Curbing corruption ...It’s everyone’s job
The following is the speech
delivered by former ambassador Reginald Dumas when he presented the feature address at the Trinidad and Tobago Transparency Institute’s (TTTI) annual general meeting held recently at the Hotel Normandie in St Ann’s.
I gave the feature address to the inaugural general meeting of TTTI on October 29, 1999. If you don’t mind, I’ll give you a bit of history taken from those 1999 remarks.
“In early 1995 I saw mention in a periodical of a Berlin-based anti-corruption organisation called Transparency International. No address was given, and I immediately called the German Embassy here for assistance. The requested assistance was not forthcoming, and I therefore wrote a letter addressed inadequately to ‘Transparency International, Berlin, Federal Republic of Germany’. After two months the letter came back.
“One year later I again came across a reference to TI, but this time there was an address. I wrote and received a reply from the then-managing director. Further communication, and an article of mine on TI that appeared in the Express of March 18, 1997, led to expressions of interest from persons in Trinidad and Tobago and a visit in November that year by three Europe-based representatives of TI.
“The visit included not only a number of public meetings and media events but also calls on the President, the Prime Minister and the Attorney General; the Leader of the Opposition attended a luncheon hosted by the local steering committee. Because of some unfortunate delays, a meeting to launch a National Chapter of TI was held only on May 14, 1998.”
That timing prompted a number of innuendoes and insinuations about the motives of TI, of TTTI, and of me personally from the political class and its acolytes. But we have overcome.
TI defines corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” By contrast, the World Bank defines corruption as “the abuse of public office for private gain.” You will at once have noticed that the bank’s definition is narrower than TI’s, since it focuses on “public office”, whereas TI includes the private sector in its scope of operations. I must say that I have repeatedly been told that the bulk of corruption, including corruption in Trinidad and Tobago, occurs within the private sector.
Further, when you examine the details of the World Bank’s definition, you find that they bear heavily on bribery, generally bribery with money or gifts, whereas the TI definition goes beyond money. It seems that, while both bodies use the phrase “private gain”, the TI understanding of the words encompasses more than the bank’s.
Corruption also embraces nepotism, which, according to the TI Source Book 2000, “strictly applies to a situation in which a person uses his or her public power to obtain a favour – very often a job – for a member of his or her family.” As we all know, ladies and gentlemen, such things do not happen in our country, blessed as it is by the gods of transparency, accountability and unwavering fidelity to the tenets of honesty, equity and fair play. If they did happen, we could find solace in the words of the Brazilian congressman who protested in 2000 that “relatives are human and defenceless creatures, not the monsters they’re made out to be.”
In other words, what could possibly be wrong if a public official were to employ his wife, or accept her employment, at taxpayers’ expense? What would it matter if there were an apparent conflict of interest flowing from such employment? After all, the poor lady is human and needs protection from those wicked and malign forces of rectitude out there.
Corruption also includes cronyism, a situation where preferences are given to friends and colleagues. The “old school tie”, in short, or the Lodge membership often works in your favour even if you are not deserving. And this leads often to institutional corruption.
In his address to the TTTI AGM last year Karl Hudson-Phillips described other forms of corruption, and he was quoting from something he had written in 1973. Among other things, he talked of corruption as “the drawing of salaries without hard or honest work,” as “the defilement…of our young men and women in the rampant blackmail for employment and jobs,” as “the hoarding of goods for exorbitant profit.” But we all know that none of these things happen here. CEPEP and URP, for example, do not exist, therefore logically there can be no one who controls them, thus no blackmail, and no salary-receiver – I cannot say “earner” – to call herself “J-Lo”.
As I expect you know, corruption, especially of the financial kind, has been held to be efficient because it is said to help speed action and obtain good outcomes. Until some years ago, for instance, Germany, the birthplace of TI and of its founder, allowed a write-off against tax liability of what it called “useful payments”, in other words, bribes, by German businessmen operating outside the country. But I expect you also know that, in fact and practice, such behaviour generally proves itself counter-productive.
How is Trinidad and Tobago faring these days in this area? Not too well, from all appearances. But to me there is something worse than the corruption, as we normally define it. That thing, ladies and gentlemen, is the emergence and strengthening of a culture of compartmentalisation. On the one hand, we concentrate a laser-like attention on ourselves and our personal interests. On the other hand, we expand our deficit of action on what could be beneficial to the society of which we are an integral part, by which we are daily affected, and about which we profess ourselves so gravely concerned.
We are more and more unmindful of the intense irony of that contradiction, which in practice tends to lead to a proliferation of the same corrupt activity of which we say we disapprove. For instance, an Express poll in May found that nearly 90 per cent of those surveyed saw corruption as widespread. Both that poll and a similar Guardian exercise that very month reported substantial majorities describing the government’s handling of corruption these last three years as grossly inadequate. The lurid charges and counter-charges we’ve been hearing recently from present and former members of the government suggest that those majorities are correct.
But what are we doing about this other than talk? Increasingly looking inwards, increasingly cloistered in our selfish solitudes, emerging only to point fingers at others, we are failing to make the necessary connections among the various elements of our society. Given that shortfall, we are failing to grasp that the very decline over which we agonise so much stems in large part from our lapses and from our spreading myopia and self-concentration. There is no wood; there is no forest; there are only trees.
Ladies and gentlemen, we cannot reasonably complain about a fall in societal standards while we happily wallow in self-absorption. We cannot reasonably blame others while hypocritically highlighting the rights we say we have and simultaneously neglecting the responsibilities we pretend not to have. We cannot continue to politicise and personalise virtually everything under the sun. It is not a question of “What are they doing?” but of “What are we doing?” Who after all are the amorphous “they”? Whose society is it, “theirs” or “ours”? Are “they” not “we”? So if staying in your crease is what you are now doing, I urge you to find another game to play. Rounders and one-two-three –love A might be good places to start. They at least involve activity.
In this orgy of navel-gazing, emphasis tends to be placed on the law in preference to ethics. Thus there was nothing illegal in a Cabinet minister being simultaneously a vice-president of FIFA. No law was broken, and there was deemed to be no conflict of interest. If a Concacaf-appointed committee has concluded, on the balance of probabilities and the available evidence, that a person has committed fraud against Concacaf and FIFA, that is a matter for Concacaf and FIFA, not for us—the fact that for quite a long period the person may have served us, Concacaf and FIFA at one and the same time is suddenly immaterial.
Ask many of someone’s former constituents how they feel about him. “He does help we,” they reply. “He is de bes’ t’ing we ever had. Slice bread is joke nex’ to he.” The possibility that the help for which they profess themselves so grateful may, at least in part, be the product of questioned or questionable activity is a matter of no interest to them: “He does help we. If dey say he t’ief, so what—all ah dem does t’ief. An’ he does help we.” That is all that counts. The rest is immaterial.
A permanent secretary, who is presumably also the ministry accounting officer, accepts an expenses-paid private trip from her minister and insists she has broken no law in so doing. That anyone could possibly imagine that, in her position, she might one day be asked to return the favour by creatively using, for the minister’s benefit, public funds entrusted to her care apparently does not occur to her. It is perhaps immaterial.
The chairman of an independent commission meets at home and in private with a senior political figure. No law is broken, but the perception of unethical conduct, particularly in an agitated environment, is dismissed as immaterial.
Top officials of a collapsing private investment bank terminate their deposits shortly before the conglomerate of which the bank is a part requests huge sums of public money for a bailout. But they have broken no law, only the hearts of those depositors who were unwise enough to believe that these same top officials owed them a fiduciary duty of care. But that, too, is immaterial.
A member of a Commission of Enquiry inflates his CV. But he has broken no law. He remains, and is allowed to remain, a member of the commission. Concerns expressed are immaterial.
I used to criticise Patrick Manning severely for what I viewed as his sustained assault on our institutions. I would deplore the consequent decline in good governance. It seems to me that our descent has accelerated, accompanied by a coarsening of society and a flight from the norms of civilised behaviour. You have only to consider the level of public political discourse at the moment to understand what I mean.
Not only civilised behaviour, ladies and gentlemen, but also common sense. One person said to have committed fraud declares himself “incorruptible”, which tells you something about the enduring flexibility of the English language. A senior police official from whom discretion in public pronouncements is perhaps no longer expected then openly praises this person as “exceptional,” having a few days earlier, in a press interview, described himself as “exceptional.” Perhaps, ladies and gentlemen, it is not so much that the language is flexible as that it possesses hidden properties of plasticity of which VS Naipaul himself would stand in awe.
What is to be done?
In my 1999 address I suggested a number of measures which could be taken. I called on the then government to introduce the TI Integrity Pact (TI-IP), and noted that two years earlier, that is, in 1997, I had sent information on the matter to the then-attorney general and ministers of public utilities and works and transport. Sixteen years later, I am still awaiting replies. I am a patient fellow.
I also suggested the strengthening of the Auditor-General’s Department and of parliamentary oversight. I suggested an enforced Code of Ethics for ministers and their special advisers (something I note TTTI has just turned its mind to), the revision of tender procedures, the introduction of serious anti-corruption legislation, and so on. Nearly all of this has been ignored, though I’m happy to note that one proposal, that the media place more emphasis on investigative journalism, has been put into effect, if with results which do not always satisfy the criterion of accuracy, or escape the wrath of hypersensitive politicians and the anxieties of timorous managers.
We speak now of public sector procurement reform, but it looks as if, honeyed assurances notwithstanding, every effort is being made at high political levels to block it, or allow it in a virtually toothless form. It runs a clear and present danger of being gummed, if not to death, certainly to moribundity.
We speak of campaign finance reform, which I am told is one of the promises of the current administration. We forget that more than 11 years ago, in April 2002, this very organisation, TTTI, held an international conference on “Political party funding and regulation”.
One of the main speakers at that conference was the then-attorney general, Glenda Morean. Ms Morean, tiptoeing gingerly on political eggshells and avoiding precision like the plague, said that there could be “little doubt that…lack of disclosure (by political parties of their receipt of soft money) may allow for corrupt practices, as funding of political parties may be based on the premise that future benefits may accrue to the donor.” May allow! May accrue! And she ended her speech with a flourish of faintheartedness — we needed, she said, “to have more dialogue on the subject.” If such dialogue actually took place, and, if so, with whom, I cannot say.
Yet we now read that a few years ago one person made a political donation of $60 million, $32 million in cash and the rest in cheques. Sixty million dollars! And this to the same party which I hear has solemnly promised campaign finance reform! As a retired accounting officer myself who never received a free trip from any minister (though I have in the past had at least one generous lady friend), I find it difficult to wrap my head around these sums. What does $32 million in cash look like?
But in the circumstances, tell me, ladies and gentlemen, do you really expect reform, especially after the two impending elections, and with a third coming up in two years or less? Tell me also, has the Board of Inland Revenue taken an interest in the revelation of the $60 million gift or loan? What of the Financial Intelligence Unit? Are we to take seriously the undertaking given last month by the Minister of Legal Affairs to have his party prepare for the Cabinet a policy document on political party financing? Eleven years after Ms Morean, is this only where we have got to?
I mentioned governance a few minutes ago. How good is our governance? TTTI can in conjunction with others continue to explore avenues towards the goal of good governance. It is already in a coalition with like-minded groups on the issue of public sector procurement reform. Political party funding is closely allied with procurement, and so the coalition may therefore wish to broaden its scope.