As a recent returning citizen, after spending 15 years in London in law, business ethics and anti-corruption, I found it very interesting indeed to read about all sorts of corruption investigations or allegations affecting politicians and businessmen in the weeks leading to the November elections. Rather surprisingly though, I was more taken aback by the fact that those in my close circle of friends either blatantly accepted or justified corruption as a fact of life, or more worryingly, simply could not identify a corrupt situation! Corruption is not just the government’s problem or the police’s problem, it affects us all. However, if we cannot recognise it, we cannot combat corruption. But what is corruption really?
Corruption is the abuse of power for private gain
This week marked the International Anti-Corruption Day (9 December). In so many countries around the world, corruption is rife and it is important that we take a moment to remind ourselves of the importance of living in a society free from corruption. We need to really understand what corruption is. Corruption is defined simply as the abuse of power for private gain. When we think of corruption, we immediately think of bribery in the form of cash, but corruption can manifest itself in any situation where someone in power, or entrusted with power, abuses that power to benefit personally from it, or to confer that benefit to someone of their choice. The taking of cash in return for awarding a contract that would otherwise not have been given, is a clear form of bribery and corruption. Equally, a government minister who asks the CWA to replenish their water tank due to supply cuts following a cyclone, but whilst the water cistern truck was not scheduled to do so, is simply abusing their power for private gain. Or fast-tracking electricity infrastructure for one’s brother who has just bought land, is abusing one’s permit-granting power to confer a benefit to him. The latter two examples may seem petty, but there is no such thing as petty corruption. Corruption is corruption.
Corruption is an option we should reject
We also need to discern between corruption under duress and corruption with a conscious mind. Duress is where someone is compelled to engage in bribery or corruption for fear of their safety: somewhat gunpoint situations. In many countries where corruption is prevalent, a motorist can be unfairly, and without reason, stopped by a traffic police officer who brandishes a gun and threatens to confiscate the car and leave the driver stranded in the middle of nowhere unless money is given. That’s just sheer extortion and where the driver does not have much of a choice but to protect his own safety.
Thankfully, such a type of corruption is not commonplace in Mauritius. The situations I hear more about are where two people consciously engage in bribery or corruption: one gives and one takes. To continue with the earlier example, here the motorist is stopped for driving through a red light and offers a small bribe to avoid a bigger fine. The problem begins with the regular citizen, not the officer in power!
The person who offers a benefit is as guilty as the person who accepts it. So, the point is that if corruption is a choice, stopping corruption is also a choice and very possible. The issue is that we are often too afraid that we will lose competitive advantage over friends and family, or the status we have built for a long time, like being at the top of a house of cards. So, sometimes turning a blind eye to corruption seems to be an easy way out; a “victimless crime”, a “harmless quid pro quo”. Such an attitude will only contribute to a corrupt mindset and a corrupt society: a slippery slope of what we think is small (“petty”), turning into a bigger problem we struggle to fix. Fortunately, there is choice: we can choose not to cut corners, and place pride before gain or greed. Fighting corruption may not be easy but we can start by refusing to entertain any form of corruption, even if it is to our detriment.
Corruption is not a public sector problem only
It is a common misconception that corruption is only the product of government officials abusing their position of authority. Corruption manifests itself in the private sector also: business to business corruption. For example: a supplier wishing to win a tender to a contract with a private company may influence the decision of the procurement manager by offering cash or even freebies such as a discount for them and their family, paying a holiday or by just offering gifts. In the retail business, I’ve personally encountered a situation where a hardware store offered me a free lightbulb instead of providing me with a purchase receipt that I asked for. The right thing to do is to insist on the receipt so sales can be accounted and taxed for.
It is not power that corrupts, but fear
“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” Such were the words of Aung San Suu Kyi in an award acceptance speech in 1991, and a thought that I agree with. Too often, we hear stories of greed, fraud, money laundering or bribery, but that we tolerate as “normal” functions of society. We even tend to justify corruption by those with power as “pli zot ena, pli zot anvi”, and us who succumb to power as “koumsa mem sa, pa kav fer nanyé”.
Rejecting corruption is bravery, not weakness. Integrity is a priceless pride. If we really want to live in a society free from corruption, it is important we recognise corruption in all its forms, not just bribery and cash, and not by virtue of its scale and magnitude. It is then that we will truly be able to reject leaders and others who want to accede to power only to abuse it for corrupt gains.
The fight against corruption starts with us.