Zero tolerance for corruption | Daily News

Zero tolerance for corruption

According to newspaper reports, the PRECIFAC (Presidential Commission of Inquiry to Investigate and Inquire into Serious Acts of Fraud, Corruption and Abuse of Power, State Resources and Privileges) has said that a conceptual change is needed to tackle corruption in the country. It has further stated that acts of bribery and corruption in the country have become “normalised” in the eyes of the public, thus hindering eradication of these evils from society.

The Commission has also stated that neither a new institution nor large amounts of money is needed to launch an effective anti-corruption drive that would impress upon the public, but a sincere effort is needed to awaken them to the dangers of corruption.

The Commission is quite correct in their comments.

Wide spectrum

We have to agree that corruption in our country is spanning a wide spectrum, ranging from petty to large-scale. It is happening in the political, economic and administrative sectors particularly in public domains. For example, the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) which ranks countries according to the perceived level of public sector corruption has positioned Sri Lanka in 95th position out of 176 countries with a poor score of 36.

The problem with corruption is that once it enters inside the “system,” it tends to “stick” there thus making it quite difficult for removal. The reason why corruption is a sticky problem is that none of the “players” have reasons to change their strategy (to pay or demand bribes). This is so, even when some of them realise what they are doing is morally wrong and highly unethical.

These “hesitant players” have no incentive to refrain from corrupt practices because, they believe, even if they as individuals start behaving ethically, nothing will change as long as most of their colleagues do not change their behaviour. In such a situation, collective action for the common good is difficult to establish, as long as the majority of the players act to maximize their expected gains.

Lack of transparency and accountability based on the rule of law and democratic values on the part of public officials is the major cause of corruption. Without an environment of openness in government transactions – including independent institutions, vigorous parliamentary oversight, and media attention – politicians and officials who control access to public benefits tend to impose costs on citizens seeking these benefits. And without transparency, there will be little risk to politicians and public officials who are tempted to use their positions for private gain.

Much of the successful experiences on anti-corruption programmes in other countries focus on strategies of increasing the costs and reducing to benefits of corrupt activity. Clearly, this is an essential pillar in an anti-corruption and integrity-building programme: it means, there should be disincentives for unethical behaviour and vice versa.

The current approach as practised in Sri Lanka focusses on reducing corruption through making corruptive behaviour illegal and punishable. However, this approach is costly as it requires extensive surveillance to be effective. Moreover, elaborate judicial procedures might well be needed to protect civil rights and control possible abuse on the part of accusers and those doing the surveillance.


When we study the experiences of Singapore and Hong Kong, we realise that corruption can be successfully fought. What we need is the presence of strong and determined political leaders. They can successfully fight corruption if they are determined to do so.

One problem, however, is that both these well-known success stories also come with the theory that democracy is not the best cure against corruption. Neither country was a democracy, in the real sense, when their successful campaigns against corruption were launched. Instead, it was autocratic leaders who were isolated from public pressure and opinions that managed to install effective measures against corruption.

In fact, experiences reveal that democracy seems to be a straight line with curves and bends related to the level of corruption. For example, some of the worst cases of corruption have appeared in newly democratized countries, such as Peru under its former president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000)

Despite the huge efforts made by many developing democratic countries to curb corruption during the last three decades, there seem to be very few success stories. The reason may be that while leaders do have the necessary means for launching successful policies against corruption, they usually have no incentives to do so for the simple reason that they are often the ones who stand to gain most from a corrupt system.

As a country faced with the task of addressing systemic corruption, we need to ask ourselves two principal questions. First, what types of structural reforms are necessary in order to reduce corruption? Common suggestions are to create new or to change existing legal institutions in order to alter incentive structures for preventing corruption.

Secondly, which types of processes are likely to be successful for enacting such reforms?

What the success stories from Montenegro, Philippines, Chile, Haiti, Serbia, Sierra Leone and Thailand tell us is that that instead of focusing heavily on regulations and punishment, the fight against corruption should relate more to positive incentives.

This approach recognizes the many non-monetary and intrinsic motivations of officials and employees and honours their role for advancing common goals. Once these motivations are understood and introduced, it might be possible to influence behaviour with prevention of corruption and fostering values within an organisation.

There is a large body of literature that reveals how corruption may result from negative incentives. Price or quantity restrictions may produce artificial shortages, where bribery serves as a market clearing device. Import quotas produce an excess supply of export goods and limited import licenses may be handed out in exchange for bribes

There is consensus that anti-corruption efforts should identify such dismal distortions and try to avoid them, where possible. But apart from such prescriptions, it appears difficult to use monetary incentives to induce integrity. Paying someone a bonus for his or her honesty is impossible to implement. Monetary incentives can only be given for a measurable economic surplus. But there is no yardstick that can measure honesty and the remuneration that it deserves.

Of course, there are non-financial incentives such as benchmarking, preference for promotion and transfer, preference for special assignments, training, certificates and other forms of recognition etc. Applying bon-financial incentives can have an amplifying effect on morals of the people, as for example, public recognition or internal status increases the motivational effect.

The scholars also propose training methods, aimed at coding desired behaviour. These trainings can help to communicate more clearly the conflicts of interest that are unique to specific sectors. Furthermore, ethical training can help to develop an atmosphere of transparency and stewardship among the public employees.

Honest leadership

But incentives alone will hardly ever be sufficient to outbid corruption.Regulations and incentives are both needed in anti-corruption efforts. Good incentives need the regulations to become embedded and to serve as benchmarks for behaviour. In turn, regulations without incentives may backfire.

Regulations and incentives require an honest political leadership that can successfully contain corruption among politicians and public servants.

But fostering integrity among different political levels would be difficult. Political leadership must limit self-seeking among their own ranks.

At the same time, an exceptionally high level of transparency will contribute to holding public officers accountable. This system provides a clear motivation for bottom-up approaches to anti-corruption.

On the part of the citizens, what is needed today is the courage to speak out, courage to unite against wrongs, courage to question the wrongs, courage to take on the corrupt, and courage to ostracise and expose the anti-socials.



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