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Corruption perception


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Corruption was one critically evaluated element at the recently concluded local government elections when voters sent back a strong message of deep dissatisfaction to their government leaders.

This sentiment was underscored this week when Sri Lanka failed to show significant improvement in the latest Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), released by Transparency International (TI), the global movement against corruption.

The index ranks 180 countries around the world. Sri Lanka has moved up four places from 95th to 91st, but its score has only risen by two points from 36 to 38, representing the slow rate of progress. In fact, this score is the same as what prevailed in 2014 when the government of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was in power.

For an average Sri Lankan this is hardly shocking. In fact, the typical voter would have told any Government politician willing to listen that even though the 19th Amendment was passed and a few legal changes such as the Right to Information Act was trotted out, on the ground, very little was done to fight corruption in a way that was felt by the masses.

Fighting corruption has to be done at several levels and there has been stagnation on all fronts. An example is the National Audit Bill, which has been languishing for over two years even though it was initially earmarked to be passed within the first 100 days. Legislative changes to promote good governance are important but they must be timely, progressive, and work to empower public servants. As President Maithripala Sirisena himself once observed, ministers cannot steal without their secretaries knowing about it. Therefore, it is important to hold them responsible as well as empower them to be whistleblowers in government.

Secondly, institutions that are charged with investigating and filing charges have to be strengthened. A key constraint on the part of the Bribery Commission is that it is difficult for it to cooperate with other law enforcement authorities such as the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), making the entire anti-corruption system in Sri Lanka fragmented and less effective.

In addition, the Government has largely concentrated only on criminal prosecution of local corruption cases and not on the aspect of repatriation of stolen assets from foreign countries, which can be done without the former. The shift in attention to asset recovery has only been discussed publicly over the last few weeks and this oversight has cost the Government at the polls.

Thirdly, the public believe that powerful people will never have to answer for their crimes in Sri Lanka. That was why the Bond Commission was so crucial and why its findings were so damning. The unholy nexus between the politically powerful and unscrupulous well-connected citizens was brought out clearly.

This connection needs to be broken and the people need to have evidence that being rich does not grant impunity. Catching big fish is more critical to fostering this belief than any other measure.

Lastly, but perhaps most crucially, people need to stop feeling that paying bribes is required of them. Despite the 2015 political change, citizens still pay bribes at every point they come into contact with the public service; be it collecting garbage, getting electricity, or passing a plan to build a house. If people do not experience tangible change then there has been no real change.


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