The latest Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Jamaica 50th out of 99 countries, and even sanguine observers must find it worrying that we are seen abroad as more dishonest than notoriously corrupt nations like Brazil and Zimbabwe. It is cold comfort that we are tied with South Korea and above Argentina. Relatively strong economies may be able to support the costs of corruption, but unchecked it can virtually ruin weak ones – look at Indonesia and Nigeria.


Corruption discourages private investors and distorts public investment, thus slowing growth and worsening poverty. By decreasing government effectiveness and causing unequal access to public goods and services, it can destroy citizen confidence in democratic institutions. This was graphically illustrated a few weeks ago in Pakistan. The same populace that voted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif into power two years before greeted the military overthrow of his wretchedly corrupt administration with joy.


But dishonest governments are products of dishonest societies. Politicians are not gods descended from the sky to rule over men, but citizens elected by fellow citizens. All governments reflect their nation’s mores. Many Jamaicans who vehemently curse corrupt politicians readily offer bribes to police and vehicle examiners, ‘buy’ drivers' licenses, and underreport  incomes. Would all those calling for draconian legislature against official dishonesty welcome rigorous American style income tax laws including jail sentences for evaders? The degree of corruption in a country depends both on the willingness of officials to take bribes and the eagerness of private citizens to offer them. Even the most venal politician must remain honest if no one pays him for his favours.


Independent Jamaica has witnessed many political controversies - Jamaica Woolens and Lasarena Codfish with Wills O. Isaacs, Maffessanti Construction and Hugh Shearer, the ‘missing’ schools with Arthur Burt and Edwin Allen, the pre-assembled stoves and fridges with Robert Lightbourne, the exorbitant furniture costs and Ben Clare, Hurricane Gilbert zinc, Spring Plains, McGregor Gully, scandalous land deals to numerous to mention – we could go on for pages.


The annual Contractor General and Auditor General reports always contain instances of manifest corruption such as the massive cost overruns on the May Pen Hospital and the dubious Old Harbour bypass contract. And the FINSAC (non) disclosures show how easily politicians obtained and reneged on massive loans granted with little apparent due diligence or collateral.


But scandal tainted parliamentarians never seem to lose their positions or get voted out. P.J. Patterson and Horace Clark did resign after the Shell waiver uproar, but it cost them little political capital. P.J. returned months later to become Prime Minister, and Clark not only came back as Minister of Mining but had the largest improved majority of any candidate in the 1997 elections.


The only sitting Jamaican MPs ever punished for dishonesty were Cleve Lewis, J.Z. Malcolm, and L.L. Simmons. Each was charged and jailed during the 1950s Bustamante regime, Lewis and Malcolm for selling farm work tickets and Simmons for selling cabinet secrets. Yet Lewis again ran for office after serving his prison term and won his seat.


Polls indicate that 49% of Jamaicans think corruption is the greatest threat to our democracy, while 77% think there is more official corruption today than 10 years ago. And radio talk show callers daily hold forth on ‘the urgent need for transparent and responsible government’. But actions speak louder than words, and Jamaicans have shown no inclination to vote out corrupt officials.


All political accountability ultimately rests with the electorate. Voters who re-elect dishonest officials are merely giving them permission to steal from the public purse again. The ‘all politicians are crooks’ argument is no excuse. Should not even unproven newcomers be preferable to known criminals?


The proposed Jamaican Corruption Prevention Act is supposed to comply with the 1996 OAS Inter-American Convention Against Corruption, but many complain it has been watered down. Yet politicians everywhere resist restrictions on their freedom to act arbitrarily – look how the US Senate thwarted the campaign-finance reform bill designed to limit influence peddling - unless the electorate demands otherwise. As they say, ‘If patient don’t care, doctor don’t care’. It is popular outcries and demonstrations that usually give rise to strong anti-corruption laws.


Some say widespread political venality has alienated the Jamaican populace. But as Trevor Munroe points out in “Combating Corruption in Jamaica”, this disaffection has not translated into mass action, and therefore cannot be regarded as a driving force for anti-corruption reforms.


But he also notes that two of the world’s most successful anti-corruption bodies, the Hong Kong ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) and the New South Wales (Australia) ICAC, are specifically charged to “educate and disseminate information to the public on the detrimental effects of corrupt conduct” and “to enlist and foster public support in combating corruption”.


Our current Integrity Commission does not have the resources to do this, but surely our citizens action groups should take on such duties. For only when the electorate learns to see corruption as a democracy destroying cancer can it be tackled effectively.


Some might scorn this ‘top down’ approach as elitism and dismiss civil society organizations as ‘uptown white and brown profiling societies’. But people trying to make ends meet have little time for theoretical niceties. The tone of national debate must be set by those with the leisure and education to ponder ways of bettering the nation. ‘Noblesse oblige’ say the French – rank has its obligations. Groups such as Citizens For Civil Society and Jamaicans For Justice are heartening signs that our elite is finally realizing that privilege entails responsibility.


And every Jamaican interested in fighting dishonesty should buy a copy of “Combating Corruption in Jamaica : A Citizen’s Guide” by Lloyd Barnett and Trevor Munroe. It clearly sums up the manner in which the guardian mechanisms of our political system are supposed to work, and gives excellent comparative analyses of the proposed Corruption Prevention and Freedom Of Information Acts. It is required reading for every educated citizen of this country.

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