Corruption and the fight against it has become the defining issue of present day Sri Lanka. The public elected a government in 2015 because it pledged to promote anti-corruption. Over the past two-and-a-half years they have been watching and waiting for the Government to uphold the law and implement its pledge, but has been largely disappointed.
Policy Planning and Economic Development Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva created a reputation as a person who talks tough on corruption, particularly during the previous government. However, his recent remarks at the Economic Summit 2017 organised by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce have been perceived as one dimensional, limited, and unfair.
Dr. de Silva criticised the private sector for paying bribes, going so far as to say that anyone who pays bribes does not have the right to then blame the Government for corruption. This is surely too simplistic and too harsh a definition. Sri Lanka is corrupt at all levels. Even if one is to concentrate only on the public service it has to be acknowledged the system is atrophied to the extent that it is impossible to get a service done unless a bribe exchanges hands. As an economist Dr. de Silva is familiar with the principles of demand and supply. It is not possible to blame one group of people who are also victims of a corrupt system.
Firstly, it is impossible to ask the public to stop paying bribes. On a practical level people rely on the public sector for crucial services. Exporters, contractors, and professionals of all hues and sectors need them for a mind boggling variety of tasks. A person trying to get a house built needs to get plans approved, as well as get power and water lines passed. An exporter needs to get shipment documents, register their products to ensure intellectual property rights, get lab tests for standards requirements and if a company goes bankrupt they turn to the legal system. All these rely on a larger system that runs on bribes of various degrees. If no bribes exchange hands then months of delays ensue, or in extreme circumstances entire departments will gang up on the “offender” for not giving bribes. Even getting garbage collected has become dependent on a “santhosam” given at various points during the year.
When corruption is so endemic and reaches to the top of Government it becomes too large and too complicated for one person or one group to resolve it. This is precisely why the public elected a government that pledged to minimise corruption. Political will, resources, awareness, and genuine dedication is needed to tackle corruption. One of the most effective ways to prove to the public that the law is supreme is to allow it to hold all offenders accountable but this does not happen. Powerful people such as politicians and their supporters, including those in the Government that Dr. de Silva is part of have failed repeatedly to do this. They have been reluctant to empower laws and regulations by appointing independent people to govern key institutions and support large scale anti-corruption measures capable of making a real difference.
Step one of solving a problem is to understand the complexity of a problem and how various stakeholders have a stake in it. An attempt to artificially simplify a problem of such import is as effective as doing nothing.