By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas yesterday regained its status as the least corrupt country in the Caribbean despite governance reform activists arguing that this "does not tell the full picture" on widespread graft.
Matt Aubry, the Organisation for Responsible Governance's (ORG) executive director, joined Lemarque Campbell, a Bahamian anti-corruption activist, in warning that Transparency International's latest global Corruption Perceptions Index did not measure how effectively this nation is using/enforcing the relevant laws.
The duo spoke out after The Bahamas retained its 29th spot out of 180 countries despite its total "score" falling by one notch to 64. This marks the continuation of a gradual decline seen since 2016, when The Bahamas scored 66, but it finished one spot ahead of its nearest Caribbean challenger - Barbados - in the 2019 rankings after that country fell several places.
However, The Bahamas' seemingly improved standing comes just four months after the same Transparency International found The Bahamas leads the Latin American and Caribbean region for paying "bribes of convenience" to public officials so that "things are done more quickly or better".
The same organisation's Global Corruption Barometer study of the region provided a damning indictment of the civil service by disclosing that 41 percent of Bahamians surveyed admitted to making such under-the-table payments to ensure they could access public services, while another 52 percent said the government was "doing badly" in the battle against corruption and graft.
Messrs Aubry and Campbell yesterday argued that the annual Corruption Perceptions Index needed to be read alongside other material to place the rankings in their proper context, explaining that it only drew on 13 public information sources such as the World Bank and did not assess the effectiveness of a country's anti-corruption regime in practice.
"We're considered the least corrupt in the Caribbean, which is an interesting way to present it, but it [the index] doesn't give the full picture," Mr Aubry told this newspaper. "Regardless of our ranking it seems that this review indicates that little has changed from the perspective of an international standard. This is supported with the day to day experience of Bahamians."
He said two regional civil society meetings he attended in late 2019, one organised by the World Bank and the other by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), both acknowledged "the Caribbean continues to struggle with corruption".
"The topic kept coming back that corruption is embedded in the Caribbean," the ORG executive added. "It's embedded in the culture and it's embedded in the governance system.
"A global report referencing where we fall is deceiving in some ways. It uses public data to say we have a Freedom of Information Act and Public Disclosures Act, but doesn't tell the full picture of how they're being used in way to combat and reduce corruption."
Citing the Freedom of Information Act as an example, Mr Aubry said while it had been passed by Parliament it has yet to be enacted. Pointing to the regional barometer's findings on "bribes of convenience", he added: "That means corruption is not being driven by victimisation and threats to people's family and property.
"It's being driven by the belief this is what's needed to make the system work. People are paying bribes before they are asked as the solution to a dysfunctional and slow government system, and how it treats customers.
"That diminishes quality, productivity and efficiency, and adds further cost in terms of the public's contribution for paying for government services. The micro corruptions such as paying 'lunch money' is the citizen's solution as to how to navigate a slow and inefficient system."
Mr Aubry warned that such practices frequently benefited the wealthy, and those with the right family and political connections, at the expense of lower income Bahamians. "If you think about a 'pay to play' environment it disproportionately favours those that have and taxes those that have the least," he told Tribune Business.
"If there's a system where you pay someone to move to the front of the line it works well for those who are paying, but for those that don't they have to wait even longer. The Indisputable down side is that supporting such a system degrades the effectiveness of government, increases the cost and disproportionately impacts those that have the least. A 'pay to play' culture only benefits the 'haves' and ostracizes the 'have nots'."
The ORG executive director added that it also undermined civil service integrity as high-performing civil servants were not rewarded as handsomely as colleagues 'on the take', tempting more officials to engage in such practices.
He said, though, that Transparency International's global index had reinforced the need to "keep money out of politics" through campaign finance laws, "so that those that have do not have undue influence on public policy".
Mr Aubry also said experience had shown that countries which engaged in transparent public consultation were "less inclined to corruption" because there was "less opportunity for people to take advantage of public resources" because more persons were aware of what was happening.
Mr Campbell, meanwhile, said Transparency International's global index only took into account perceptions of public sector corruption based on testimony from business executives and "country experts". It does not account for the public's experience.
While praising the Minnis administration for using technology-based reforms, such as online passport renewals, to reduce the opportunity for corruption, and the Fiscal Responsibility Council's appointment in line with the legislation, he questioned whether the latter will be able to "fulfill its mandate" and have an influence on government policy.
And Mr Campbell said much work remained in other areas despite the Government's successes. Pointing to the Freedom of Information Act's wait for full implementation, he added that its "whistleblower protection" component was "not adequate enough" and failed to detail how such persons will be safeguarded.
Pointing out that MPs were also failing to meet their obligations under the Public Disclosures Act, with their worth not disclosed annually in the Gazette, Mr Campbell added that it has now been 27 months (Mr Aubry said 850 days) since the Integrity Commission and Ombudsman Bills were tabled in Parliament but not debated or enacted.
"We still have a ways to go," Mr Campbell told Tribune Business, as both himself and Mr Aubry urged Bahamians to take a hard look at themselves and do their part to stamp out corruption. "We still have many problem areas.
"A lot of it, it's not just government. We have to look at us as citizens and how we are facilitating corruption. It comes down to us being responsible citizens as well. It's a two-way street. And it's always a matter of enforcement for us in The Bahamas.
"You can't come up with a figure for how much corruption is costing the Public Treasury, but it's affecting the delivery of public services and corruption is a huge factor behind increased taxes."
Mr Aubry added: "It still depends on public sentiment. They have to look at their own actions and how committed to change they are in the long-run. Although it might be micro-corruption: Lunch money, tip money, putting something in the bottom of the bag as they go through Customs, people being hired because of their political connections, it all goes to us paying more."
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