The recent stunning electoral gains made by the Aam Aadmi Party in India as well as several attempts at winning popular support in Pakistan with anti-corruption slogans demonstrate that the public is not only negatively affected by corruption but has very strong feelings on the issue. From petty bribes paid to policemen to scandals involving men in high offices making massive fortunes, corruption appears to be not merely endemic but, in an ironic sense, omnipresent. Nearly everybody laments the rise in corruption and some political parties, it would appear, have made the drive against corruption their central campaigning slogan. On the flip side, several elected governments have been, rather unceremoniously, dismissed on charges of corruption in the past. In sum, the issue of corruption has always been front and centre in Pakistani politics.
What exactly is corruption? How do we define it? And how do we control it? If one examines the discourse in journalistic and political circles, the word “corruption” has almost become a catch-all word. However, in its narrow definition, corruption means “the inducement to wrong by improper or unlawful means (such as bribery)”. In short, paying bribes to make illegal gains or receive unlawful favours is corruption.
Corruption is measurable.
The insurmountable problem with scholarship on any illegal activity such as corruption is that, given the clandestine character of the activity, it is impossible to document it. Imagine your own response if a pollster showed up at your doorstep and asked you the amount of money you exchanged in bribes the previous year.
In order to measure corruption, therefore, one needs a proxy. Transparency International, that puts together the most widely cited index on corruption, utilises “perception” of corruption as a proxy, the tenuous assumption being that the perception of corruption is based on real and objective happenings. To put it simply, where there is smoke there must be fire.
Pakistan’s ranking on the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) has always been very low. In 2012, we ranked 139th out of 175 countries. In 2013, we are at 127. But how is this ranking put together?
The perception of corruption is a very broad category. Broad questions such as “do you trust the government” or “is corruption a big problem in your country” are part of a survey that gauges perception. Such questions are more indicative of the general confidence in the government, or lack thereof, than about actual levels of illegal exchanges of money in return for unlawful favours. The formation of public perception on corruption depends on many factors, including the narrative in the mainstream media, successful or unsuccessful resolution of corruption cases, social networks, actions of the state and political parties and so on. In our own context where the term “corruption” has become a catch-all category to describe any activity, whether lawful or unlawful, which is disagreeable to various interests, it is inevitable that such broad questions may elicit an affirmative answer. In other words, while perception may be a proxy for the reality of corruption at the very general and abstract level, the degree to which this proxy correlates with the reality of corruption is influenced by the political context of each country.
The Corruption Perception Index has been criticised by many scholars as being an unreliable source, not only as far as the comparison of different countries is concerned but even as far as the analysis of an individual country from year to year is concerned. Transparency International, too, is aware of the limitations of its methodology. “Year-to-year changes in a country’s score can either result from a changed perception of a country’s performance or from a change in the CPI’s sample and methodology. The only reliable way to compare a country’s score over time is to go back to individual survey sources, each of which can reflect a change in assessment,” the organisation explains on its website.
It is, therefore, clear that the use of survey data collected by a third party and changes in methodology strongly limit the conclusions that one can draw from such data. These nuances, however, are often lost whenever a Transparency International report is discussed in the mainstream media.
Corruption always has a negative impact on economic growth.
Yes, to an extent
According to Transparency International, there is no demonstrable correlation between higher CPI scores and long-term economic growth. Part of the reason why corruption may not necessarily impact long-term economic growth is that the tendency among people in power to extract illegal monetary benefits from their position (called rent-seeking in economic jargon) may become part of the usual business practices. In such a situation, rates of corruption become well established and do not hold up business transactions. But the money that flows into rent-seeking is obviously lost to the recorded and, hence, taxable income of the government. It is also lost to the project, or department, from which it is taken away. But it may not necessarily be lost to the economy as a whole. Money earned from corruption inevitably finds its way back into the economy through purchase of real estate, goods and services.
On the other hand, one can make an equally strong case that slow long-term economic growth leads to disenchantment with the government which in turn leads to high incidence of negative response on broad questions such as “do you trust the government?” The factors that may cause a slump in economic growth are also many a time perceived as being related to corruption. This, however, does not mean that slow economic growth necessarily causes the CPI to rise or that an increase in corruption necessarily causes the economy to slow down, though the two are closely linked to each other.
But even though corruption’s impact on the economy may be subject to debate, there are certain areas where corruption does have a visibly negative influence. For instance, corruption can be extremely damaging to large enterprises where rent-seeking behaviour results in a loss of crucial resources that may lead to the failure of that enterprise.
Exclusive focus on corruption obscures real problems.
Yes, it does
The amount of emphasis that some politicians put on fighting corruption as a panacea for the ills of society obscures the simple fact that many of Pakistan’s most important problems are not activities that are undertaken illegally. On the contrary, the problem lies with activities that are entirely legal.
If one accepts the view that the most important decisions for any society concern the allocation of resources, then it becomes important to endow such decisions with legal legitimacy. Under the neo-liberalism ideology, characterised by the market economy and elected parliamentary model of government, the vast majority of these decisions are made in the private realm (by which, of course, is meant the realm of the economic elite). Now this could be politically and economically undesirable in a country such as Pakistan where such decisions have traditionally benefitted a small minority at the cost of a vast majority, but it is not illegal. The only problem with it, and it is a big problem, is that there has never been any public consensus on leaving all such vital decisions to any one class.
Even in the public sector, we see abysmally low levels of capital being spent on social services, such as health and education, but this is still in the purview of the law. Or take, for instance, the decisions made under the military regime of Ayub Khan to include representatives of the wealthiest families of Pakistan on the board of directors of state organisations in industrial and financial sectors. That these organisations channelised the vast majority of their assets to these very families is part of the country’s economic history but nobody deems it illegal. Or one could speak of the artificial barriers to entry created by the state in order to boost the profitability of certain hand-picked industries. None of this comes under the category of corruption (since it is not illegal activity as such) but it has a huge impact on Pakistan’s economic development.
This form of state capture or institutional capture either by an elite or by a section of the elite is known as “institutional corruption”. The exclusive focus on treating corruption only as illegal exchange of money for illegal gains obscures the impact of institutional corruption on resource allocation within society and consequently on economic and social divides that it generates and exacerbates. Institutional corruption potentially is much more damaging to the development of a democratic and prosperous Pakistan than bribery. The fact that all of it is occurring within the ambit of the law necessitates a serious debate on the laws and the socio-economic and political system that creates and sustains them. Focusing on bribery takes the attention away from tackling such systemic issues.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, the fact that anti-corruption drives in Pakistan have been time and again used to justify the destruction of democracy is arguably the strongest basis to reject anti-corruption slogans as a panacea for all the country’s troubles.
So, what do we do to end corruption?
What a society most requires for the elimination of corruption is democracy. Only the most comprehensive, most inclusive democracy can lead to the elimination of bribery as well as of institutional corruption.
Unfortunately, in Pakistan, we have restricted the concept of democracy merely to elections to national and provincial assemblies. The entire apparatus of the government remains, as always, insulated from public opinion as well as from public accountability. In essence, at the grass-roots level and where it really matters, we have a neocolonial bureaucracy that is completely insulated from the people.
Nothing illustrates this better than what is arguably one of the most corrupt institutions in the country — the police. Given the colonial structure of our police, it remains under the control of strongmen in all parts of the country. Unlike a system where the local police chief is elected by the people and hence, is also accountable to them, the police are nominated through a bureaucratic process. That is why they are unable to enforce the writ of the state and the rule of the law, specifically in checking corruption, and, instead, spend most of their time protecting the interests of the rich and the powerful, who facilitate their appointments, transfers and promotions.
Reforms in the police should be the number one priority in order to curb corruption. The police must be entirely free of any political influence; they must be accountable to the people; they must be educated and knowledgeable about the law, and their activity must be open to scrutiny by the public.
Similarly, the judicial system must also be open and accountable to the public. Only public accountability can ensure that the courts remain above political interests or the interests of strongmen. In certain countries, judges also are elected by the people and, therefore, can be held accountable by the people. A case can be made that the election of judges will result in the politicisation of the judiciary and that vested interests will come to dominate the election of judges. But this argument rests on the mistaken assumption that the judiciary is not politicised as it is, or that vested interests do not play a role in the nomination of judges in the current system. In other words, judges must face their own judges and those can only be the people.
There, in fact, is a need for reforming all those institutions of the state which suffer from colonial insularity and lack of accountability by the people – not just the police and the judiciary. The democratisation of state and society is certainly premised on the election of the representatives of the people but this should never be restricted to elections to parliament alone.
Dr Taimur Rahman has been teaching political science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences since 2002. He is also the spokesperson for the band Laal and a grassroots political activist in the labour movement.