South Asia’s corruption watchdogs need sharper teeth

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Governments: take watchdogs off the leash

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Posted 21 May 2014 by

Governments in corruption-stricken South Asia must allow anti-corruption agencies to investigate and prosecute corruption independently, Transparency International said today in the first comprehensive study on transparency and corruption prevention in the region.

The report from the anti-corruption group, Fighting Corruption in South Asia: Building Accountability, analysed how well 70 national institutions in Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka stop corruption.

In all six countries, corruption fighters in government and ordinary people alike who want to report, expose, investigate or prosecute corruption face legal barriers, political opposition and harassment that allow bribery, secret dealings and the abuse of power to go unchecked, the report warned.

“How does a region with such strong economic growth still have such high levels of poverty? The answer is corruption. It allows the few to profit without answering for their actions,” said Transparency International’s Asia-Pacific Director Srirak Plipat. “As long as nobody brings the corrupt to justice, South Asia’s leaders run the risk that future growth only benefits the powerful, doing nothing to help the half billion South Asians who still live in poverty.”

Governments failing to meet corruption commitments

While hardly an official speech delivered across the region fails to mention corruption, it is still on the rise in South Asia. All six score under 40 out of 100 on the Corruption Perceptions Index, a sign of rampant public sector corruption.

This corruption threatens to jeopardize fragile political and economic advances made in the region. Despite economic growth averaging 6 per cent a year over the past 20 years, 31 per cent live on less than $1.25 a day, according to the World Bank. Corruption in public bodies that should provide basic services to the poor means that economic growth is only enjoyed by the few.

Governments: take watchdogs off the leash

While all six countries have public bodies charged with stopping corruption, their hands are tied by political control over staff appointments and budgets. Transparency International’s report documented examples of cases against political supporters that were supressed and cases against political opponents that were taken up. Furthermore, staff members who failed to yield to political pressure are often shown the door or moved to new positions.

Governments are able to influence what cases come under scrutiny by placing allies in key positions, the report warned. This effectively makes political power a ticket to impunity for corruption. In Bangladesh, for example, only 10% of corruption cases lead to conviction.  

When independent and free to act, anti-corruption bodies can bring corruption to light and the corrupt to justice, Transparency International said, citing the example of Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau which in 2007 exposed the Double Shah Scam which helped 40000 fraud victims recover $23 million.

Promote a culture of transparency

To make transparency laws more effective, governments should appoint information officers in every public agency responsible for dealing with requests from the public. They should also launch public campaigns to raise awareness about the duty of public bodies to provide them with information.

Ordinary people struggle to get information about government performance, even though five of the six countries have laws guaranteeing their access to that information. Often this is because citizens do not know how to exercise this right, nor do public officials know about their duty to respond to requests.

People who blow the whistle on corruption are exposed to dangerous risks because laws to protect them are either too weak (India), or unknown and not publicized (Bangladesh). Nepal, Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka don’t have any whistleblowing legislation.

Governments should foster a culture of transparency where watchdogs, civil society and the media can make their voice is heard, without retribution, and expect a constructive response from those in power, Transparency International said. The report also highlights corruption in political parties and the importance of civil society.

“Governments will find transparency is the best investment they will ever make. Ordinary people can ensure their communities are served by governments, whistleblowers can save billions by exposing fraud,” said Srirak Plipat. “Trust in politicians will be higher if people know there is a body that will hold the corrupt to account.”

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