Holdapers in fancy dress

A GREAT BRITISH VIEW - Asif Ahmad - The Philippine Star

As a child my images of a thief were of cartoon characters wearing a mask, striped shirt and a bag marked SWAG on their backs. As adults, we are confronted with photo-fit images of suspects and people in hoods lurking in streets and alleyways. Any victim of crime knows how personally terrifying an encounter with a thief can be. The effect can sometimes last a lifetime. Typically, the personal possessions lost can be replaced and the financial cost is limited to what one may have in their possession. We are grateful if we are physically unharmed.

The biggest thieves do not conform to the stereotypes of cartoons or media crime reports. Any corrupt government official, police or customs officer or an elected representative is, quite simply, a holdaper in fancy dress. For the everyday receiver of fixer fees, to the gatekeeper holding out his hand for an illicit payment, and the diverter of commissions from multi-million public contracts, there is only one apposite descriptor – holdaper. The victims are not just individuals. Entire communities pay for corruption through higher prices, poor services and quality of life. Sub-standard materials used in construction can be fatal. Every dollar of public funds diverted to criminals means a dollar less to give the chance of life to a premature baby. Corruption is not a victimless crime. Euphemisms, like transparency, cannot wash away the dark stains of theft from the palms that reach out for bribes.

Transparency International’s league table of shame does not exclude developed countries but the worst offenders are developing countries where up to 40% of development assistance is stolen by senior public officials according to the World Bank.  The cost of corruption is 5% of global GDP, over 2.6 trillion US dollars.

The UK’s Bribery Act is far reaching. Corruption within the country and outside, including the use of middlemen, is covered by law. In our own Parliament, we have seen lifelong reputations of a few destroyed with the discovery of improper expenses claims, often for very small amounts of cash. As a civil servant, my salary is disclosed to the public and also any expenditure I put on my Government credit card above P35,000. We maintain a gift register for everything that is sent to us by our contacts and we are not permitted to keep any item valued at more than P9,800. There are clear rules on funding travel and use of Government assets for personal needs.

Oversight of public sector expenditure in Britain goes beyond the scrutiny of the National Audit Office. A government official called by the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee to explain suspicious expenditure is guaranteed a very torrid time in full public glare. Civil Servants in the UK are empowered to challenge proposals by politicians serving as Ministers if they deem it to be not in the public interest. The mechanism is to get a written statement that, despite advice, the Minister is directing the money to be spent. This is an extremely rare event and just the threat of seeking such direction is usually enough stop the idea in its tracks.

In 2000, we adopted the Freedom of Information Act. The default assumption is that any member of the public can make a request for the Government to disclose information including the use of funds. The few exceptions are related to national security or if finding the information would be excessively costly. Disclosure cannot be stopped on the grounds that it would cause us embarrassment. The practical use of the mechanism includes the ability of the inquirer to compare costs of similar projects.

We have reached out to our friends throughout the world to adopt Open Government principles and practices. We work with our partners to track the movement of suspicious funds. Alongside our strong commitment to development assistance, we have supported projects that improve accountability to communities. We are working with people, including youth organisations, on campaigns this year to step up transparency in business and governance in their countries.

Who pays for corruption? You do. Foreign investment in corruption ridden countries is 5% lower than those that have taken action to minimise theft (IMF). The increased cost of doing business through such crimes is on average, 10 percent (WEF). Poor productivity, inefficiency and high waste result from the deeds of thieves. These costs are loaded on the price you pay as a customer.

The ultimate impact on any government administration riddled with corruption is that they lose legitimacy.

In William Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary, I am reminded of his powerful line in Measure for Measure “I have seen corruption boil and bubble till it o’er-run the stew.” We can and should demand that costume dramas in the future have fewer holdapers in fancy dress.

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(Asif Ahmad is the British Ambassador to the Philippines)

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