Whom should we go after: Corruption or the corrupt?
M. Adil Khan offers a road-map for how to deal with the seemingly intractable problem
"People living in a corruption ridden society are like the fish living in water. In water, when a fish opens and closes its mouth there is no way of knowing which of these movements involve drinking and which breathing. Likewise, people living in a corruption infested society cannot make the distinction between bribe and a legitimate payment."
-Kautilya in Arthaswasthrya
Several days ago, China sentenced to death its head of Food and Drug Administration on charges of corruption. In recent months, the military-backed care-taker government of Bangladesh has been taking into custody a large number of former ministers, businessmen, and public officials, on charges of corruption. A recent global survey by the World Economic Forum reveals that nearly 75% of the world's population do not trust their governments. One of the main reasons -- corruption!
Faced with the scourge of corruption, many countries jump into quick fixes and knee-jerk solutions that experience little or no success. History tells us that application of ad hoc, arbitrary, and sometime populist means of combating corruption, without due regard to the rule of law and without strategic visioning, does precious little to overcome this serious societal illness. On the contrary, ad hoc and stand-alone interventions of corruption control without accounting for other supporting reforms tend to do more harm than good and most alarmingly, once the initial euphoria of populist interventions of corruption control evaporates, the malady returns with much greater vengeance.
Rule of law the answer
world, controlled corruption by decentralising and democratising local councils where police were put through public scrutiny by the citizen groups.
A close look at the countries that have successfully combated corruption reveals that they went after corruption as part of a process of reform of malfunctioning governance. For example, in the late seventies, Hong Kong, which used to have one of the most corrupt police forces in the
Similarly in the early seventies, Singapore possessed one of the most corrupt customs services and most lethargic civil services in the world, and yet within a span of few years, a combination of reform measures such as economic decentralisation, merit-based recruitment, salary increases, down-sizing and corporatisation of ministries and departments, performance based remuneration and harsh punitive measures for corruption, etc completely changed the scene.
Among the developing countries, South Korea's success with corruption control is phenomenal. Again pursued within the goals of governance reform, South Korea's corruption control introduced several radical steps. For example, in its endeavour to establish a corruption free society, the country targeted first the most important institution that affects most prominently the quality of public governance in any society: the political governance.
Realising that at the end of the day, it is the character of the elected public officials who control decisions, and thus influence most the quality of public governance, South Korea's corruption control measures started with the cleaning up of the election process itself. Among other things, the country has put in place several screening instruments that bar at the outset the entry into the political process those aspiring politicians who fail to measure up to certain standards (apparently, the Election Commission of Bangladesh is currently working on a similar screening strategy).
The second realisation in South Korea has been that control on information weakens accountability, and, consequently, breeds corruption. Laws have since been passed. In South Korea that has made it mandatory for all government agencies to post all information on budget, spending, procurement, etc on ministry/departmental web-sites so that citizens can freely view and obtain information on all aspects of public programs and dealings.
This transparency initiative of the government has been complemented further by passing of another law that empowers citizens or citizen groups to seek, if they so wish, clarification on or scrutiny of any government program, decision and/or expenditure they doubt. Over the years, these accountability measures have contributed in controlling corruption in South Korea to a large extent.
However, penchant for corruption control in South Korea did not stop at the process related interventions only; it took its mission to one step further. Its mission to corruption control soon recognized that even the most fool proof and corruption immune system in the world may not succeed in giving the most desired results, if individuals who run public offices are themselves not honest people. In response to this realisation and indeed, to deepen its anti-corruption initiatives even more, South Korea is now institutionalising a Personnel Verification System (PVS).
Keeping the crooks out
Based on some pre-determined criteria, PVS is a screening mechanism that does a background check of all senior appointments in the government, including appointment of the ministers as well. The PVS includes all positions nominated for appointment as ministers, all executive heads of ministries, departments, commissions, judges of higher courts, heads of police, military, para-military, public enterprise entities, mayors, etc.
The PVS has been in place in South Korea since 1988, but as it was located within the executive branch of the government which made it somewhat vulnerable to manipulation by vested interests, yielded limited benefits. In recent times, however, government has become aware of this structural weakness of PVS and has since been taking several steps to make it more open and participatory.
In 1993 it included the civil society organizations and the media to participate in the screening processes of senior public appointments. The result has been dramatic. For example, in the post election period in 1993, eleven days after the announcement of the first cabinet, when on background check it was found that some of the designated ministers/public officials had speculated in real estate, some used undue influence to get their children admitted to prestigious colleges, and some had purchased land in development-restricted areas by manipulating documents -- three ministers and the mayor of Seoul had to resign.
Seeing the benefits of an open PVS, government is now taking steps to strengthen it further by making it a legal entity mainly to ensure that its functions are embedded in the body politic of the country, as a citizen right and its work methodology remain independent of and open to public view (separated from the executive branch of the government) and most importantly, participatory.
Furthermore, by making personnel verification a constitutional requirement, the PVS will also subject all senior government appointments including those of the ministers a matter of parliamentary hearing. The stipulations of the proposed bill are such that, if enacted, PVS will be entitled to undertake background check of not only the candidates themselves, but also that of their spouses and even their children.
PVS employs three criteria for background check -- professional capability (whether the person is adequately qualified to take up the position he or she has been nominated for), ethical credibility (whether the person possesses the required moral and ethical qualities and background, financial and otherwise), and the issue of conflict of interest (whether in some way the interests of the candidate conflict with the interest of the office he or she would be occupying).
To ensure complete objectivity, each of the three criteria is broken down into a number of objectively verifiable indicators. For example, to do the ethical checking the nominated/proposed candidate has to make available to the PVS all information of assets, money in the bank, bank accounts etc -- including his or her immediate family members own. Candidates are also required to provide descriptions of how these assets, properties, money, etc have been acquired. Furthermore, to assist checking, the nominated candidates are also required to provide to PVS complete access to all bank accounts, their own and those of their immediate family members.
Over the years, South Korea's excellent track record on corruption control underscores the importance of an integrated approach in corruption control. The country has not only introduced various processes and mechanisms of checks and balance, located corruption related reforms with the reform of overall governance, but also devised mechanisms that ensure that honest systems are run by honest people. One of the immediate outcomes of corruption control in South Korea has been that a recent UN survey puts the country at par with Japan, Australia, and Sweden in service delivery.
So, in combating corruption, whom should we target -- corruption itself or the corrupt people? Both, of course. However, in terms of reform of systems, mere introduction of corruption control instruments such as establishment of corruption commissions, audit systems and other mechanisms of monitoring and evaluation etc without the overall reform of the governance, will not give the desired results.
What is important is that all corruption control initiatives are equally and adequately backed by other governance enablers such as independent judiciary, free media, free access to information including freedom of expression, full political rights, property rights, and free and fair elections and indeed provision of active civil society participation in all aspects of public governance, etc.
In addition, decentralisation of political and administrative authority at the local government level that has the potential to de-concentrate decision-making and bring people closer to public governance have the merit of weakening abuse of power, strengthening accountability and combating corruption convincingly. This is revealed through a recent UN survey that demonstrates that introduction of elaborate audit systems, corruption commissions etc. without due regard to the rule of law, independence of judiciary, civil liberties, economic and political decentralization make little or no impact on corruption.
In fact, bolstered by the political legitimacy obtained through elections, some countries that allow limited civil liberties and concentrate decision-making with few at the central level tend to use their parliamentary majority to abuse the system to the advantage of selected few, suppress all accountability measures and indulge in the most wanton act of corruption. Thus the cogent relationship that exists between governance enablers and corruption cannot be over emphasized.
In highlighting the positive impacts of governance enablers on corruption control, the above-mentioned survey also reveals that Iceland, a highly decentralised and a highly politically free country with high degree of civil liberties, consistently comes as number one country in the world in corruption control and service delivery. Iceland is so decentralised that no national policy can be formulated without consultation with the local government authorities. Such horizontal/vertical cross-consultation framework of decision-making not only contributes to a fully shared and a fully transparent vision of public affairs but as the Iceland case indicates, produces a framework of public accountability that has the capacity to virtually vanish corruption.
From a strategic point of view, corruption control requires three levels of actions -- preventive, corrective and punitive. Many anti-corruption drives that often come at the wake of mass dissatisfaction with corruption inevitably end up in targeting and devoting most time in nabbing, prosecuting and punishing corrupt elements. This is important and should be done, but if such actions blur judgments between short-term expediency with long-term strategy, result will be less tangible.
Effective corruption control measures must adopt an integrated approach, and, most importantly, course all actions through a process of rule of law. Furthermore, reforms to reduce corruption must also go in tandem with reforms that accelerate economic growth, provide incentives to businesses, and sustain development. Over-emphasis on corruption at the neglect of development has the risk of jeopardising both.
Successful international experiences of corruption control such as those of South Korea, who have tackled this quandary strategically and convincingly, present a road map that is worth considering.
Adil Khan is Chief, Socio-economic Governance and Management Branch, United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, responsible for leading the UN mission of civic engagement in public accountability. The views expressed in this piece are those of the author.