Wed | Aug 12, 2020

Editorial | Corruption weakens the economy, threatens democracy

Published:Thursday | July 9, 2020 | 12:00 AM

Jamaicans, on the face of it, have a paradoxical attitude towards corruption. We know it is a problem, moan a lot about it, and want it to go away. Yet, corruption, the pollsters say, has little impact on how we elect governments.

Voters, according to Don Anderson – who has conducted opinion surveys in Jamaica for nearly four decades – “don’t see the implication of corrupt action and how it impacts on life in general”. It is just the way things are. Or, as Bill Johnson puts it, the default response of the average person to accusations of corruption is to say, “Well, both parties do it.” In other words, throwing one set of bums out will only let the other set in.

That, this newspaper suspects, may not be the full story. The seeming nonchalance may be masking grave dangers. That is why, apart from getting on with its job of investigating cases of corruption against public officials and ensuring that culprits find themselves in jail, the Integrity Commission has to speedily move to another of its mandates – telling Jamaicans the real cost of corruption. It is important to put a dollar value on corruption, providing data that mobilise people to insist that no cheats have a place in the island’s politics.

It is useful, in the circumstances, to remind ourselves of the broader perspectives that Jamaicans have on corruption. Opinion surveys, international and domestic, constantly show that upwards of 70 per cent of Jamaicans believe they live in a corrupt country. Transparency International’s Latin American and Caribbean Corruption Barometer for 2019 reported that 17 per cent of Jamaicans admitted to having paid a bribe during the previous 12 months. Very crudely, without eliminating minors, that would translate to more than 460,000 of the country’s population of approximately 2.7 million. Of only the adult population, it would represent nearly 350,000 people.

Additionally, approximately half (49 per cent) of Jamaicans believed corruption had worsened over the past year, and 48 per cent felt that the Government was doing a bad job with the problem.

EFFECTS OF CORRUPTION

The fact, and perception, of corruption, affects the society in two fundamental ways. First, by siphoning public resources away from developmental spending, it weakens economic activity, undermines growth and, ultimately, diminishes people’s lives. Money from, say, infrastructure projects, which means the project either is not done, done badly or is incomplete. It is, therefore, unavailable to support job creation and, cruelly, taxpayers may again be called on to fund the same project, rather than investing in other necessary ventures.

While the scandals that occasionally come to light provide a sense of the scale of the problem, we do not, in Jamaica, have a clear grasp of the bill for these thefts, graft, kickbacks and other shady deals in actual and opportunity costs. An Inter-American Development Bank estimate of a half a decade ago that crime, a related issue, annually deprives Jamaica of around four per cent of gross domestic product, may hint at the dimensions of this problem.

However, we can, and should, do a detailed extrapolation of numbers. Section 6 (1) (N) of the Integrity Commission Act, liests among the things it should do is "determine the extent of financial and such other losses to public bodies, private individuals and organisation, including losses sustained by the private sector as a result of acts of corruption". This suggests that the IC should commission studies to unearth the data.

Jamaica, including its politicians, if they value our democracy, have good reason to come to terms with economics as well as polticial implications of corruption. That is the second plank of the impact of the problem - how its corrodes trusts and weakens institutions. For instance, that Transparency International corruption barometer found that a third of Jamaicans believe that prime ministers/presidents are almost inherently corrupt, while 44 per cent said the same thing about parliamentarians. One in three people held the view about local government officials and half the popultion felt so about the police. Nearly one in five had no confidence in the judciary. These sentiments could, in the right circumstance, and exploited by the right person, could threaten the democratic State.

According to Vanderbilt University’s 2019 annual survey of attitudes to democracy in this hemisphere, only half (51.2 per cent) of Jamaicans were firm that democracy is superior to any other form of government. Sixty-five per cent would tolerate a coup, and military leadership, in a situation of high crime. That level of support is 12.4 percentage points higher than the next country, Peru. At the same time, 58.3 per cent said a coup would be justified in the face of serious corruption.

The guardians of the State should pay attention.