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November 9, 2017



What governance means

Over the past few decades, corruption has become the catchphrase that is repeatedly utilised in our country as a means to discredit and, in many cases, topple elected governments.

We saw this throughout the troubled 1990s when democracy returned to the country after the brutal dictatorship of General Ziaul Haq and efforts were made to weaken politicians and political parties. We also saw it during the prolonged Musharraf era when another military dictator used corruption as the key word in his game to sideline political leaders and push them aside from the centre of the playing field.

Today, we are once again caught in the midst of a major scandal involving corruption allegations and attempts to prove them in court. The so-called Paradise leaks have further added to the corruption obsession. A prime minister has been dismissed not because corruption was proven but because it was proven on less solid grounds. This was done by making use of a clause that was inserted in the constitution by a dictator for his own purposes and was never removed because the political parties, foolishly enough, could not gain a consensus on this matter. As has already been noted, the PML-N was the main offender in the failure to remove the passages loosely referring to being ‘honest’ that were added to the constitution by the party’s mentor General Zia.

Many mistakes have been made. A major problem in tackling corruption lies in our inability to come up with solid proof that can be unveiled before the people. Successive leaders have benefited from this. Former president Asif Ali Zardari, who spent seven years in prison and is widely reputed as being corrupt, was acquitted in the final case against him a few months ago.

The law of our land, and of most others, states that a person who is not found guilty stands innocent. Therefore, in technical terms, there is no ground on which to declare Zardari and Sharif corrupt despite public knowledge about the wealth accumulated by both their families.

This is not the way to tackle corruption. According to the steps laid out by the global anti-corruption body Transparency International, wrongdoing within a state can be dealt with by ensuring that those who are guilty of it are not given impunity, the facts of financial happenings in the country are open to the people, citizens are involved in making decisions about how money is used and ordinary people are empowered to access information.

All these aspects are missing in our country. It is then hardly surprising that corruption continues to flourish. While politicians are repeatedly maligned, other institutions have once more been given total exemption from even being held accountable under the new accountability law passed by parliament. It is unlikely that the National Accountability Commission, which is to be set up under this law as yet another body established to deal with the misuse of power and the theft of financial resources, can prove effective under the circumstances that surround it and the limited scope of the anti-corruption measures in our country.

There is also another important question: how much do people really care? Of course, corruption impacts the quality of governance and how well administrations are able to deliver. We can see the extent to which the poor policies enacted over many decades have resulted in a lopsided use of money, with far too much being allocated to massive projects which benefit only a few and little being allotted for measures that can actually aid development.

Kickbacks, corrupt deals and scams involving the robbing of money from giant institutions adds a further layer to the misgovernance we see everywhere. The same layers also exist in institutions that are not controlled by politicians. It seems quite obvious that a much wider-ranging effort is required to put corruption in check. This should begin under a TI-assisted team – as was witnessed in Sri Lanka – to put citizens in charge of auditing local government accounts.

There is also some evidence that corruption is not always a key concern for people. While it is a popular catchphrase for the media and other powers, in Iceland we have seen Bjarni Benediktsson, the conservative leader who was trapped in the Panama leaks scandal, re-elected in snap polls that were held in October 2017. The charges of fiscal wrongdoing against him – both a year ago and previously in 2008 – clearly do not appear to have moved people very much. It seems their concerns are for things other than corruption.

The limited surveys carried out in our country and in India suggest that the same may be true in this region and, undoubtedly, in other parts of the world. What people seek most of all in Pakistan is the delivery of basic services and improved law and order. They also consistently see the police as the most corrupt department – a factor that further hampers access to justice for millions. They essentially seek the basics of life: clean water, food that can sustain them, education and healthcare. Today, they even want clean air – something not available at least in Lahore and many parts of Punjab that have been smothered for over a week by a thick, suffocating fog, which has been caused not by corruption but by years of poor planning and inadequate control policies.

A smog of a different kind makes it difficult for us to see the reality. Since it has been in place all around us, we are unable to think clearly or see events with the vision that should be provided in part by the media and in part by other bodies. Such effective blinding means that we are buried under facts delivered from a particular direction and with a specific intention. Matters involving what is most significant have become confusing.

Everyone talks about corruption. But no one discusses hunger or the misallocation of resources that are, in so many ways, key factors responsible for the suffering in our country. While we talk regularly about the misery of Rohingya refugees and the discovery by Unicef that 7.5 percent of refugee children suffer malnutrition at some of the camps in Bangladesh they have surveyed, we just as easily ignore the fact that in Pakistan 50 percent of children are malnourished. Others suffer stunting, wasting and a lack of mental development. This should be a bigger concern for us than either corruption or the fate of the admittedly tormented Rohingya community.

The neglect of people within our own boundaries should, however, not go unnoticed or unspoken of. The media certainly pays little heed to it. So do others who form opinion. Corruption is indeed one of the problems that contribute to their suffering. Administrations engaged in nepotism and wrongdoing are less able to make decisions that benefit people or bring about the planning which is required to safeguard our future. But when corruption is turned into the biggest issue of all rather than a matter which has broad manifestations and applications, we run into trouble.

We have been negligent in tackling corruption. The manner in which the pyramid of power has been constructed and the extent to which it deviates from the parameters laid out by the constitution suggests that fiscal fraud is turned around to only be used for political purposes rather than to achieve the transparent accountability that our country needs to move towards a system under which people can live better lives.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: kamilahyat@hotmail.com