‘Your Right, Your Role: Say NO to Corruption’

Anti-Corruption Day 2021

Populations battered by the pandemic are losing trust in vital functions of the state and increasingly cynical of officialdom

By Jan Arden

The UN, in collaboration with anti-corruption agencies around the world, will commemorate International Anti-Corruption Day on Dec 9. The global campaign will be advanced under the theme ‘Your right, your role: Say NO to corruption’. It rests squarely, in the tryingly morbid period which set in since early 2020, on the immense fraudulent and lucrative financial benefits that the global pandemic has wrought on nations around the world, Mauritius being unfortunately no exception.

Populations had already witnessed, here as elsewhere, how the fabled instruments, the ACAs, or Anti-Corruption Agencies, that were specifically created to prevent, curb and handle expeditiously and with effective results, the risks and threats posed by corruption of public procurement processes through a variety of astute means, turned out to be more akin to hollow drums than feared guard-dogs.

Mauritius has been the signatory of the States Parties to the United Nations Convention against Corruption since early this century (2003) when, after the urgent dismantling of the Economic Crime Office, the ICAC was set afoot with a legislation that seemed to sit uncomfortably within or atop our constitution as later required tweaking would demonstrate.

Advice in the form of workshops or commentary on draft laws would therefore have been available during the teething years of that major new instrument to prevent and combat corrupt practices between two complicit actors, an active private sector corrupter and a usually passive beneficiary of the illicit financial gains to be adduced in thwarting public good governance procedures for that “client”.

Advice on bills and regulations, including on whistle-blower protection or upgrading integrity in public sector procurement processes would also have been available easily, either through networking or more formal exchanges.

After that teething period, leaving aside politicians who may have their own agendas and possibly, a shifting perspective when in government or on Opposition benches, does the population really believe that our ACA has delivered over the years on the high expectations entrusted on its shoulders?

Other than some high-profile drug arrests brought about by Customs, the MRA or field intelligence of the NSS variety, some unexceptional asset recovery and menial corruption cases of tea-monies, have we obtained deliverables commensurate with the Agency’s annual budget or the expertise of its specialized staff?

And when some occasional, again highly mediatised major scandals, erupt to prominence, is the population forced to assist as impotent observers, until the matter subsides or drifts away in the sublime indifference of the authorities, showing little willingness or zeal to cajole or whip the Agency’s leadership and its non-functional Parliamentary supervision into greater agility?

It is perhaps fitting that one of the recommendations of the United Nations Convention against Corruption regarding permits, various applications and public procurements was to “enhance access of general public to information, including through adopting a new law on the access to information that would fill the existing gaps, including grounds for refusal, time frames and an appeal mechanism. In addition, raise awareness among the general public regarding their right to request information”. It goes on to recommend – “continue the efforts to engage in consultations with civil society with regard to the development of new laws, such as a law on the access to information and a law on the funding of political parties”.

The last self-assessment survey and site audit of our anti-corruption standing, conducted sometime in April 2017 “indicated that at the time of review, Mauritius was compliant to almost all the mandatory provisions of the different articles” except the above two key provisions amongst a few others, where our institutional response was curtly put as “under consideration”. We can all gauge whether that “consideration” is still ongoing five years down the road, as this government manifestly is reticent to either freedom of information or public consultations, engagement and participation of civil society.

If that was not enough of a matter for concern, then certainly the pandemic has raised stakes and the gap between what the population should expect and what has been delivered has ballooned to outlandish proportions in an island nation that two years ago was boisterously posturing to the status of a high-income country, with governance, transparency and accountability structures that should, in principle, match such a high calling.

Media and news headlines across many countries and continents have in the past two years seen bursts of corruption scandals, particularly aggravating when populations and their freedoms, if not their health, livelihoods and lives, were at risk daily.

To its credit the World Bank did react to the inefficacy of ACAs and the Corruption abuses during the pandemic through a comprehensive report (‘Enhancing Government Effectiveness and Transparency: The Fight Against Corruption’) issued in September 2020 based on dozens of case country analyses.

The general setting was evidently about how “Corruption has a disproportionate impact on the poor and most vulnerable, increasing costs and reducing access to services, including health, education and justice. Corruption also impedes investments needed to achieve growth and development objectives while eroding trust in government and undermining the social contract.”

But one of the key themes concerned the poor performance of the national ACAs (titled ‘Anti-corruption agencies: are they effective for reducing corruption risks?’) bringing into the sharper focus of the WB the questions of public procurement failures and the huge associated corruption scandals. Obviously, the context and scale of the scandals rife during the pandemic could not be ignored.

Earlier this year, Transparency International in July 2021 released a survey of some 40,000 respondents spread across the 27 EU countries: the ‘Global Corruption Barometer– EU 2021’ presents one of the largest, most detailed sets of public opinion data on people’s views and experiences of corruption and bribery in the region. It might have come as a shocker to many that more than 50% of EU residents believe that government contracts are awarded through fraudulent and corrupt practices.

To quote, “According to European Anti-Fraud Office, contracts were awarded with ‘simplified, accelerated, or restricted procedures, all of which could be open more easily to fraud’ during the pandemic. With the introduction of fast-track procedures, risks of mismanagement increased. People watched procurement scandals unfold across the continent, revealing cases of politicians profiting from procurement deals, large contracts being awarded to companies with no known experience in health care or even alleged fraudsters.”

A familiar scene here too and some important questions for our body politic and top administrators to mull over. Transparency, good governance and anti-corruption is a growing concern of international bodies. Populations battered by the pandemic are losing trust in vital functions of the state and increasingly cynical of officialdom. What values would parents who enriched themselves through fraudulent and corrupt means transmit? What should we do about such a seriously impaired situation?

* Published in print edition on 30 November 2021

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