Rooting out corruption

There are few articles which have stirred as much interest in recent times as Mr Ralph Ramkarran’s column two weeks ago in the Sunday Stabroek entitled ‘The Kleptocratic Republic of Guyana.’ Reams have been written on the subject of corruption, and the opposition parties have been hammering away on this theme for years now. In addition, of course, Guyana has scored very low on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, its score in 2012 being 28 out of 100, giving it a ranking of 133 out of 176 countries.  The government quickly dismissed this saying that there was no empirical data to support the findings, while for his part, President Donald Ramotar the week before last was quoted as commenting that all that was being heard of was “perception.”

What Mr Ramkarran had to say, however, could not be so glibly dismissed by the governing party.  Until relatively recently he was a member of long standing, while his father was Boysie Ramkarran, a close associate of Dr Cheddi Jagan. As such, therefore, his PPP pedigree was unassailable, and his genuine concern for the party to which he had devoted his political energies for most of his adult life could not be gainsaid. In other words, this was not an analysis from an outsider hostile to the party, but from someone fundamentally sympathetic to it who would like to see it regenerated and be reconnected to its core principles.

It is not, of course, the first time he had written on the subject – in fact it was a column on corruption in the Mirror which first set in train the sequence of events which led to him leaving the PPP – but none of his other writing has been as direct or as specific.

He identified three groups involved in corruption: contractors, bureaucrats and a number of wealthy and influential businessmen who have high political connections. In terms of the contractors, Mr Ramkarran said in mitigation, it was not just that they were dishonest, but that “they tell you openly” that if they have to bribe so many officials there is not enough left for them to meet the specifications of the contract and still make a profit. The last group he mentioned had access through their political connections to information concerning the potential opportunities which were likely to emerge. He went on to observe that the “PPP leadership is supported and financed by all of these groups and state decisions are influenced by their interests.” These interests, among other things, “conflict with acceptable standards of integrity.”

As previously mentioned, coming from someone who was until comparatively recently at the heart of the party, this cannot be easily dismissed or brushed away as a matter of “perception.”  Even if it were the case that the problem of corruption is all a matter of perception, then the government and the PPP should be a great deal more anxious than they appear to be to dispel that perception, which is so undermining their credibility. In our edition yesterday we quoted newly-elected President of the Transparency Institute Guyana Anand Goolsarran as saying, “…it is not too late to put in place certain mechanisms aimed at reducing perceptions of corruption, such as the appointment of members of the Public Procurement Commission, the Integrity Commission and the Public Service Appellate Tribunal, and the appointment of an Ombudsman, among others.”

But the government does not even want to establish the Public Procurement Commission unless it can retain some role in the process for awarding contracts. If the constitution in this regard were to be changed to accommodate this, it would not save the administration from the ‘perception’ that it was facilitating corruption; that ‘perception’ would continue. Along with the party it seems to believe that blanket denials and attacks on those who bring corruption issues to the fore are a sufficient response to the allegations – but they are not.  These will not go away until the government starts taking those measures which will cause the public to pause and see if they really are serious.

The damage that the PPP is doing to itself on this issue is incalculable, and many political observers believe it played a role in the loss of their parliamentary majority in the 2011 general election. Even in the PPP heartland, voters had direct experience of shoddy work on roads, bridges and the like in their local areas, and almost the entire electorate could recite the tales of the new wharf which floated away and similar construction fiascos.
The truth of the matter is that pretence, denial and aggression cannot cut it any longer. While this has not worked inside the country for a considerable time, it has never worked outside the country at any time. No matter what the government says about Transparency International, other nations and their business leaders will be guided by the Corruption Perception Index, and Guyana will lose out as a consequence.
Everyone waits to see whether the PPP will take some meaningful decisions at its upcoming Congress, although as Mr Ramkarran has explained, in more recent times that has been anything but a democratic forum. What the party seems to be faced with on the corruption front is a systemic problem, which is the hardest kind to deal with.  Having said that, however, if it does not make an attempt to confront the situation head on, it will in due course pay an even heavier political price than the one it has paid already.

In addition, the public perceives corruption sometimes where there is only a failure to be punctilious about accountability, and also where the problem is incompetence rather than dishonesty and fraud.  If the government and the party want to do anything about their image, therefore, they must get their minds around the concept of full accountability and be prepared to set up those independent institutions which will facilitate transparency. Greater transparency and accountability will act as a brake against corruption. The key word is independent, because an institution which is not autonomous and where those in office will have some say at some stage in its processes, will not do anything to sanitise their image; we are long past the stage of charades.

As a start, let the government establish the Public Procurement Commission under the current constitutional requirements and demonstrate that it is prepared to embark on the road to root out corruption.

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