Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that all the grapevine gossip about government corruption is true. That government ministers are creating a parallel Public Service of politically-aligned advisers and consultants accountable to no authority but their own, appointed on nepotistic and political bases, and of suspect qualification and competence.
Let’s assume further that political financiers are enjoying stratospheric rates of return through unconscionably inflated contracts, for every dollar invested in the politician or the party.
Supposing, for argument’s sake, all of these things and worse, were true, what could we do about it?
The answer to this question is as much personal and political as it is legal. Indeed, it may be more personal and political than legal. Corruption might find ways to slip through legal loopholes, hide from sleeping regulators and cover its tracks from flat-footed financial sleuths, but it takes a society to tolerate, validate, sustain and entrench it.
In the Caribbean, the ground for it is more fertile than most. Bred on a diet of alienation from the institutions of power, many people have no sense of owning public resources or of having any right to a say in how such resources are used or abused. Fifty years of Independence have not changed this culture nor has the love of liberty yet transcended history to deliver the boundless faith in our destiny that we so need to calm our insecurities and release us from the culture of every man for himself and every woman on her own.
Even now, in the 21st century, the outrage and sense of personal loss that come from having one’s own pocket picked is absent when it comes to the picking of the Treasury lock. More often, our disquiet over reports of corruption is reduced to a slogan and timed to remove an administration from office in the one instance in which we can really feel our power: the election.
Outside of that one moment in the election booth, the culture of alienation would have us believe that any case involving the misappropriation of public funds is a matter of other people’s money, not ours.
So, exploring the sources of our alienation from the processes of governance is fundamental to understanding how the culture of corruption takes root and thrives to the point of strangling a society and choking it to death.
As in the case of crime, corruption might rationalise its existence on the basis of social justice. The ideology of “We time now”, for example, attempts to transform ordinary, individual greed into historical redress of the group, even at the expense of the group as well as its relationship with the whole.
But by far, the most intriguing element in sustaining the culture of corruption is the personal facilitation by a society’s rank and file, from upper to under class, leaders and the led, principals and priests.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the tendency is emerging most markedly among members of the professional class where facilitation spans the full range of participation, from silent witnesses to active agents, purveyors and beneficiaries. Let me hasten to add that this observation relies purely on reportage, formal and informal, and, to a limited but clear degree, first-hand familiarity.
Corruption involving public funds requires a supportive network of acquiescent and compliant persons along the entire transaction chain, from the executive assistant to the banking official. In mounting a defence against corruption, a country needs, at the minimum, a self-confident, informed and professional Public Service, an assured, innovative and genuinely entrepreneurial private sector, a clinical, rigorous and disinterested intellectual class, and a public with a shared set of standards, hammered out at that intersection where private and public interests coincide.
Countries that drag along with a weak public service, insecure private sector and a compromised intellectual class, and where personal standards take no account of the public interest, inevitably descend into the mayhem of arbitrariness where who you know is, by far, more important than what you know. With this comes the disintegration of any aspiration to a meritocracy and to civilisational progress. For, if in the short run we win, in the long run we will all surely lose. Just look at those countries where public institutions have either collapsed or been denied, leaving their people at the mercy of gangsters parading as leaders.
Where do we start? By standing up to it; by building alliances against corruption, inside the Public Service, the private sector, the university, the unions, the churches, our various communities, at home; by lobbying for the introduction of Whistleblower legislation to protect those who have witnessed the abuse, misuse and theft of public funds but are too afraid to speak out; by Constitutional reform to hold power fully accountable, and by holding firm to the personal and professional standards to which we hold others.
The professional class, in particular, in whom our still fledgling society has invested so much in the hope that they might design and build a more just and progressive society, has a responsibility to say “No!” and refuse to kow-tow to power gone corrupt.
Our mothers and fathers did not send us to school for that.