Our anti-corruption campaign has been victimised by the "patchy approach" of the past governments, because of which we have failed in properly synchronising the performance of the organs of the National Integrity System (NIS). The integrity reform agenda is not yet a government priority. Experiences of other countries have shown that such reforms have been crucial in combatting corruption and institutionalising good governance. A major hurdle in effecting integrity reforms has been a reluctance and lack of commitment among the governments in emerging democracies such as Nepal.
We empowered the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) in 2002 by amending the law, but we failed to initiate reforms in other NIS institutions like the judiciary, police, bureaucracy and others. This led Nepal’s overall anti-corruption movement down the drain with no substantive results at hand even after years of intervention. In today’s integrated governance system, performance of one state organ is affected by the functioning of the other state organs. The success and failure of one state institution is largely dependent on the performance of other NIS institutions as well.
The NIS encompasses key institutions (legislature, executive, judiciary, civil service, media, private sector, civil society, anti-graft bodies and police) that contribute to integrity, transparency and accountability in a society. Sheer malfunction of any one of these pillars explicitly affects the performance of other NIS pillars as well. This is where our anti-corruption efforts went wrong over the last two decades because of our failure to strengthen the national integrity system.
Our past leaderships did not have the political audacity to internalise and embed the concept of national integrity in our laws, governance policies and administrative processes because of which corruption has become "a way of life" rather than a fact of life. As corruption is a symptom of underlying problems, not the problem itself, the trends that sustain it should be properly addressed through institutional reforms.
Establishing a sound and effective national integrity system aims at identifying systemic loopholes and underlying problems to make all NIS institutions function in an integrated way. The concept of a single national integrity system sees other organs of the state as "a coherent framework of institutional set-ups" glued together with the common goal of tackling corruption and bad governance.
Given the experiences of countries having an effective integrity system, it is proven that corruption cannot be fought by mere "stand alone reforms". Because of this reality, integrity reform has been accepted and applied as a form of diagnostic treatment to corruption and poor governance in many countries. Nepal’s integrity system reforms are long due and are very urgent. Existing integrity pillars are functioning in isolation perceiving each other as opponents.
The government too has adopted "sporadic reform" approaches rather than holistic reforms in the whole integrity system. To put it flatly, Nepal’s integrity system is weak due to patchy reforms, unstable politics, political protectionism, myopic governance policy and lack of political will.
The Global Integrity Report 2009, released by a US-based INGO Global Integrity, concludes Nepal’s overall integrity as ‘weak’. Out of the 65 countries assessed, Nepal has got weak ratings in anti-corruption and rule of law, administration and civil service categories. We have received very weak ratings in election integrity with a 58 score, government accountability with a 57 score, and administration and civil service with a 63 score. Political financing regulations are non-existent. While a Right to Information Act does exist, its implementation is ineffective. Yet Nepal is out of the "margins of error", the reports states.
Thus, improving integrity is a challenge and a need because a strengthened integrity system is the real medicine for transparency, accountability and corruption control. If all the state institutions perform their delegated functions with high integrity and responsibility, a shared goal of containing corruption can be achieved. And at the same time, it should not be our understanding that mitigating corruption is the only and sole duty of the CIAA. This ought to be perceived as a shared responsibility by all the NIS institutions.
Experiences have shown that a single-agency approach to corruption control in the absence of strong political commitment has already failed in many countries. Thus, the effectiveness of NIS primarily depends on the political will of the government in fighting corruption, its level of governance and policy contexts.
Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia and Hong Kong have been successful due to their governments’ strong commitment and effective governance policy in fighting corruption. On the other hand, countries such as Nepal, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Philippines and Vietnam have faced more obstacles. Countries with an effective NIS perceive corruption as a ‘high risk, low reward’ endeavour, because those who engage in corrupt practices are likely to be caught and severely punished. Conversely, a country with an ineffective NIS like ours perceives corruption as a ‘low risk and high reward’ undertaking and focuses more on investigating existing corruption rather than preventing it. Consequently corrupt offenders are less likely to be identified and penalised.
A state campaign against corruption hopelessly nosedived despite the CIAA’s efforts due to a weak integrity system in Nepal. We have a number of concrete examples of how a fragile integrity system posed a threat to good governance and anti-corruption endeavours in the past. This has made it pretty clear that "one sector reform" will not trigger substantial impact on controlling corruption unless we introduce sweeping reforms in all the NIS institutions to enable them to function equally. And controlling corruption should be viewed as a shared responsibility and give up our inherited-notion that the CIAA alone is enough to root out corruption in Nepal.
Only when the NIS pillars are made to operate effectively, vibrantly and responsively, corruption levels will definitely go down and our long-cherished aspiration for good governance comes closer. Therefore, taking stock of the urgency, the government should start mulling over phase-wise reforms through a long-term integrity plan and strategy which can indeed be a lasting recourse to containing corruption and bad governance.
(The writer can be reached at email@example.com)