“Not a corrupt country!”? Let us see for ourselves

Transparency International’s methodology falls short in its failure to acknowledge our governments’ lack of transparency. The government should act on longstanding calls for openness rather than patronising the public when it comes to corruption 

.Digital.Disclosure. / ALISON LOWE

“The Bahamas is not a corrupt country!”, the government declared in an emailed release to the media this week, following the publication of Transparency International’s index which ranked the Bahamas in the best 14 percent of countries for its “perceived” levels of corruption – among the least corrupt countries in the world.

When I received this email from the government’s chief information officer, with a note from the Minister of National Security adding that “it is a shame our media outlets only wish to publicize and promote negative reports on The Bahamas”, I grimaced. Besides the hypocrisy of it in a month when international organisations like Transparency International – Amnesty International and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights – have been dismissed as ill-informed after criticising the government, an index designed to discourage corruption is now being used to laud our less-than-stellar status quo.

The Bahamas is indeed a lot less corrupt than many other places in the world. I have traveled to Cambodia and Vietnam, where public officials ask poor citizens for hefty bribes in the street.

But “not a corrupt country”? That’s pushing it; quite far in fact.

The Problem With ‘Perception’

Transparency International’s well-intentioned methodology is just not nuanced enough to show that “perception” is not always reality. To become aware of something we must first have in place the tools to do so. The Bahamas is not well set up, institutionally or culturally, to “perceive” corruption or act upon it.

We lack a Freedom of Information Act, transparent and fair public procurement rules outlining how the government spends public money to buy goods and services, protection for whistleblowers who reveal corruption, or campaign financing laws that would require political parties to disclose election contributions.

While it would be nice to think that we are the only country in the world that just does the right thing without needing legislation, what is more likely is that we are simply failing to identify, or overlooking, corrupt acts. This state of affairs has contributed to our laxity in enforcing the laws that we do have: there has never been a conviction under the 1976 Prevention of Bribery Act.

Sense and Sensibility

There are many things that happen in our country that don’t seem to make a lot of sense if we are trying to decipher the public interest. In 2012 and 2013 the government spent a lot of time drafting, debating, and passing legislation to allow for stem cell treatment. While such a bill could lead to some new business, the benefit is unlikely to be felt broadly.

All we can be sure of is that the government has sidetracked the agendas of well-established groups – like the Bahamas Contractors Association; groups who have been pushing for “their” legislation, legislation that could clearly impact many Bahamians in a positive way, in favour of these laws. Elsewhere we see some developers’ projects and permits move exceedingly quickly, complaints that developers are allowed to run roughshod over environmental standards, while others’ proposals languish for years.

Corruption is all the more likely when a public sector is often inefficient and frustrating, when everyone knows everyone, and there is a history of disregarding or downplaying it, as it is in The Bahamas. In these circumstances, we are more inclined to take it easy on those who transgress – or to transgress ourselves; doing “favours” for “friends and lovers”. This may or may not be “for private gain” in a monetary sense, but it is still corruption. Improper “gain” can come in many forms.

The Lady Doth Protest Too Much

And so with the information officer’s email, the words “The lady doth protest too much” came to mind. This email did, after all, come in a year when the government had to defend itself in the face of a U.S. State Department report which spoke of improper “interventions” by Bahamian government officials in investment decisions and complaints by U.S. companies. That report was met with strident denials and attempts to vilify its authors.

It also came in a year when the prime minister openly admitted personally stepping in to stop tax official Ishmael Lightbourne, from having his home repossessed over unpaid debts to a local bank. Other politicians jumped to the prime minister’s defense. In fact, so did many members of the public.

Inconsistency

It is not that Transparency International generally ignores the importance of access to information and its role in relation to corruption. It makes much on its website of what is necessary to discourage, unveil and root it out.

Top of the list? Public access to information.

“In the fight against corruption, information is a powerful weapon. And when it’s not freely accessible, the corrupt can get away with hiding evidence of their crimes. That’s why it is vital that governments around the world put robust laws in place to enable citizens to get the information they need to hold their leaders to account.”

“It is an important part of Transparency International’s work to first, advocate for strong access to information laws globally and second, ensure they’re properly implemented so that citizens can exercise their right to know safely and effectively.”

Yet its index ignores the fact that our public are at a disadvantage when it comes to “perceiving” the most insidious forms of corruption.

We Are All Adults Here

So rather than declare that “The Bahamas is not a corrupt country!”, we should recognise that we must still strive to minimise corruption by changing how we behave and making our legal framework less friendly to it. We’re not there yet – not even close. Getting there will take effort from each and every one of us.

Transparency International should review their methodology. We should all consider how small or large “favours” we might seek or give contribute to corruption and hold The Bahamas back from development that benefits society more broadly.

Most importantly, the government should act rather than patronising the public with declarations that we are corruption free and criticising the media for doing their jobs. We are all adults here.

If we are so squeaky clean, then why not do what no government has to date had the guts to do: have full and frank disclosure and let us see for ourselves? Pass a Freedom of Information Act to give us access to what we have a right to know, and protect whistleblowers. Pass a campaign finance law. Reform public procurement. And while you’re at it, undo the bureaucratic roadblocks that cause corruption to fester and enforce the laws we have on the books. I’d happily receive an email gloating about that any day of the week. Denying corruption exists for the sake of public relations – or taking someone else’s word for it – does no one any good in the long run.

Comments? Leave feedback in the form at the bottom of this post or send an email to digitaldisclosurebahamas@gmail.com.

 

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