Fixing perceptions

Friday, 24 January 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Corruption being rarely out of the limelight yet is also one of the hardest things to tackle. Conventional wisdom dictates that if something is out in the open and discussed frequently then it should (theoretically) be easier to address. But corruption, at least in the Sri Lankan context, continues to elude, mystify and frustrate everyone. 

Anyone keeping an eye on recent political developments, particularly to do with the release of controversial phone recordings by parliamentarian Ranjan Ramanayake and their aftermath, would be readily bewildered by the sheer scale and complexity of corruption. 

It will not strain anyone’s credulity therefore when it is observed that Sri Lanka remains stagnant in the latest Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) compiled by Transparency International (TI). It is little wonder that the public feel there is no change in the level of corruption viewed in the public sector despite multiple efforts over the years to step corruption.   

Sri Lanka has scored 38 on the CPI 2019 retaining the same score from the previous year; on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). The country’s score also places Sri Lanka behind Bhutan (68) and India (41) in the South Asian region. Sri Lanka’s score of 38 is also far behind the Asia-Pacific regional average of 45. 

This underscores Sri Lanka’s stagnant anti-corruption environment, which has seen the country’s CPI score fluctuate between 36 and 38 since 2013. Sri Lanka ranks 93rd in CPI 2019, compared to 89th in 2018. Sri Lanka is not alone. More than two-thirds of countries score below 50 on this year’s CPI, with an average score of just 43. Similar to previous years, the data shows that despite some progress, a majority of countries are still failing to tackle public sector corruption effectively.

To end corruption and restore trust in politics, it is imperative to prevent opportunities for political corruption and to foster the integrity of political systems. This requires governments to manage conflicts of interest, control political financing, strengthen electoral integrity, regulate lobbying activities, empower citizens, tackle preferential treatment and reinforce institutional checks and balances.

Governments should reduce the risk of undue influence in policymaking by tightening controls over financial and other interests of Government officials. Governments should also address “revolving doors”, establish cooling-off periods for former officials and ensure rules are properly enforced and sanctioned.

In order to prevent excessive money and influence in politics, governments should improve and properly enforce campaign finance regulations. Political parties should also disclose their sources of income, assets and loans, and governments should empower oversight agencies with stronger mandates and appropriate resources. Sri Lanka’s own campaign finance laws remain unpassed by Parliament and are rarely discussed unless there is an election around the corner.  

One crucial way to combat corruption is for governments to promote open and meaningful access to decision-making and consult a wider range of groups, beyond well-resourced lobbyists and a few private interests. This means that mechanisms to ensure service delivery and public resource allocation are not driven by personal connections or are biased towards special interest groups at the expense of the overall public good. 

The best way for a Government to fight corruption is by promoting democracy. This means governments should protect civil liberties and political rights, including freedom of speech, expression and association. 

Governments should engage civil society and protect citizens, activists, whistle-blowers and journalists in monitoring and exposing corruption. Governments must promote the separation of powers, strengthen judicial independence and preserve checks and balances. Doing the opposite will centralise power, create opaque systems and encourage corruption.