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Opinion

May 3, 2018

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Honest politicians: an endangered species?

Most of us in the country would agree that we have, at best, only a handful of politicians who can in all probability be considered honest, or at least relatively honest, about their financial disclosures.

Adding a moral or ethical dimension brings the numbers down even further. In fact, the same is true for India and, indeed, other democracies around the world. Some analysts have argued that honesty does not fit in politics simply because it is a job where the primary task of a candidate is to make himself or herself appear likeable, strong, and a person who has avoided all kinds of wrongdoing in the past. In reality, only few such individuals appear to exist. Lies then are not unusual.

This can in many cases also stand true for the larger expanse of our society. We wonder how many of our citizens, no matter what socio-economic strata or profession they belong to, would qualify as honest and faithful as the constitution demands of its representatives. As per the rankings of Berlin-based Transparency International, that has put Pakistan at the 117th place in a list of 180 countries on the basis of perceived corruption in government departments, we are perhaps neither the most honest nor the most ethical nation in the world.

However, we are also not the worst. Corruption and dishonesty exist in many different forms and it is almost impossible to find a nation in this world whose politicians at one time or the other have not been caught up in allegations of corruption or fiscal wrongdoing. Some of these have, of course, never been proven, but in the often unpleasant game of politics, rival parties do their best to bring forth the less than savoury acts of individuals belonging to other groups.

There is a wider aspect to this. A study at the University of Nottingham, in the UK, found that in nations where leaders were trustworthy and honest, or were perceived as being such, ordinary citizens followed the same pattern. Students in Britain were found to be among the most honest in the world in the small-scale experiment, along with those from Sweden, Germany, Lithuania and Italy. At the other end of the spectrum were those from Tanzania, Morocco, China and Vietnam. The academics conducting the study drew the conclusion that honesty is not a universal trait but is mainly determined by the ethics of a country’s leaders and the examples they set. If elections are rigged or politicians are open to bribes, similar behaviour appears to trickle down to the general population. This hypotheses, which needs further testing, falls in line with the study of Nobel laureate Dr Amartya Sen, who states that corruption in the upper tiers of society and government contribute to dishonesty and petty corruption lower down the ladder.

The University of Amsterdam has, after a detailed study, reached the conclusion that corruption not only deprived people of economic prosperity, but also undermined their intrinsic honesty. In other words, because politicians in the UK are generally seen as honest, people follow the pattern of the leadership. This is an immensely important finding in many ways. Perhaps the focus on corruption we are seeing in our country should be extended beyond politicians and should include society as a whole. While honesty in politics apparently encourages honesty among the general population, it is also true that a wider culture of honesty promotes the election of honest politicians. Whether the cycle begins with the politicians or the people is difficult to say, but it appears that honesty among the top tiers of the leadership in all spheres encourages the same among people, beginning with children.

To draw benefit from this conclusion, we must move beyond politicising corruption, and instead determine how to evolve a broader culture of honesty. Accountability at all levels and for all people is one step. This can be something that begins at school and college levels. We know that in our educational institutions, cheating is endemic. Private schools in Lahore which follow international patterns and are bound to ensure academic honesty, have found they can guarantee this only by sequestering students to prevent them from gaining access to unauthorised information. There have been scandals involving papers being leaked by both local and international boards in the country in past years, leading to a tighter watch being kept on Pakistan by examination syndicates based in other countries.

In resumes handed in for employment, in visa applications, in nomination papers and in multiple other documents, we often come face to face with blatant dishonesty. This trend is now so deeply entrenched in our society that it will take some time to change. Universities in Europe are, for now, uncertain about how many years would it take before honesty in politicians leads to corruption levels falling significantly in their countries. However, this has happened, according to Transparency International, in nations including Greece and Senegal between 2012 and 2015. We must hope that one day we will follow in the footsteps of these countries.

Although research is limited, it seems obvious that some people may be more honest than others. This is not always linked to the actions of their politicians or even to levels of economic development. In an experiment carried out by a US-based magazine several years ago, reporters ‘left’ 12 wallets in 16 selected cities of different countries, leaving them in parks, shopping malls, on sidewalks and other areas. The wallets contained a cell phone number, a family photo, and the equivalent of around $50. In Helsinki, Finland, 11 out of the 12 wallets were returned from all parts of the city within a very short time. People explained that honesty was an inner conviction. But more surprisingly, in Mumbai, India, a city that suffers desperate poverty and is located a country ridden with corruption, nine out of the 12 wallets were returned. Lisbon, Portugal, turned out to be the least honest of the 16 cities, with only one wallet returned.

These are, of course, almost trivial experiments. A similar experiment was conducted by researchers at the University of East Anglia. The experiment found that Britain and Japan featured consistently as the most honest countries in terms of truthful answers given by people, while China and India finished bottom of the list. The link between politics and corruption, and the impact this has on people is complex. We know that dishonest institutions adversely affect the lives of citizens. Our primary goal as a nation must be to change this. Greater political honesty and honesty among all thosein leadership positions can play a part in this.

But this alone is not the whole story. Many in Pakistan suffer the most because of petty corruption in government departments, especially the police. We need to come up with a cohesive strategy to alter this and better understand what is it that we are doing wrong in our society, and why wrongdoing or dishonesty of various kinds has become so common. If we can find an answer to this, we may be able to solve a great number of our problems and move towards, what must be the eventual target, accountability, but also an in-built sense of morality and honesty – traits that have diminished in people over the decades.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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