Corruption and accountability


Friendly Fire

Khalid Saleem

CORRUPTION and accountability are the two buzzwords that never leave the headlines. Everybody and his uncle are keen to contribute his or hers two penny worth to the ongoing debate. It would invariably appear that common folk are in general agreement that ‘corruption’ has touched new highs and that ‘something needs to be done about it’. There are, in addition, vague noises in favour of the need to carry out what is called ‘accountability’. The moot question is: who is competent to go about it and in what way?
Let us face it; corruption per se has been endemic in this blessed land from day one. The personae may be changing but the cancer has always been there. There are no two opinions that the bureaucracy was the ‘pioneer’ in this field in our blessed land; that is until the time it (the bureaucracy, that is!) was compelled to share the spoils with other ‘power centers’. Given the ground realities, efforts to curb corruption have thus far been superficial and cosmetic at best. The objective of the powers-that-be in their campaign against corruption has, too often, been clumsy attempts to mollify public opinion rather than to root out the malaise.
It is possible to chart out the route the ‘anti-corruption’ campaign has followed in the past. Each successive administration has made a beginning by accusing the proceeding one of ‘massive corruption’. Next comes the solemn resolve to ‘root it out’ (the corruption that is!). A well-worn process of ‘accountability’ then follows. It need hardly be added that each process thus launched is, more or less, a carbon copy of its forerunners. Merely the façade differs from regime to regime.
How has this process of ‘accountability’ burgeoned? The first well-worn step may be an executive order to prepare the list of ‘corrupt individuals’. While this essentially self-defeating exercise is in the mill, a few individuals whose profiles stick out like sore thumbs are singled out in an attempt to mollify the expectant public opinion. So far so good! As work moves apace on the preparation of the ‘lists’, the process invariably comes up against a wall. The powers-that-be discover that they have bitten off more than they can conveniently chew. The first hurdle, characteristically, is the one put up by the well-oiled machinery of the bureaucracy that comes in the direct line of fire. At this stage another staggering truism comes to light: the fact that ‘corruption’ per se is the norm rather than the exception.
The one conclusion that can be drawn from the aforementioned is that the process of accountability as outlined above is a non-starter. One obvious lacuna is that before setting the ball rolling it has never been considered necessary to pinpoint the ultimate objective of the exercise. ‘Rooting out corruption’ is too wide and too diffused a quest to be dignified with the epithet of ‘objective’. It is of some importance, therefore, to define what is required to be achieved through the process of accountability that is intended to be set in motion.
Having set the parameters, one must look towards charting an alternate course of action to achieve our objective, i.e. to root out the menace of corruption. There is imperative need, therefore, to agree on a reasonable and achievable goal for the exercise. There is hardly any fun in reaching out for the moon and ending up with egg on the face. Let us, then, define our ‘objective’. “Producing a reasonably clean and honest administration over a period of ten years” would appear to be a reasonable and achievable goal for our study.
We shall have to do away with all ideas of drawing up lists of the ‘corrupt’. How about opting, instead, for the much more achievable and, need one add, a bit more satisfying alternative of attempting a list of ‘reasonably honest and well-meaning individuals’ within the administration. Given the assumption that some nine-tenths of the subjects are tainted, the drawing up of the proposed list should not face insurmountable obstacles.
As in all such research situations, one assumes that the powers that be, in the accountability process, themselves fall well within the ten percent that have been cleared as ‘white’. Once this condition is met, the rest of the puzzle should easily fall in place. All that remains is to identify priority areas where the individuals in the ‘clean’ list should profitably be adjusted. The short-term objective would be to thus create ‘islands of integrity’ in the otherwise murky seas of the administration. In due course, these islands would hopefully expand and ultimately squeeze the malignant cells out of the system.
What has been set out in the foregoing narrative is admittedly a tad on the idealistic side. But, then, don’t all new ideas take shape in this nebulous fashion? It is only when the time comes to flesh them out that the need is felt to separate the grain from the chaff. The menace of corruption is fast eating away the very vitals of the society. So far we have been content with treating mere symptoms. It is high time that we woke up to the need to tackle the disease itself! Another allied – and in some ways a more serious – problem is posed by the fact that much of the money acquired through corruption is subsequently spirited away abroad. But that, as they say, is another story!
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.