Thursday April 18, 2024

Road to anti-corruption

By Dr Sania Nishtar
October 04, 2017

Following the publication of my article, ‘The corruption imperatives’ (Sept 20), on these pages, I received several emails asking me to elaborate on specific steps that have a strong 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. Since there is no single silver bullet, most national anti-corruption strategies outline long lists. Pakistan’s National Anti-Corruption Strategy (NACS) is no different and encompasses several approaches. The ‘anti-corruption toolkit’ of NACS 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). Each one of these is important in its own right and, when combined, they result in potential synergies.

At a practical level, however, it is important to identify the 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 anti-corruption reforms? 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 the political economy and the challenges of causality and attribution notwithstanding, there are some general lessons from international experiences that can inform anti-corruption system-building in Pakistan. Three points are outlined in this respect.

First, international studies show that the impact on corruption is strongest if we strengthen supreme audit institutions (SAI). SAIs are meant to have a critical monitoring and oversight role for ensuring public accountability, fiscal transparency and financial discipline in governmental operations. The auditor-general’s constitutional office (AG’s office) and Public Accounts Committees of the National Assembly are the closest equivalents that we have to SAIs.

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 constraints – it can serve as a safeguard against collusion and compel accountability in case of deviations.

In my experience of serving on public-sector boards and in a caretaker cabinet, I continue to be amazed by how the instrument of the ‘audit para’ has the 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’s office and review its structure so that it functions as an independent and autonomous SAI. Studies have found that reforms targeted at SAIs are even more effective in reducing corruption than other anti-corruption institutions such as specialised anti-corruption authorities.

Second, evidence from studies has shown that pubic financial management (PFM) reforms can also significantly impact anti-corruption efforts – especially when combined with procurement reforms and the strengthening of budget planning and SAIs. Our government has had a continuing agenda of PFM reforms. 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 placed on strengthening internal controls and procurement systems, which impact almost every part of the government’s operations.

The meaningful strengthening of the AG’s office and PFM reforms appear to be the most important governance levers that compel horizontal accountability. The lack of attention shown to these areas also explains why Pakistan’s approach to corruption, which largely focuses on prosecution and enforcement, has failed.

Studies have shown that strong legal constraints to anti-corruption can only work in environments where institutions are strong. In weak institutional environments, specialised anti-corruption authorities tend to be captured for the benefit of the elite. We see that happening in Pakistan. Therefore, it is important to build safeguards against blatant abuses of power through a two-fold approach: strengthening governance while bridging weaknesses in the legal frameworks of NAB and the FIA. This is necessary to ensure that the agencies are truly autonomous, impartial and free from the danger of being manoeuvred. This is in line with the international standards outlined in Article 36 of the UN Convention Against Corruption, to which Pakistan is a signatory.

There is also the need to review the broader legislative agenda for transparency-promoting reforms. Pakistan does not have laws that are relevant to white-collar economic sabotage and explicit whistleblower 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 to ensure high ethical standards across the public sector through conflict of interest regulations and asset declarations were combined with initiatives that promote public scrutiny to hold public officials accountable. This can be enabled through systemic approaches to citizen empowerment, which have been part of various iterations of local government frameworks in Pakistan but have never been implemented.

Anti-corruption reforms are a complex political process. A number of contextual factors – such as judicial oversight, right to information, free media, government openness, competitiveness and commitment to human rights issues – matter deeply and a range of policy options also have an individual potential. However, it is important to prioritise a combination of evidence-based policy levers that can drive a quantum change in addressing predatory behaviour, which has undermined the true potential of the country and its people.