Thursday, February 22, 2018

A return to morality in public affairs


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TWO Sundays ago I was greatly moved while reading the article written by my fellow Express columnist, Raffique Shah, headlined "Stealing the soul of a nation". Mr Shah's column was on the topic of corruption in our country and I admire and applaud him for both the passion and the restraint with which he wrote.

The topic of corruption is one which I have hitherto shied away from because I did not trust my capacity to write on the issue with objectivity and calm. My blood has always boiled whenever I have contemplated the wanton rape of our land by persons in office and I have never acquired that level of sophisticated cynicism that would allow me easily to consort with such persons or to countenance their actions with equanimity.

But after reading Mr Shah's column I felt compelled to add my voice to his as I still harbour the hope that our society has not entirely lost its soul, that the majority of our people are truly honest and honourable men and women and that the more voices that are raised against this cancerous scourge will help empower and embolden the good people of the country to take a stand.

Mr Shah rightly points out that corruption is to be found at all levels of our society, from "the ordinary citizen seeking to get a driver's permit" to "to a big contractor making a legitimate bid for a contract with a government agency." But I would want to focus my comments on what is called political corruption, usually defined as "the abuse of public power for private gain".

I do so not because I condone the petty corruption of ordinary citizens. I most emphatically do not. But I would suggest that, to a large extent, such corruption among ordinary citizens is engendered and encouraged by the inefficiencies and insufficiencies of the administrative structures and systems which are supposed to provide the citizen with the requirements for daily living. While there is no question that the citizen who pays a bribe to get something he needs from the state is engaging in a corrupt act, the greater corruption is that of a system which facilitates the corruption of its citizens.

It is in this context, therefore, that I approach the far larger and more serious issue of political corruption. Whether such corruption is manifested by Government ministers and other officials using and abusing their hold on power to extract from government revenues, and from the economy at large, monies which they put into their private accounts, or whether it occurs when ministers and officials use public money for the purpose of preserving or extending their hold on office, in either case it is to be roundly condemned as a pernicious evil.

Corruption has several deleterious effects on the society. In economic terms corruption, in addition to wasting or diverting always scarce public funds, can have a devastating impact on investment and economic activity and has the potential to destroy a country's development potential. In this regard it is important to note that corruption always bears down most heavily upon the poorest sections of society who must ultimately bear the cost of the distortions and deprivations it produces.

In political terms corruption erodes the institutional capacity of government as procedures are disregarded, good governance is subverted and the political legitimacy of the state is whittled away. But most of all political corruption, when it is widespread and goes unpunished, can erode the moral fabric of a society to the point where the conduct of its affairs becomes a matter of "dog eat dog and survival of the crookedest". No society can survive in that state for long.

If this country is not yet in that state then we are not far off. Already there is a widespread belief that all our politicians are crooks and that politics is a dirty game. And, given the fact that in almost every administration we have had there can be found numerous examples of corruption both for private gain and for power preservation, it becomes difficult to refute such a contention.

This is where we come face to face with the difficulty of dealing with political corruption. The more corrupt the society becomes the stronger becomes the incentive for crooks and jackals to enter politics to secure their piece of the feast and, thereafter, the stronger the incentive for them to adopt corrupt means to try to hold onto power indefinitely. Meanwhile good men and women refuse to get involved in such venal company or, if they do, they quickly become marginalised.

The end result is an absence of real political will to deal with the problem. Every new government comes into office railing against the corruption of its predecessor but is unwilling or unable to effect the actions necessary to deal with the issue if only because they too are more interested in preserving and entrenching their hold on office or fattening their pockets.

The problem of political corruption in our country cannot be tackled by those who are the products of and participants in the same political system which facilitates corruption. Like with so many of our problems, what is required is a fundamental change in our political system beginning with a total repudiation of the politics of the "old regime''. We need a truly national party with a vision which transcends racial divisions and is rooted in the principles of fairness and equality for all. And we need constitutional reform which puts effective power in the hands of the people so that they have the means themselves to deal with corrupt politicians and officials.

Corruption can never be entirely eliminated. There will always be crooked and immoral persons seeking to exploit every loophole. But we can certainly try to achieve a condition in which our government and our politics in general are represented far more by men and women of principle and rectitude than by thieves and crooks; and a state in which the principles of transparency, responsiveness, accountability, probity in public life and good governance are not just empty slogans but are living characteristics of all our public affairs.

Once upon a time we referred to this as "Morality in Public Affairs".

• Mr Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on  politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean. He is a long-standing member of the Tapia House Group and works as a human resource executive