Transparency International globally won something called the Corruption Perception Index and Sri Lanka ranks 93rd out of 180 countries.
There is still a deficit and the public are disappointed at the deficit in accountability.
Corruption in the State sector in Sri Lanka is a norm and does not come as a surprise. While some State officials accept bribes to get the work done, there are those in the public willing to offer a bribe just to get things expedited.
Transparency International is a global movement working in over 100 countries working to end the injustice of corruption. Its mission is to stop corruption and promote transparency and accountability and integrity at all levels and across all sectors of society.
Daily Mirror spoke to the Executive Director of Transparency International of Sri Lanka, Asoka Obeyesekere.
Q Let’s start by explaining what constitutes corruption and how do you identify a corrupt act?
It’s not easy. I think this idea of what actually constitutes a corrupt act, different people have different views on it. I think as a basic rule of thumb, it is viewed as the abuse of public power for private gain. And Sri Lanka has its Bribery Act, and within the Bribery Act, you have different bribery offences, which are very specific. And then you have section 17, which is sort of the corruption clause or section, which really stipulates what corruption is. It’s a difficult thing to sometimes capture and when we look at a country like Sri Lanka, there is an evolution of what is considered corrupt, so maybe a cultural practice that was a norm 70 years ago, may now, through the development of what is considered corrupt, maybe through the giving of a gift, so those sort of challenges are also there when you look at corruption.
Maybe one thing I will highlight, Transparency International globally won something called the Corruption Perception Index and Sri Lanka ranks 93rd out of 180 countries. And what’s interesting is that looking over the last five years or so, there has not been – and that’s looking at the last government and the one before that – the perception of Public Sector corruption are largely unchanged. So I think that is an area of concern. So we’re not regressing, but we’re not improving; we’re stagnant.
Q But why is it that incidents of corruption are being reported only over the past 6-7 years as opposed to several years back? Is it that there was no corruption in the Public Sector before or that we just did not have systems in place to detect such acts?
I think the issue of corruption has also become a bigger deal because there’s a sense that the disparity between the people who have resources and do not have resources is also growing. The abuses of State resources and things like that are potentially fueling that and making the divide greater.
And so then this idea of fairness – what is the fair outcomes – becomes an important topic. I think in the 2015 Presidential Election, this Yahapalanaya and all of the things surrounding governance came up and one of the challenges that you have these words like good governance that people sort of congregating around. And I think the challenge there is that people have completely different ideas of what constitutes of good governance and they all rally around, but then you realize that there are so many factions between everyone.
So 2015 put this discussion around corruption on the map, but I think there is still a deficit and the public are disappointed at the deficit in accountability. I think that may not be a burning issue at front and centre of political campaigns this time around, it’s still something the public has shown a great deal of interest in the past and someone who is truly able to willing to drive a true anti-corruption campaign, which is not just a reshuffling of the deck of faces and saying they have new mandates, I think there is still an opportunity around that and as we find newer and younger public representatives coming forward, even people of the bureaucracy who have new ideas, I think we should be hopeful and enthusiastic for the future.
But it also seems that the public is willing to pay that little extra (bribe) to get their work done.
Indeed. Last year, we did something called the Corruption Barometer which was a 1300 person stratified sample from across the country and I think what was interesting was that 25% of people just said that they felt it was acceptable to pay to get their matter expedited – that they need to bribe.
The idea that these things are normalized is a concern. Once we started looking at these things, we realised we had an issue. I mean, on one side we have entities like the police, but on the other end of the spectrum, we have entities like a government school.
When parents are normalized into thinking that there is some payment needed to be made to get their child into school when there is a free school, that is a very concerning issue and it shows a very slippery slope. Another issue I would like to highlight is that 46% of people who connected with us on that islandwide survey highlighted that the issue of sexual bribery was an issue they felt was occasional or frequent in their community. I know that this is a bit of a taboo area to bring up but these are things that are essential to grapple with to tackle.
"It’s a difficult thing to sometimes capture and when we look at a country like Sri Lanka, there is an evolution of what is considered corrupt, so maybe a cultural practice that was a norm 70 years ago, may now, through the development of what is considered corrupt, maybe through the giving of a gift, so those sort of challenges are also there when you look at corruption"
Q On the issue of sexual bribery, we see continuous report coming out on sexual bribery, especially from the North and East. Are our laws not strong enough, effective enough to address these issues?
Our legal system is not perfect on this and there is certainly room for improvement and at present, there are these issues on what constitutes gratification, which is not enough to make someone confident around what constitutes a sexual bribe. There have been a few cases that are encouraging, but there is still more that can be done.
I would also say that the other area is around judicial practices to try and be more sympathetic towards the victims of these issues. Very frequently to raise a complaint and as a victim to be giving evidence, there needs to be a judicial mechanism that allows people to be as comfortable as possible around those situations. Even as an organization that takes complaints from the public and escalates them with public officials, I think this issue of sexual bribery as well requires a great deal of trust-building, because people do not want to speak about these issues just to anyone who comes to speak to them. So this idea of committing time to assist people to speak up about sexual bribery is a key element and we have started speaking to people about this and there is still a lot more to be done.
Q We hear about corruption in the Public Sector but what about corruption in the private sector?
The private sector is a key element in all walks of our life. When we look at the system of our anti-corruption mechanism which anchors in our CIABAC(Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption) and when you look at the laws on which they function, it indicates the fact that once upon a time, everything was so state-centric. There have been so many developments in the way in which corrupt practices can take place and yet the legal framework has not developed with that.
That is not only to say that there are problems with the legal framework, because even with the laws that you have, there is a lot that can be done. But one issue there is that the law recognizes things where there is only a State counter-party in the corrupt action and there are developments that need to emerge about private sector corruption or intra=private sector corruption for the lack of a better word.
But I also think it’s important for different entities to start engaging one another. We have recently, last week, launched the Transparency in corporate reporting, which is an assessment of the top 50 listed companies in Sri Lanka, looking at their corporate reporting practices. The one thing we realized through this is that there is space to begin conversations with the state, with the civil societies, there are areas of mutual interest, and exploring these sort of areas is important because the private sector has a really important role to play.
"Another issue I would like to highlight is that 46% of people who connected with us on that islandwide survey highlighted that the issue of sexual bribery was an issue they felt was occasional or frequent in their community"
Q With the elections coming up, do you see corruption increasing to a different level?
I think this abuse of State resources, which is corruption, is a big issue. I’m conscious of the fact that we have no meaningful campaign fund regulations, so in the absence of campaign finance laws, the way in which we could be susceptible to black money coming in is a big concern, but it’s not a new concern.
And an interesting thing that was done, speaking about our corruption perception index, Sri Lanka has a score of 38 out of 100. Typically a country that has an enforced campaign finance law, has at least a score of 70 in the corruption perception index. So it’s interesting to shine a light on the fact that having enforced campaign finance laws is a good proxy indicator of whether the perceptions of Public Sector campaigns are high or low.
That’s an interesting point that I would flag up. Looking at some of the ground realities, sometimes contesting for Public Office is a financially illogical proposition, but then you don’t get to see people’s campaign finance files or their asset declarations. So getting greater transparency in areas like that is going to be essential.
Q Have candidates in the past actually shown a commitment to come forward and declared their assets or is it only a handful, who are doing it?
It’s encouraging to see that last year there were 11 members in Parliament, who came forward for their asset declarations to be made public. Others filed them, but not in a public forum. So it’s encouraging to see that across the political spectrum from different parties, people who would not necessarily be considered political friends or allies coming together and saying, no, this information is in the public interest and must be made public. I think that was really encouraging and if anyone wants to examine those asset declarations they can go to https://www.tisrilanka.org/mpassets/ and actually read those asset declarations. We are following up with candidates at this election and encouraging them to disclose their assets. It’s not an easy task, but I think it’s good that some people are trying to break the mould and I would like to think that only more and more people will subscribe to that as our political culture also evolves not by the force of any person, but based on the changing attitudes of the elected officials as well.
Q Has there been enough public support to these types of initiatives, where you want to encourage public officials as well to be more accountable, especially when it comes to elections?
Public interest is there. The idea of demanding accountability and things like that, the voters are empowered in election time to assess the various candidates and independent groups that are there. Public interest can be displayed also through how people use their franchise.
One of the challenges is, let’s say when election monitoring people use their State resources, the fact that if we find out before it happens, like giving out jobs in State banks, we can act to try and block that. We’ve seen success in doing that sort of work. But let’s say if it’s about a State building being used for election purposes if we don’t prevent it happen before it happens, the accountability mechanism that happens afterwards – filing a complaint afterwards – that is where the challenge lies. So the need for exploring this idea of having election focused courts, which is an innovation that is happening in many countries is mainly one important area. But this idea about the rule of law and the timeliness in enforcing or ensuring justice is served is a big concern, and I think there’s public support for ensuring that the justice system serves everyone in a timely manner. And I think that is a key element of accountability and it can take a lot of time.
But, from what you’re saying, it would seem the election laws that we are following are rather weak, because it seems that candidates, especially if they are from the ruling party, can abuse State resources and still be elected to power and hold office. The accountability process coming later on which, serves no purpose.
Absolutely. This issue around legal proceedings and ensuring timely hearings is a big concern. I remember hearing some years ago that the average criminal case takes ten and a half years. I have had to file a complaint with a State authority relating to a matter of our institution because that is the right thing to do. But I’m conscious of the fact that it is not a timely thing but it is the right thing to do. It is not practical to always only expect ordinary citizens to do the right thing. So I have a feeling our systems need to try and adjust to the incentives of the people and then try and ensure that justice is done in a timely fashion. Otherwise so many things fail. You see people having to end up negotiating with criminals. This is a much bigger challenge than just on elections.
"People have completely different ideas of what constitutes of good governance and they all rally around, but then you realize that there are so many factions between everyone"
Q We spoke earlier about the Yahapalanaya Government and how they were trying to address issues of corruption. Would you say States have shown a commitment to fight corruption or is it something they are just putting out there in the public domain just to win votes?
A government can try and set an environment to hold public figures to account, but what is essential is to build the independence of those institutions. This is something we always have to remind ourselves. When it comes to these Independence Commissions or institutions or entities, they do not have a very deep history, and independence does not come like switching on a light switch. Independence comes from the abrasion of holding those in power to account, building public trust and I feel we need an evolution in our mindset of holding those who are powerful to account.
And that is where the challenge lies. I know that some people are despondent about these areas. I would like to think that the 25-year-old today when they are running the economy in 25 years or so, I would be expecting these sorts of standards in the future. It’s sometimes difficult to entrust the future into the hands of those who are so conditions to the past. So investing in the future to start thinking like this is essential.
Q If you were to focus on three governance challenges in Sri Lanka, what would they be?
I touched on one already – to try and make campaign finance regulations, to make the playing field ever more even between those contesting. Finances will always clear the road in elections, but just being able to disclose that and having to be accountable for that is going to be essential. So I think campaign financing is an important governance issue for the future.
Looking at an area which relates closely to some of the work we do, I would highlight something around the right to information, about strengthening the proactive disclosure of information. It’s one thing to request information and that has worked reasonably well, I think during the COVID times there have been some challenges, but proactively disclosing information, which is not being requested, but just implementing the regulations that are already there, just ensuring that there is steady flow of information, about assisting parents who are trying to get their children into school, making sure that information is out there. Even the idea of websites is now becoming less and less of a niche area. Even if one person does not use a website, the chances are that they may know someone who may be able to check something. So ensuring that that sort of disclosure of information is there may be another important point.
The third one, again, I’ve touched on, is the timeliness of judicial processes, just to ensure fairness is engraved. Because I think this concept of fairness is engraved in the way people feel injustice in Sri Lanka, but the judicial system does not reflect the public importance placed in this issue of fairness.
And maybe, if I could touch on a fourth one, even at a time like this COVID crisis, when we are looking at issues like Samurdhi and things like that, ensuring that those who are most vulnerable in society are provided for and assisted, and ensuring that system is robust, to ensure that those most vulnerable are assisted as opposed to it being a little broad and not targeted; just looking at that area, I think the COVID crisis has just shone a light on it, social protection at times of social protection in times of dire need. I think that’s another important governance challenge.