Feb 16, 2009

Corruption, the treatable cancer

It’s seems as though its only when things are not working, when times are bad, when the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be turned off that we start talking about why it’s all gone wrong and who’s responsible. They say things are bad these days, very bad, say all the experts, never been worse says the man on the street. Everyone has a story to tell on how bad, on levels of corruption, misuse of authority, abuse of power, embezzlement of public funds, and so on. A few days ago the Public Accounts Committee found that some 23 billion rupees (300 million US dollars) allocated to defence could not be accounted for. It may not seem like a lot of money in a world where a bank can get bailouts in excess of twenty billion dollars but in a country like Pakistan, where people are so poor they kill their children and themselves rather than see them slowly starve to death, where the Benazir Income Support Scheme sports a fund with a total of 36 billion rupees, every rupee means the difference between life and death.What is corruption? What does it mean to us a nation? Do we tend to accept it as the norm and even look at some forms of corruption as being benign? In developing countries corruption appears to be one of the greatest, if not the greatest, factors for poverty and lack of any progressive development, and internal conflict. Understanding corruption means understanding not just what it means but what it entails. There is no single definition, so in understanding it one must accept that what may be considered corrupt in one society may not be perceived as such in another. Dictionary definitions of corruption notwithstanding, we generally understand corruption to be the use of public office for private advantage. So are some forms of corruption really more acceptable in certain jurisdictions? Surely not, there must be a sense of outrage, even if followed by sighs of resignation. It may be the daily norm, something we can’t seem to do much about but most certainly, and it’s not something we are inured or resigned to.What then are the effects of corruption in a country like ours where a huge percentage of the population lives at or below the poverty line, wondering where their next meal will come from, whether their children will live to see adulthood and if they do what future awaits them? Misappropriation of public money means less money to spend on the public. Less for poverty alleviation – the Benazir Income Support Programme could have used that extra 23 billion and the other untold billions. Less towards improving our living standards, less for education and health, less for industrialisation, less for job creation, less for infrastructure, less for development. In fact, less for everything we need to grow. What it means is that we are a nation being deprived of our most basic rights and this deprivation is as good as putting a bullet through the person or, in this case, the millions being deprived of a future.It may sound somewhat dramatic, but it’s the truth. The result is the wiping out of entire generations of people, and it is not rhetorical. When we take away food, medicines, clean drinking water, livelihoods and more the physical manifestation of that deprivation confronts us. Today, with Pakistanis eating not just less but also less healthy, they are victim to all kinds of ailments. And recent statistics not only show a rise in the usual health problems they show that Pakistanis are becoming shorter as well.Corruption has become an institutionalised feature of our economy, it appears to be endemic and the question, is can we do anything about it? Of course we can. This is not something peculiar to us, it’s found everywhere. This issue, however, is twofold: one, what do we, Pakistan, do about it and, two, do we want to do something about it?Perhaps the place to start is to encourage a culture of values, where integrity and honesty are looked at as something admirable and not something to mock at. Think of the stories of your childhood, the superhero, the good cop, the incorruptible leader; no one and nothing could buy them, they symbolised all that was just and right and did battle with those who appropriated the right of the common man. From time immemorial it has been the forces of good verses the forces of evil and for as long as we are free of cynicism we cheered on the forces of good and routed the forces of evil. Might may have been seen as power but it most certainly was not seen as right. Real might came from doing what was right, what was just and equitable. It is imperative that we institutionalise and nurture those values and ideals that uphold the rule of law that do not allow self-aggrandisement through the misappropriation of public funds and most importantly ensure that our system of governance is transparent and effective.Why is it so essential for our system of governance to be transparent? Perhaps because investors, big business, foreign governments and the like are only prepared to do business with a credible partner, someone who will not siphon off aid money, who will not add kickbacks into the contract price, who won’t look for special favours. So how do we get here? What are the recommendations for corruption control?For starters, it is imperative that we acknowledge that there is a problem, a serious problem that is slowly killing us. Then, we need to strictly enforce the law. Strictly means “with no exceptions.” It includes the military and means no NROs. To do this, the first to be put to the broom must be the law enforcing agencies themselves, the police, investigating agencies, magistracy and courts. It is also important to show that there is hope, for if society believes that everything is rotten then the common man is robbed of hope as well. The ideals of incorruptible and upright politicians and activists should be lauded and advertised. For honour does matter and what we so desperately need are honourable men and women as role models. What does honour mean these days? Beating up or killing someone surely cannot give anyone dignity and focus.Corruption is like a cancer, but this is one that can be treated. Public servants — and that includes our president, prime minister, governors, chief ministers, ministers, advisors, chairpersons of public institutions and corporations, bureaucrats, clerks, judges, police, army officers, teachers, doctors, in fact anyone paid out of the national exchequer — to remember that a great trust is placed in them by the people to whom they are, in varying degrees, accountable. So, go easy on the use of the official car, plane, helicopter, security detail, protocol and other perks of privilege. Imagine Pakistan as a company where perks are only for official use and not for friends and family to enjoy, for those, we the public are not willing to pay. That money must be utilised to ensure our wellbeing. So, stop and think before you take all this for granted, think of it as a cancer that is eating into the system and destroying this country.

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