CORRUPTION and accountability are the two buzzwords that never leave the headlines. It would appear that common folk are in general agreement that ‘corruption’ has touched new heights 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 to go about it and in what way? A short trip down the memory lane may perhaps be in order. 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’; until it was obliged to share the spoils with other groups. Efforts to curb corruption have often 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.
With the benefit of hindsight, it is now possible to chart out the route the ‘anti-corruption’ campaign invariably follows. Each successive administration, for instance, has made a beginning by accusing the proceeding one of ‘massive corruption’ without spelling out details. This has become very nearly a truism. Next came 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. Only the façade differs from regime to regime. It would be of interest to see how the much-vaunted process of ‘accountability’ has burgeoned. The first well-worn step is 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!
When 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. Several pitfalls ensue. 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 is that the process of accountability as outlined above is a non-starter. One obvious lacuna is that before setting the ball rolling it is never 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 to be set in motion.
Having, thereby, set the parameters, one must look towards charting an alternate course. To begin with there is imperative need to agree on a reasonable and achievable goal for the exercise. There is no 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 is naturally working on the assumption that that the powers that be engaged in the accountability process themselves fall 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 is now left is to identify priority areas where the individuals in the ‘clean’ list should profitably be adjusted. Needless to add that once the ‘right’ persons are in place they should enjoy, without reserve, the full backing and support of the people and the powers that be. 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 out the malignant cells from the system.
What has been set out in the foregoing narrative is admittedly a tad on the idealistic note. 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 problem is posed by the fact that much of the money acquired through corruption is subsequently spirited away abroad. But that is another story!
— The writer is a former ambassador and former assistant secretary general of OIC.