Verite Research Executive Director Dr. Nishan de Mel
- Pix by Upul Abayasekera
- Despite no political party championing anti-corruption at upcoming polls, governance still a public priority
- Results show people have severe emotional reactions to corruption, especially by politicians and public sector
- Authorities struggle with normalised perception of corruption
- Corruption seen as main reason for reducing quality of public service
By Uditha Jayasinghe
Fighting corruption remains a high priority among voters despite the change of Government and no party making it their main campaign platform ahead of the Parliamentary Election, a well-known think tank expert said last week.
Verite Research Executive Director Dr. Nishan de Mel presenting the findings of a public research survey on corruption perception in Sri Lanka done in partnership with Vanguard noted that there was a significantly higher emotional response when a participant was asked their views on a parliamentarian or a politician committing corruption than an average citizen.
Over 2,000 people participated in the survey from around the country. The findings were presented at an event jointly organised by the American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) and the East West Management Institute.
“Political corruption was seen as a fundamental problem for the country. If a minister takes funds that was the most unacceptable and rationally seen as the most corrupt. Often in Sri Lanka some stakeholders in the development sphere take the view that public corruption is not a major priority and other issues such as cost of living is seen by the public as more important.
“But this survey suggests that people have severe reactions to corruption. It may be that they do not have sufficient choice in the political space to take action against corruption, which can lead to a feeling of hopelessness, but there is a feeling that corruption remains a critical issue,” Dr. de Mel told the gathering.
Dr. de Mel went onto observe that even though the former Government, which was elected on a mandate to promote good governance and combat corruption was defeated at the Presidential Election in November, and the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has championed development and the economy more than ending corruption, there remains a strong desire among voters to see the issue of bribery and corruption tackled by those in power.
He opined that one of the major reasons for former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Government to be defeated in January 2015, despite ending the 27-year conflict, was the public perception of his administration being corrupt.
“Mired in the bond scam the United National Party (UNP) adorned corruption onto itself and their voters hope that corruption would be put to bed and effectively dealt with became side-lined. This key hope was perhaps the one thing that had the least focus. In a sense even today you might think there is a void on corruption because politically there is no one talking to citizens about corruption but the survey shows that corruption remains high on the interests of the public. Political and bureaucratic corruption has the highest level of salience,” he added.
Dr. de Mel also emphasised that the role of combating corruption was not just investigation and prosecution but also dealing with public tolerance to corruption. He noted that the Commission to Investigate Bribery and Corruption (CIABOC) also needs to deal with how normalised corruption has become in Sri Lanka as well as the legal and judicial bottlenecks to accountability.
The survey also indicated that bribing a policeman to get out of a traffic offence was seen to be the most socially acceptable but the Police were also regularly placed as the most corrupt institution in Sri Lanka.
When participants were given examples of corruption such as a shopkeeper offering a bribe to avoid paying taxes or a successful businessman bribing a Customs official, it was invariably the latter that elicited the most emotional condemnation.
“Moral evaluation was pretty much the same, statistically there was no difference. But the level of emotional reaction was much more different with people being much angrier about the larger corruption. What resonates socially is going after bigger fish even though there can be much smaller types of corruption, which are as morally reprehensible.”
A public official initiating corruption was seen as more morally wrong and evoked greater anger and was seen as a higher level of corruption. When participants were given an example of a principal taking a bribe that was seen as more serious than a parent offering a bribe to get their child into the school. Petty corruption was not seen as a problem for the country but grand corruption was seen as much more significant.
Corruption at an institutional level elicited complex reactions from the survey participants. Dr. de Mel hypothesised that perhaps paying bribes to public officials to get basic approvals had become normalised in part because it was seen as “greasing the wheel” and the public sector itself was resistant to transparency efforts even as basic as sharing information because there was a complex ecosystem in play between the various stakeholders.
He recalled that even economists had earlier largely brushed aside corruption arguing that it was less problematic because corruption led to bureaucracy developing a layer of efficiency at the top and this was a way to improve where there were no management reforms.
“But this changed later to putting sand in the wheels because the capacity for corruption was what kept the public sector broken in the first place. Setting up a single window for customs for example is a battle that every Government has fought with Customs for decades and usually lost.
“If you ask why the public sector is falling behind it may be because allowing the thought that greasing the wheel has in reality resulted in the public sector actually sanding the wheel. There is a great deal of worry about how the public sector engages in corruption.”
He also noted that the significant discretionary powers given to both politicians and public sector officials meant that there was additional space created to allow rent seeking behaviour to be promoted and left unaddressed because it benefited a handful of powerful people at the top at the cost of public interest. It was also ultimately easier to allow this situation to continue rather than setting public protections, customer satisfaction standards and reducing the tolerance for corruption.