The hefty cost of corruption
There was a time, just a matter of years ago, when the average Barbadian would have scoffed at any suggestion that corruption was a major problem affecting this country’s public administration. Such was the level of confidence in the integrity of persons holding positions of public trust either by virtue of elected office or Civil Service appointment.
The average Barbadian regarded corruption as more of an issue for some of our Caribbean neighbours who, at various times, had made the headlines because of high-profile scandals. These involved officials who had either accepted bribes or misappropriated public funds for personal benefit.
Of course, as part of the cut and thrust of local partisan politics, politicians occasionally would accuse opponents of engaging in corrupt practices, especially at election time, but convincing evidence was hardly ever offered to substantiate the claims. Such allegations may have swayed some voters but they have never resulted in any high profile person being charged and prosecuted.
It seems finally that the myth of Barbados as largely corruption-free has been shattered. Recent observations by two prominent citizens – former Chief Justice Sir David Simmons and Private Sector Association chairman Charles Herbert – have brought the issue to the forefront of national debate in a rather unprecedented way.
Appearing as a guest on the VOB’s Brass Tacks talk show, Sir David, a former Attorney General, remarked that there was a high level of corruption in Barbadian society, mostly in transactions between the private and public sectors, but the country has been in denial for years.
“More and more we are having evidence that there is probably a genuine increase in the incidence of corrupt practices both at the private sector and the public sector levels,” he said, noting that “the bribers are usually the people in the private sector” and the recipients in the public sector.
Whilst making it clear that he did not have any evidence that business people were bribing public officials, Herbert said the difficulty getting things done in Barbados – namely approvals related to doing business – created an opportunities for corruption. “What I would say is when there is an ease of doing business, bribes go away, because you don’t need a bribe to get something done quickly,” he posited in an interview with this newspaper.
Corruption, which is the abuse of public office for private gain, is not an issue to be taken lightly. Its implications are profound and wide-ranging. It has destroyed many a country because it undermines confidence and jeopardizes the opportunity for economic growth, development and prosperity.
If there is corruption in Barbados, it needs to be tackled resolutely. The incumbent Democratic Labour Party (DLP), currently into its eighth year at the helm of Government, took office in the 2008 general election on an anti-corruption platform. It gave specific commitments to the people of Barbados to improve governance, thereby eliminating opportunities for corruption. To date, it has not delivered on these promises.
Adopting a model of governance where the emphasis is on transparency can go a long way towards tackling corruption. A checklist of reforms, drawn up by the World Bank, includes the following: public disclosure of assets and incomes of candidates running for public office, public officials, politicians, legislators, judges, and their dependents; public disclosure of political campaign contributions by individuals and firms, and of campaign expenditures;public disclosure of all parliamentary votes, draft legislation, and parliamentary debates; effective implementation of conflict of interest laws, separating business, politics, legislation, and public service, and adoption of a law governing lobbying; publicly blacklisting firms that have been shown to bribe in public procurement (as done by the World Bank); and “publish-what-you-pay” by multinationals working in extractive industries; effective implementation of freedom of information laws, with easy access for all to government information; freedom of the media (including the Internet); disclosure of the actual ownership structure and financial status of domestic banks; transparent (web-based) competitive procurement; Interestingly, the tables have been reversed and the incumbent DLP is now the target of corruption allegations, in much the same way that it accused the former Barbados Labour Party (BLP) administration prior to and during the 2008 election campaign. It is about time, in the national interest and its own credibility, that the DLP delivers on its anti-corruption pledges as just about a year and a half remain before the expiry of its mandate.
If the DLP fails to deliver before the next general election is called, it runs a great risk, in the estimation of the general public which has become quite suspicious of politicians, of being placed in the same category as the boy who cried wolf in the Aesop fable. Now that, to say the least, would be most unfortunate.