This week, the parliamentary public accounts committee started its hearings aimed at investigating cases of public financial mismanagement.
But as the legislators meet, of particular concern are the increasing cases of corruption in public institutions. Cases of corruption are increasing because conditions are ripe for it.
The motivation to earn income through corrupt practices is extremely strong, exacerbated by poverty and by low and declining civil service salaries. Coupled with a strong motivation is the fact that there are ample opportunities available to engage in corruption.
Corruption flourishes where distortions in the policy and regulatory regime provide scope for it and where institutions of restraint are weak. Still, corruption tends to flourish when institutions are weak and government policies generate rents.
The problem of corruption lies at the intersection of the public and the private sectors. It is a two-way street. Private interests, domestic and external, wield their influence through illegal means to take aantage of opportunities for corruption and rent seeking, and public institutions succumb to these and other sources of corruption in the absence of credible restraints.
Even if detection is possible, punishments are apt to be mild when corruption is systemic — it is hard to punish one person severely when so many others are likely to be equally guilty.
Yet corruption violates the public trust and corrodes social capital. A small side payment to obtain or speed up a government service may seem a minor offense, but it is not the only cost.
Unchecked, the creeping accumulation of seemingly minor infractions can slowly erode political legitimacy to the point where even non-corrupt officials and members of the public see little point in playing by the rules. Credibility, once lost by the state, is very difficult to regain.
Corruption in the public sector hampers the efficiency of public services, undermines confidence in public institutions and increases the cost of public transactions. Integrity is essential for building strong institutions resistant to corruption.
It is also important to encourage and protect employees to report wrongdoing (“or blow the whistle”), as part of corruption prevention in both the public and private sectors.
Employees are usually the first to recognize wrongdoing in the workplace, so empowering them to speak up without fear of reprisal can help authorities both detect and deter violations.
Whistleblower protection is thus essential to safeguarding the public interest and to promoting a culture of public accountability and integrity.