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Corruption: We like it so?

By Lara Pickford-Gordon lpgordon@rcpos.org

Twitter: @gordon_lp

Years ago, when I was scheduled to do my driving test to get my licence, the instructor after the driving lesson asked, “You want to do the test or you want to pay?”.

I recall thinking ‘pay?’ Then the realisation: people do buy their licences. “I will do the test,” was my response.

Corrupt practices have become so entrenched they are viewed as “normal, acceptable” said a retired teacher. A friend teaching at a Catholic school recounted a senior teacher advising her to sign the staff attendance register with an earlier time than her arrival, so other teachers who arrived after the bell could sign in as early. Another friend had the misfortune to encounter “time theft” and fraud in her workplace. It made her feel angry. She says, “I could not change it and the steps I took to change it seem to bring more abuse and victimisation. There is a sense of hopelessness. You see yourself going in circles and at the end of the day nothing has changed. You have to function and get results [but] how to do it in a situation that is not correct?”

The stigma of corruption has stuck to state agencies where it is widely accepted that money has to pass to get things done promptly, get service or the job or contract.  In this small island, corruption anecdotes have become like folklore with the names John O’Halloran, and Francis ‘Boysie’ Prevatt mentioned.

What goes on in the mind of the individual involved in unethical practices was examined in a literature review “The cognitive psychology of corruption-Micro-level explanations for unethical behaviour”.

In summary, it found unethical conduct was influenced by the individual being in a position of power, when there was personal gain and no punishment for unethical behaviour. They had “lower self-control”. Rationalising was used to make corrupt acts “more acceptable”. The review found that if there is guilt, persons were less likely to behave corruptly.

Why does corruption matter?

The International Transparency Institute (TI), a global civil society organisation fighting corruption defines corruption as, “The abuse of entrusted power for private gain” and can be classified as grand or petty and political “depending on the amounts of money lost and the sector where it occurs”.

In 2018, T&T ranked 78th out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) of how corrupt the public sector is perceived. The results are based on surveys of experts and business people. T&T received a score of 41 out of 100 (0 is highly corrupt, 100 very clean).

TTTI Chairman Dion Abdool says we should pay attention because T&T as a small island state is not isolated. He explains, “Our economy is heavily dependent on international investments and tourism, therefore any movement on the CPI will attract attention whether negative or positive.  The result is also an indication of the work all sectors including the government, private and public sector, civil society organisations and the general population must put in to improve in future surveys.”

At the launch of the results in January, Abdool identified three areas in countries which did well on the index: strong rule of law, institutions and civil society.

Why in a country boasting varied religions does moral fibre seem weak?

He says the moral fibre is not necessarily weak but work was needed on the apparent acceptance of corruption as a way of life.

“We must strengthen our institutions, inculcate in ourselves and our families the values which form the basis of our various religions.  The foundation must be laid and emphasised in our homes, schools, church and social life.”

Dr Terrence Farrell, who authored We Like It So?: The Cultural Roots of Economic Underachievement In Trinidad and Tobago says the tension between self-interest and ethical conduct is a human problem. “There is corruption to a greater or lesser degree in all societies. The difference is that other societies—notably countries like Singapore—are very intolerant of corruption, petty or grand, and it is investigated, prosecuted and punished severely.”

Last December 9, International Anti-Corruption Day United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said the annual costs of international corruption amount to US$3.6 trillion in the form of bribes and stolen money. It is difficult to quantify the social and economic costs of corruption. Dr Farrell identifies some effects: distortion in allocation of government expenditure, reduction of the provision of essential goods and services, and promotion of inequality.

He says, “There is a real problem because corruption does subvert our institutions, systems do not work and the corruption continues.” It is not easy for individuals to stand against corruption. They must be prepared to “take their chances with inefficient systems and must be prepared to confront those who ask for bribes”.

‘Whistleblowing’ (informing the authorities or public about illegal/immoral activities) is important for organisations. He continues, “If there are mechanisms to report corruption safely—and some countries whistleblowers are actually rewarded financially—then there is a greater chance that corruption will be reduced and eventually eliminated when wrongdoers are punished in exemplary fashion.”

The TTTI launched its Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre (ALAC) in 2013 offering confidential assistance to citizens who are victims and witnesses to acts of corruption. Complaints can be filed by calling 626-3797 or email: alac@transparency.org.tt

“Once the Centre considers that a case should be pursued, it calls on the services of a senior attorney and then collaborates with key institutions to which accusations about corruption can be directed to ensure that complaints with merit are addressed,” Abdool says.

The ALAC website is: http://ttalac.org