Dennis Jones is a Jamaican-born international economist, who has lived most of the time in the UK and USA, and latterly in Guinea, west Africa. He moved back to the Caribbean in 2007. This blog contains his observations on life on this small eastern Caribbean island, as well as views on life and issues on a broader landscape, especially the Caribbean and Africa.







**You may contact me by e-mail at livinginbarbados[at]gmail[dot]com**

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Who's Got Their Finger In The Cookie Jar?

Today's Advocate editorial makes for very interesting reading. Under its catchy title of "Stop the rot", it celebrates the fact that December 9 is International Anti-Corruption Day by warning that Barbados should not get beyond itself by thinking that it does not have a problem with corruption. I imagine that most people who pay attention to things like Transparency International's corruption perception index understand its severe limitations. Not only does it not measure actual corruption, but it also does not look at perception beyond the public sector. So, you could have a country known to be rampantly corrupt, but if most of that is within the private sector and the public sector does enough to disguise what corrupt practices it has, then the country could score with low perceptions of corruption. Lies, lies, and damned statistics, indeed. But, let us first find corrupt practices and then move to see what if anything will be done about them.

I would be lying if I said that I was not disappointed with the slowness with which the government has proceeded with integrity, transparency and accountability legislation. Deliberations are all well and good but how much deliberation is really needed to move in these areas. Barbados is by far not the first country to move on these areas. It is also a small country. Some argue that the same smallness is one of the factors braking progress. Everyone is supposedly known to everyone that the prospect of fessing up on a relative, friend or colleague who has been dipping the finger into the sugar bowl is close a move for permanent social ostracism.

The Auditor General's (AG) Barbados Audit Office has produced another unflattering report on Barbados' public sector contracting, monitoring and implementation, with its Special Audit of the Barbados Road Network Infrastructure Improvement Project. The report identifies many areas where government departments, in this case the Ministries of Transport and Works and Finance, did not seem to be fully in control of a project for which they were responsible.

The report indicates many areas where these public agencies displayed irregularities in their procedures regarding competitive bidding and contract awarding; contractual arrangements were weak; they did not have full control over projects, or did not appear to fully understand the projects and the rules under which they operated. Work begun without full designs and thus full costing information. That the completion of the highway project is dragging along like a tattered bag perhaps sounds harsh, but after living through it for the past three years I would argue that it is fair.

The AG’s role and function, however, is not to provide solutions though its recommendations may form their basis. It presents information to Parliament, and it’s for the Public Accounts Committee to take matters forward, or not. The AG has already indicated that the latter has not been functioning properly. But in no sense can the AG’s office just decide to go off and do more than what it’s charged to do. So, we look to Parliament for having been derelict in its duties. We have to ask why, given the it's the public's money that they should be concerned to protect.

The AG and his office are known public entities, who conduct discussions with other known public and private entities (which is disclosed), and supports his reports with documentation, which is laid before Parliament.

Previous reports have given a good indication that malfeasance may exist in the way various public sector activities are conducted, but it's legislators who must bring public officials to book and prosecute if evidence is there to do so.

Public officials are often slippery customers and regularly hide behind various pieces of legislation to not disclose what they are doing, at the behest of Ministers or without their explicit consent or knowledge. Barbados is in danger of being seen as a fool's paradise by the total absence of any cases that involves public officials doing wrong. No country exists where John Public Servant has not done something criminal. So, why is it that Barbados manages to march along like good Christian soldiers? A country that is 'squeaky clean' should have no problem is putting in place the elements for public servants and politicians to declare their assets. It should have to problem putting up to public scrutiny what is done through the public sector, if there is nothing to hide or disclose.

The editorial quotes from Hamlet, with "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark". Critics have argued much about what this really meant, but many agree that it talked about the 'state' as being government, and that corruption, like a rotting fish, starts at the head. It should also look deeper into the play, and think about Hamlet's famous soliloquy:

To be or not to be – that is the question:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer

The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,

Or to take arms against a sea of troubles

And, by opposing, end them.

There's much more in the speech, but the opening lines are always helpful to focus on the matter of whether we have the moral courage to do anything about wrongs.


acox said...

Nothing there for me to disagree on.
However if the ones i.e media closes their eyes to corruption in government then they would soon have a country that would sooner or later be taken over by dictators.
However I am afraid that those who are supposed to be watching out for what is right for the country would rather "buddyup'with the officials than say or doing any thing.
In the long ran the citizens would be the ones to suffer.
Just take a look at some of the countries who have fallen because of corruption.

Dennis Jones said...

@acox, where I believe that Barbados needs to do a major rethink is in not seeing it as the task of others, eg 'media' to open their eyes to problems: it's a national task. Various agencies, like the press, can take the concerns in various directions, but pressure must come from the general public, otherwise there will be no real momentum. Citizens cannot sit and hope that others will be concerned on their behalf.

acox said...

No "citizens cannot sit and hope that others will be concerned. Except if John Q. Public doesn't know the facts there is nothing to be concerned about.In the U,S,A, public outcry is fueled mostly by the aggressive reporting by the media and that is how the public get involved.
I am certain that if similiar efforts are made here in the country by those who know the facts and are not afraid to tell them the reaction from the public would be overwhelmning.Never underestimate people outrage when put to the test

Dennis Jones said...

@acox, Citizens need to be less trusting and less accepting. You get facts by asking questions; they do not sprout like shoots. If no one poses the questions, then no one need account for anything. Outrage can come from the refusal to provide information as well as from the results of the information.

acox said...

Are we going to blame the citizens for not asking questions? I don't think so.Only when the facts are given can they ask the question.How can one ask a question
about any subject if they don't have the facts.You are an economistand you know data is very important in tackling a problem,inthe sameway facts or knowledge of a subject is just as important in deciding how to ask the question.
On this i agree to disagree.

acox said...

I noticed in one of your postings "Economist talks Issues" nOV.26.09.
The Following:"The discussion is underway and better that people hear the official views well expressed so they can poise questions"

Dennis Jones said...

@acox, I would not expect every citizen to know what questions to ask, but questioning should be a more common feature of citizens' activity. As I did in the case of the Tennis pon de Rock event, posing a set of reasonable, almost standard questions, should help produce some facts that are helpful and critical in knowing if something has gone well or not, and the extent. It is asking for an account. Take a look at the letter written to the papers by the directors involved in that event and tell me what information they provided. I still have no idea how much the event raised for charity, or what it cost to put on the event, or what financial support it generated for young Bajan tennis stars, or if corporate sponsors will step up their support for future events, etc. Things like that are needed so that if another such event is proposed or takes place, we have some benchmarks for things to achieve or to avoid. "It went well" comments should not cut it.

Questions that ask for a proper accounting of money and seeing if 'promises' are fulfilled should be as normal asking the time of day.

acox said...

I have no problem with people asking questions.
My onlyconcern is that those who are in charge of presenting the facts to the citizens don't do so, and therfore the citizens are left totally out in the dark with very little questions to ask.
Having said that i enjoyed your input.