Corruption and the private sector: A perspective

Whenever accusing fingers are pointed at the political administration – whether by Transparency International, the US State Department or local pressure groups – in the matter of corruption, it never fails to respond with touchiness, charging its accusers with transgressions ranging from spitefulness to political bias. Having long lost the moral high ground, it’s clear that the government finds corruption-related criticisms irksome.

The claim by Transparency International (TI) that Guyana is at the top of the pile in the region has again rattled the government. Some of its key officials have been thrown into the affray. Its response – more or less – has been that the corruption claims are trumped up, without basis and politically motivated.

This time around, there is hollow ring to those protestations. Setting aside what the government has always claimed are baseless, politically driven claims, TI’s most recent charges of corruption have been preceded by some pretty forthright pronouncements on the same issue by PPP stalwart and former Speaker of the National Assembly, Ralph Ramkarran, SC. Earlier this year, he wrote in the Mirror newspaper that “several” of the claims of corruption are serious enough to compel the government to take note. He even pointed to personal knowledge of “enough verifiable instances of corruption to be satisfied that it is pervasive”.

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One of the more telling points made by Ramkarran in his article on corruption had to do with what he says is a fear by “victims of corruption” that to describe their circumstances or to mention their names is to raise the spectre of “victimisation in their continuing lawful activities” a situation which, he says, “is known by the corrupt and enables them to feel safe and for their unlawful activities to proliferate and to ensnare more and more people.”

Here, it seems, Ramkarran’s “victims of corruption” may well be, among others, private sector operatives; businessmen and women who admit to having surrendered “considerations” to public officials in exchange for having one service or another expedited. Some of these services are widely believed to be associated with the clearance of goods imported into the country through land and seaports; the granting of duty-free concessions on luxury vehicles or perhaps the ‘positioning’ of tenders for state contracts. There are too, investors who might need a hand in working their way through the thicket of procedures associated with investing in Guyana. They too must seek ‘help’ in one public office or another and good help sometimes costs a lot, depending on what it is that has to be facilitated. There may be other less consequential pockets of ‘hustle’ but these are believed to be among the major ones. Where corrupt practices involve both businessmen and public officials there are both ‘high end’ and ‘low end’ shakedowns.

The lower end might, for example, include making what is commonly described as ‘a raise’ available to a petty public official in exchange for hastening the expediting of some routine transaction.

Ramkarran says the silence on the part of the victims is the result of a fear of victimisation. That is not necessarily the whole truth. Some remain quiet because the arrangement suits them. Sometimes the victims do talk about their experiences with corruption, in coded offerings of nuance and only after they extract sworn undertakings that what they say will not be repeated.  Ramkarran is correct. It may well be that corruption is fed by the preparedness of the victims to pay but he has clearly given considerable thought to the nature of the “game.” The victims are ensnared and frightened and that creates a circumstance of safety for the perpetrators.

Some say that corruption has long become a monster, that it is attended by a structure that is every bit as entrenched as the state bureaucracy; that there is an understanding among those who give and those who take as to which ‘favours’ cost what amounts, who are the conduits and who are the real sources of these favours. Invariably, they say, the corruption goes upward; it never stops with the person charged with actualising the extortion.

The national corruption discourse has become a perpetual treadmill. It drips with rumour. Whenever a corruption charge arises one government functionary or another steps up to the plate to dismiss the accusations. “Perceptions,” trumpeted Finance Minister Ashni Singh recently.

That too is correct. Perceptions can derive from sudden and inexplicable manifestations of ostentation by well-placed officials whose lifestyles suddenly appear not to match their earnings. Where the retention of the practice is heavily dependent on concealing the evidence, perception is all that is left to keep public discourse on the issue alive. Contrary to what we are sometimes led to believe, perception is not an invalid tool with which to make an argument for corruption.

There is a hollow ring to the protestations of the high officials. The claims of corruption, they say, are always inspired by the political opposition, as if the State Department, Transparency International and the various other organisations that make claims of corruption are not aware that to look to the political opposition for evidence is to destroy their credibility.

Fragments of the real truth are to be found in revelations like those that are made in the annual Reports of the Auditor General. Millions of dollars are lost to the public treasury in what, often, are questionable overpayments to contractors; state property is sometimes ‘sold off’ without the application of the proper procedures; confiscated cargo is often administered by the Customs Department in a manner that makes compromises accountability; procurement contracts are ‘hived off’ in a manner that has nepotism written all over them. These and many more flagrant anomalies in the administration of the state bureaucracy are cited by the Auditor General time and again.

The business sector is caught in a bind that extends from the one extreme of “paying on the side” for imported goods to be expedited to what is felt to be widespread and politically sanctioned evasion of Value Added Taxes. It works both ways; representing on the one hand a dubious material gain and, on the other, a claustrophobic ensnarement in what is widely believed to be a vicious circle of mutual blackmail. It does not augur well for the image of the private sector, but in the words of Dave Martins “so it go.”

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