Systemic approach to anti-corruption

October 3, 2017, Following the publication of my Op-ed “The Corruption Imperatives” in these columns on September 20, I received several communications asking that I elaborate on specific steps, which have a high likelihood of countering corruption in a national context.  

As a starting point, I would like to reiterate the importance of building systems that limit opportunities for corruption. In this regard, since there is no single silver-bullet, most national anticorruption strategies outline long lists. Pakistan’s National Anti-Corruption Strategy (NACS), is no different and encompasses several approaches. NACS’ “anti-corruption tool kit” includes numerous measures (access to information legislation, integrity pledges, codes of conduct, conflict of interest provisions, assets declaration and monitoring, integrity pacts, vigilance units, random integrity testing, service delivery surveys and report cards, etc. etc.,). Each one of these is important in its own right and when combined, potential synergies exist.

At a practical level, however, it is important to identify priority policy levers, which have demonstrated success in evaluations. A review of international studies assumes importance in this regard. So, what do we know from international experiences in relation to anticorruption reform? What has worked in other countries and why?

A large number of studies have measured corruption, but few have assessed the impact of anti-corruption initiatives.  Methodological measurement issues, variations in political economy and challenges of causality and attribution notwithstanding, there are some general lessons from international experiences, which can inform anti-corruption systems-building in Pakistan. Three points are outlined in this respect.

First, international studies show that the impact on corruption is strongest through strengthening Supreme Audit Institutions (SAI). SAIs’s are meant to have a critical monitoring and oversight role for ensuring public accountability, fiscal transparency, and financial discipline in governmental operations. Pakistan’s Auditor General’s constitutional office (AG office) and Public Accounts Committees of the National Assembly are closest to an SAI. The AG office’s mandate is to ensure that funds are spent in compliance with existing laws and regulations. If it is allowed, enabled and empowered to play its role effectively, even with the existing constrains, it can serve as a strong safeguard against collusion and compel accountability, in case of deviations. From my experience serving on public sector boards and in a caretaker cabinet, I continue to be amazed by the astuteness with which the instrument of the “audit para” has capacity to dig up wrongdoing and the impunity with which the system fails to compel accountability based on its findings. One of the anti-corruption priorities should be to invest in competent and professional staff at the AG office and review its structure so that it functions as an independent and autonomous SAI. Studies have found that reforms targeted at SAI’s are even more effective in reducing corruption than other anti-corruption institutions such as specialized anti-corruption authorities.

Secondly, a large body of evidence from studies has shown that pubic financial management (PFM) reforms can also significantly impact anticorruption efforts, especially when combined with procurement reforms and strengthening of budget planning and SAI. The Government of Pakistan has had a continuing agenda of PFM reform for a while. However, successive Public Financial Management and Accountability Assessments have underscored the need to align management with international standards and strengthen fiscal discipline. Emphasis has been laid on strengthening internal controls and procurement systems, which impact on almost every part of the government’s operations.

Meaningful strengthening of the AG office and PFM appear to be the two most important governance levers to compel horizontal accountability. Lack of attention to these also explains why Pakistan’s approach to corruption, largely centered on prosecution/enforcement, has failed to date. Studies have shown that strong legal constraints to anti-corruption can only work in environments where institutions are strong. In weak institutional environments, specialized anti-corruption authorities tend to be captured for the benefit of the few powerful elite. We see that happening in Pakistan. Therefore, it is important to build safeguards against the blatant abuses of power through a two-fold approach. Strengthening governance on the one hand whereas bridging weaknesses in the legal frameworks of the National Accountability Bureau and Federal Investigation Agency, on the other. This is necessary to ensure that the agencies are truly autonomous and impartial, and free from the danger of being maneuvered, in line with the international standards outlined in Article 36 of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, to which Pakistan is a signatory.  

There is also the need to review the broader legislative agenda for transparency promoting reform. Pakistan does not have laws relevant to white collar economic sabotage and explicit whistle blower protection laws; the latter are needed to enable and encourage citizens to come forward to law enforcing agencies to report on corruption incidences.

Finally, studies have shown positive results when measures aimed at promoting high ethical standards across the public sector through conflict of interest regulations and asset declarations were combined with another set of initiatives aimed at promoting public scrutiny to hold public officials accountable. This can be enabled through systemic approaches to citizens empowerment, which have been part of various iterations of local government frameworks in Pakistan but have never been fully implemented.

Anti-corruption reform is a complex political process, where a number of contextual factors (judicial oversight, right to information, free media, government openness, competitiveness, and commitment to human rights issues, etc) matter deeply and a range of policy options have individual potential. However, it is important to prioritize a combination of evidence-based policy levers, which can drive quantum change in addressing the predatory behaviors, which have undermined the true potential of the country and its people.


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