensive anti-corruption action plan for consideration by government and opposition.

Cooperating under the auspices of the National Governance Programme, it serves as a conduit between official government’s anti-corruption agencies such as the Serious Fraud Office and the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), the media through the Ghana Journalists Association (GJA) to a number of civil society groups, including the Centre for Democratic Development (CDD). Additionally Ghana’s Integrity Initiative SEND-Ghana and Ghana Anti-Corruption Coalition (GACC) in October, 2015, launched a social media platform designed to empower Ghanaians to report and document acts of corruption in state institutions.

The broad coalition of anti-corruption civil-based groups have actively encouraged citizens to visit the I Paid A Bribe website to report all demands for and payment of bribes. While this particular initiative was partly motivated by the suspension of seven high court judges and 22 lower court judges after they were caught on camera receiving bribes to influence judgments, it is related to wider systemic corruption in the country which has often gone unreported.

Not only is this noble and positive, but it is clear a robust civil society is vital to achieving a greater level of transparency and accountability, as it is a key factor in any anti-corruption thrust. Civil society must step in and hold the government in check, monitor the activities of the political elite and advocate for measures to fight corruption. We need to ask whether civil society currently has the potential and strength to demand accountability and transparency from Government. I do not believe that at this moment it is sufficiently organized and informed to do so.

Therefore an initial first step is to create an awareness campaign undertaken with the aim of informing citizens about the issues surrounding corruption, and create public support for reforms.

These awareness steps include nationwide campaign using educational broadcasts, competitions, discussion rounds and seminars to educate citizens about the negative effects of corruption; ensuring it becomes a loud political issue no longer to be merely a subject of conversation in the company of friends, around the domino tables, the rum shops and in our living rooms.

But this is only a first step, the objective being very clear: to name and shame, but only in a context of evidence! However, concrete solutions are also necessary. This ought not to be too difficult in Barbados and other parts of the Caribbean as much of the scrutiny of governmental action actually already occurs on social media.

What is now called for is a more responsible and systematic way of engaging, which can benefit from the voluntary services of sections of the legal fraternity that may be concerned with issues of integrity, accountability and transparency.

Make no mistake, it is not an easy road to travel as governments are unlikely to willingly cooperate with civil society groups unless under serious pressure. Remember, in the Caribbean in countries like Barbados there is no real problem with corruption –– according to public officials.

But civil society groups in every country have an ally in Transparency International which in 2002 developed and published its Corruption Fighters Tool Kit, which details and assesses anti-corruption tools developed and implemented by TI National Chapters (NCs) and other civil society organizations (CSOs) from around the world.

Drawing from the experiences of a number of countries, the tool kit presents interested civil society-based organizations with appropriate tools to enable monitoring of public institutions, encouraging citizens’ participation in key decision-making processes and opening channels of communication between governments and their citizens, among others.

When a businessman, who is in clear violation of national law, can heap abuse on a Government official who is doing his job, because that businessman is expected to respect the law, and politicians remain quiet, you can well understand the type of society we live in. Further, when that same businessman then threatens the country with withholding investment and employment prospects, and appeals to the citizens with the threat of job loss, the alarm bells must be raised.

Quite despicable! This businessman is not above the law because he provides jobs, nor does he have the right to intimidate an entire country. That is why legislation on party and election financing is so critical.

As John Locke in his treaties on government argued, the state rests on a “compact” or on “trust”, that is, the consent of civil society. In the absence of such trust, civil society has a moral right to resist any “unjust” government.

(Cynthia Barrow-Giles is senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.)

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