The World Bank research shows corrupt transactions globally to be at US$ 1 trillion a year, which represents approximately 3 per cent of the world annual income. Another Transparency International (TI) study finds that corruption adds up to 10 per cent to the total cost of doing business globally and up to 25 per cent to the cost of procurement contracts in developing countries.
Another research conducted by Global Financial Integrity (GFI), a US-based non-profit research body, finds least developed countries like Nepal are losing much more in corruption practices than what they receive through development aid annually. The study found that developing countries are collectively losing US$ 20-40 billion annually through corrupt acts such as bribery of public officials, equivalent to 20-40 per cent of their annual official development assistance (ODA). Thus, no region or country in the world seems immune to the ravages of corruption.
The Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA), a constitutional anti-graft agency, is a unique entity in South Asia. Regionally, no other country has an anti-corruption agency like the CIAA with the mandate of an ombudsman, investigator and prosecutor. But surprisingly, Nepal continues its slide down TI’s list: Bhutan, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, all without powerful anti-graft bodies like the CIAA, are rated as less corrupt than Nepal.
The ´big fish´ in Nepal have been taking advantage of judicial clemency while the ´small fries´ fall in the dragnet. Except for three high-profile individual cases of corruption, our judiciary has almost completely failed to prosecute bigwigs in political corruption deals like Lauda Air, Chase Air and LC scandals in the last two decades. The Special Court had acquitted 10 high-profile persons, including a then minister, in the Lauda scam citing inadequacy of evidence. The case was held in abeyance for seven years after the CIAA filed it in 2001 to look into graft worth Rs. 389 million.
A protracted judicial process and corrupt judicial mechanism are also boosters of corruption in Nepal. The other impediment to curbing graft in Nepal is poor institutional integrity. Global Integrity Report rates Nepal´s integrity as ‘weak’ with a score of 67. The integrity reform agenda has never figured among the government’s policy priorities. Since the 1990s, we tried to empower one particular state institution while completely overlooking reforms in others. The past offers us some painful lessons. Unless we introduce far-reaching reforms in the national integrity system, there will not be much of a dent on the systemic corruption in the government machinery.
A national integrity system is a compact of key institutions like the legislature, executive, judiciary, police, anti-graft bodies, media, private sector and civil society, among others. The concept of a single national integrity system places state organs in a coherent institutional framework. Thus, our inability to fight corruption partly owes itself to policy deficiency in strengthening the national integrity system.
Past governments failed to tie up the national integrity concept with policymaking. This imbalance resulted in rampant corruption. Countries with an effective integrity system perceive corruption as a ‘high risk, low reward’ endeavour whereas countries having weak integrity systems like Nepal perceive corruption as a ‘low risk, high reward’ deal. This makes the punishment of corrupt offenders less likely. Therefore, the anti-corruption policy within effective integrity set-up needs to focus more on preventive rather than on curative aspects of the malaise.
In many countries, integrity reform is being applied as diagnostic treatment for corruption and poor governance. Hong Kong and Singapore introduced sweeping integrity reforms in the 1970s and 1960s respectively. In these countries, graft is perceived as a high-risk but a low-reward undertaking because of which they have the highest corruption prosecution rates in entire Asia. In both these city-states, the government apprehends and severely punishes corrupt individuals regardless of their official position and political orientation.
To the contrary, both the civil servants and politicians in Nepal regard graft as a low-risk but high reward activity because of weak national integrity, poor disciplinary control in the civil service and graft-savvy political system. Comparison of prosecution rate in both Hong Kong and Singapore with the rates in other countries shows that a corrupt civil servant or politician there is 35 times more likely to be detected and punished than their counterparts in other Asian countries, including Nepal. Therefore, the rising trend of corruption in Nepal can be interpreted as an offshoot of the policy pitfalls and low risk of detection and punishment mechanisms.
Until only six years ago, Indonesia was considered one of the most corrupt countries. But in just six years, the Corruption Eradication Commission of Indonesia has been able to reach a 100 per cent conviction rate against top officials in all the major branches of government. The political leadership effected institutional reforms and gave considerable investigative powers to the commission with the provision of rigorous pre-testing of every prosecution case before it was filed at a highly efficient anti-corruption court.
When the anti-graft body, the court and the government collaborate on ‘zero tolerance´, progress can be made in tackling corruption in just a few years. The policy framers and opinion makers in Nepal must come to an understanding that corruption cannot be fought by ´stand alone reform´ strategies. Thus, the government should formulate a national integrity plan as a long-term strategy as an urgent policy need. This will reinforce the overall integrity system and help sustain the fight against corruption and bad governance.
We must understand that the problem of dealing with systemic corruption in Nepal is poor integrity and lack of political will to enforce the laws Nepal already has in place. Without a bona-fide political commitment at the highest corridors of power, tackling corruption, as always, will remain a big challenge for us.
(The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)