Indirect war on corruption

In June, the International Anti-Corruption Summer Academy in Austria organised a short training themed Science Meets Practice which offered numerous lessons for the fight against corruption in Malawi.

Here are some insights into Bo Rothstein lecture on fighting systemic corruption.

Rothstein argues that systemic corruption results from lack of social trust or the popular belief that most other people in their society can be trusted. 

Social trust can be seen as a source of solidarity, creating a shared responsibility to refrain from corruption for the good of all. Members of this society know that if they collectively refrain from corruption, they will all gain. 

Social trust is the direct opposite of social distrust—the individuals’ belief that most people in their society cannot be trusted.

Members of such a society find no sense to contribute to the public good or refrain from corruption because they do not trust that their colleagues will contribute to this public good.

To make life bearable in this corrupt society, ordinary citizens develop informal social contacts that can aid them to access services. Additionally, these members take part in corrupt practices to sustain their social networks.

Malawi is one of such societies characterised by social distrust.

The 2014 Corruption and Governance Survey and other subsequent proxy surveys indicate that most Malawians believe that corruption is endemic and that most public officials cannot be trusted.

In many circumstances,    citizens expect to give gratification to find public service. Conversely, public officials expect to receive gratification to serve the citizenry. 

Rothstein argues that for social trust to flourish in such corrupt societies, there is need to create trust in government institutions through an indirect approach.

To him, an indirect approach focuses on reciprocity, changing perceptions about the rules of the game and breaking a corrupt equilibrium.

This strategy contradicts direct approaches which focus on attacking corrupt behaviour head-on with increased control and stricter punishments.

The indirect approach, however, does not prescribe any specific tactics for creating trust in an institution. The means for creating this trust, therefore, depends on the case at hand.

One can argue, however, that the creation of trust in a corrupt government institution must start with the commitment of the top leadership.

Where the commitment towards eradicating corruption is weak, leaders are only likely to talk against corruption as they continue to practice or tolerate it. Anti-corruption reforms, in this regard, are bound to fail and distrust continues to flourish in an institution.

The creation of trust in a corrupt government institution, therefore, requires trust from the top leadership. The people at the helm of the institution must abhor corruption and never entertain it even when it involves senior members or cronies.

In this country, controlling officers in government ministries, departments and agencies have an important role in creating trust in their institutions.

They must show commitment to the fight against corruption not only by speaking against it but also walking the talk and supporting corruption prevention initiatives promulgated by the National Anti-Corruption Strategy (Nacs).

Nacs mandates all public institutions to establish and operationalise institutional integrity committees (IICs) which promote a culture of integrity in their respective institutions.

Surprisingly, since the launch of the Nacs in 2009, only few institutions have established IICs and only a handful of these committees are active.

The controlling officers should, therefore, be urged to support these initiatives to achieve their intended objectives which will eventually build social trust.

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