Sadiq Saleem: Transparency, corruption and perceptions

This article appeared in The News on November 18, 2009

Transparency International’s new Annual Corruption Perceptions Report and Pakistan’s position on its index is once again the topic of discussion on all TV channels and most newspaper columns, courtesy right wing anchors and columnists. Instead of focusing on the terrorist threat to the Pakistani way of life, the corruption issue is once again being used to create hatred for the political class and to dislodge or weaken an elected government.


One can sense a replay of the past, as those who know Pakistan’s history of the 1990s would testify. In Pakistan between 1988 and 1999 no elected civilian government was allowed to complete its term because of alleged corruption. The 1999 military coup that brought General Pervez Musharraf to power was also justified on grounds that Pakistan’s generals were better suited to wage the war against corruption.


Transparency’s reports are highlighted only under civilian governments though Pakistan’s rating for corruption changes little on an annual basis and the global perception that Pakistan is rife with corruption is consistent under civil or military rule. Few commentators educate the public on how Transparency International, a small NGO with local affiliates who are not past political prejudice, draws up its index. The average man is led to believe that Transparency International is some kind of a United Nations, which it is not, and its reports are based on measuring corruption, which they are not either. The truth is that Transparency International is a Berlin-based organization that publishes an annual Corruption Perceptions Index based on surveys “from 13 independent institutions” based on “the opinions of business people and country analysts.” So all that Transparency’s reports tell us is what some businessmen perceive and tell the organisation’s surveyors.


The media can first create a perception of corruption, which is reflected in Transparency’s survey and then report on the survey selectively to argue that corruption has gone up or down in the country. What a manipulative process!


Corruption has often been described as the cause for most of the problems of third world countries. During the better part of the 1990s when democracies were being introduced in most of these countries in a post cold war era, corruption was used by the entrenched establishment in several countries to undermine the democratic processes. By the early 21st century however another serious debate emerged in the West when intellectuals started to question the wisdom of taking corruption as the single most important factor in the social, economic and democratic development of a society.


This thread of thought emerged as the researchers and academics realized that the so-called war on corruption, sometime pushed by the World Bank, had started to undermine democracy and often resulted into projecting choices for the people that did not lead to real development.


One such thinker Moises Naim, former Venezuelan Trade Minister and currently Editor of Foreign Policy magazine, wrote in a classic 2005 article that the “worst collateral damage” of a fixation with corruption, “is the political instability it can create. Electorates already have many reasons to be disappointed with their elected officials. The corruption curse feeds people’s unrealistic expectations about what it would take to improve their standard of living and set a country on a more prosperous path. Popular impatience, exacerbated by the belief that nearly all those at the top are lining their pockets, unreasonably shortens the time governments have to produce results.”


Naim also pointed out, “There is no doubt that corruption is a scourge. But there is also no doubt that many countries crippled by corruption are not sinking. Hungary, Italy and Poland are just a few examples of countries where prosperity has coexisted with significant levels of corruption. China, India and Thailand are only not sinking; they are prospering, despite widespread corruption.”


Of course, Naim’s purpose was not to condone corruption. He sought only to point out that the elites and intelligentsias of some countries can ignore more fundamental problems while obsessing about corruption.


In our case, the corruption debate has prevented Pakistanis from identifying terrorism as a threat. Bombs go off and we ignore them but columnists and anchors who consider the Taliban lashing a young woman in Swat as “consistent with Sharia” rant on about fiscal corruption as disastrous.


During the mid-1990s Pakistanis felt dishonored by the revelation that Transparency International had listed Pakistan as the second most corrupt country in the world. Apologists for Pakistan’s establishment used that factoid to run down Pakistan’s politicians and blamed them for bringing Pakistan to this point. Once the establishment had run the politicians down and used corruption as an excuse for increasing its power in a succession of palace coups, discussion over Pakistan’s rating for corruption by Transparency International seldom made news. In most of the Musharraf era, the media rarely gave any importance to the TI index, although Pakistan never performed very well on that benchmark.


Going back to the argument of Moises Naim that corruption does not necessarily mean that the country’s economy is sinking, one may notice that in the year 2004 Transparency International index, Finland was identified as the world’s least corrupt country and the most corrupt countries were Bangladesh and Haiti. Now if we look at Bangladesh’s economic growth in the first few years of the 21st century it is apparent that she has managed to maintain stable growth while Pakistan that had better rating in TI index during these periods had not been able to create a sustainable economic platform.


According to TI, “The index defines corruption as the abuse of public office for private gain, and measures the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among a country’s public officials and politicians.” The scores on TI’s index range from 10 (squeaky clean) to zero (highly corrupt). TI considers a score of 5.0 as “the borderline figure distinguishing countries that do and do not have a serious corruption problem.”


The methodology for determining the level of corruption in a country is such that the ranking is less important than the rating. A country can be the worst in a certain year, when fewer nations are surveyed, but move up or down in the rankings because of changes in the number of countries surveyed. Pakistan’s rating, on the other hand, has improved little over the years.


It has been pointed out that in Pakistan’s case, corruption is a constant factor, which is exaggerated or downplayed according to the political needs of the country’s bureaucracy and generals. In Pakistan this rating is often used as an excuse to boot out or denigrate the politicians while covering up the corruption and other ethical lapses of other important players of power.


There is no doubt that the honest Pakistanis must carry on their struggle against corruption but anti-corruption crusades must not be allowed to deprive the country of democratic governance and popular participation in government.


During the NRO debate in the country recently many facts were completely ignored by most of the media. While the 1990s were wasted in filing and pursuing corruption cases, no one came up with statistics about how many cases were actually proved in the courts of law? How many cases did not even reach the stage of prosecution and what about those in which the victims (accused) were found not guilty? And why should it not be debated that those who filed false cases on the basis of patently political considerations must be brought to book?


Exploring these angles requires thinking that is not contoured and driven by an agenda. The Transparency International index and allegations of corruption, however, can help some people play their games.

 Sadiq Saleem is a businessman and analyst based in Toronto, Canada.


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