The Bahamas’ latest relatively favorable corruption ranking ‘does not paint the full picture’, governance reformers warned yesterday, as they urged it to ‘develop a culture of integrity’.
Matt Aubry, executive director of the Organization for Accountable Governance (ORG), told Tribune Business that the Bahamas must guard against complacency after Transparency International’s 2021 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked the country at 30th out of 180 in terms of corruption.
The Bahamas fell one spot from the 2020 ranking, where it was ranked 29th, swapping positions with Barbados, which replaced it as the least corrupt country in the Caribbean according to the global transparency watchdog. The Bahamas’ “score” remained stable at 64, two points below the record result achieved in 2016.
As well as being ranked as less corrupt than virtually all of its Caribbean neighbours, at least in terms of impressions, the Bahamas also fared better than South Korea and Israel, as well as many developed European countries such as Spain, Portugal and Italy.
And that nation finished only two places and three points below the 28th rank of the United States of America, whose federal government has continued to criticize the Bahamas in successive reports for having a “political system beleaguered by reports of corruption” and a culture of “accepting small scale ‘bribes’.
Based on Transparency International’s ranking, some observers will argue that the United States has little standing to point fingers at the Bahamas. However, Mr Aubry yesterday expressed concern that this nation’s ranking among the top six least corrupt nations in the world could lull him into a false sense of security and a desire to maintain “the status quo”, when everything does not go well.
The ORG chief, pointing out that the same Transparency International found that the Bahamas topped the Latin American and Caribbean region for paying “bribes of convenience” to government officials as recently as in 2019, said studies conducted by the group “clearly show that citizens are unhappy” about the unfairness and corruption they encounter in their dealings with public bodies in this nation.
Suggesting that the Bahamas’ static position in the rankings shows that it is not making significant progress in cracking down on corruption and related activities, Mr Aubry urged the government to go beyond “piecemeal” reforms. and adopt a comprehensive “anti-corruption strategy” instead. with legislative reforms such as the long-awaited Integrity Commission.
Calling on the Bahamas to “seize this critical opportunity”, he added that such changes would show that the Bahamas is serious about fighting corruption which would cost the country “hundreds of millions of dollars” a year.
This, in turn, would help attract “the best and the brightest” in foreign direct investment (FDI) and “unleash all the creativity of the private sector” at a time when the country needs a boost the most. major economic boost following the COVID-19 pandemic. devastation.
“It’s a place where it takes the pressure off a bit,” Aubry said of Transparency International’s ranking of the Bahamas. “You could say we’re 30th in the world and that’s not bad. But this does not give the complete picture, it does not speak of the total impact on citizens.
“We have done studies, and it is clear that the citizens are not happy. We are faced with the feeling that things are not equal and that inequality breeds less trust in government, and this is where things are falling apart. There is less compliance, less confidence in the reforms and the things that are being proposed.
“We need to change perceptions locally and internationally. Being 30th in the world may mean we’re not the Democratic Republic of the Congo or South Sudan, but it means we want to move that needle when we’ve been in the same space for a while, moving up one place , one place down. This [the ranking] reinforces the status quo,” he added.
“There is a huge opportunity for the Bahamas if we want to grow. There’s a lot going on today that people would start to believe in a new way and a new culture of integrity, but we haven’t brought them together… If we do it piecemeal, we will not be seen as addressing this problem. problem, and make it a priority problem that the Bahamas wants to promote.
The former Minnis administration introduced bills to create an Integrity Commission, which would receive and investigate corruption-related complaints against ministers, MPs and civil servants, as well as the creation of an ombudsman to remedy citizens’ complaints about their treatment by the government. agencies, in Parliament, but they were never debated or adopted.
These bills were dropped from the legislative agenda when the House of Assembly was prorogued for the September 16 general election. The Davis administration, when in opposition, promised to revive those bills and pass a package of anti-corruption laws within 100 days of taking office, but that deadline has now passed and it’s unclear where that sits on his priority list.
Mr Aubry, expressing his fears that other countries will bypass the Bahamas while it remains static in Transparency International’s rankings, argued that this nation must adopt “a national anti-corruption strategy that eliminates the rhetoric policy” and places decisions on corruption. complaints in “apolitical” hands.
He added that the ORG had recently met with the Speaker of the Turks and Caicos Islands Parliament, who expressed enthusiasm for the benefits that his Integrity Commission equivalent has brought. “It’s a measure of perceptions of corruption,” said Mr. Aubry of Transparency International. “Perception is something we have to take seriously because it affects our competitiveness.
“When you look at the index, it’s important to understand that we are benchmarked against other countries. Our position is based on what other countries are doing. There are a lot of bad actors on this list, and we don’t want to fall into that category, but that doesn’t mean our perception of corruption doesn’t matter when we seek to attract the best and the brightest. FDI and to unleash all the creativity of the private sector.
Many Bahamians, residents and foreign investors will speak privately of the day-to-day low-level corruption they encountered when seeking government permits and services. And Mr Aubry referenced Transparency International’s 2019 survey which found the Bahamas led the Western Hemisphere in “paying bribes without being asked”.
“It’s a given, where people believe it’s the system and just follow it,” Mr Aubry said of an endemic culture he described as a “pay to play” environment. “There is this low-level corruption that most of our citizens expect to encounter in public office,” he added.
Acknowledging the government’s efforts to digitize many such services to reduce the risk of corruption, the ORG chief said, “People’s perception is that this is always how government works. We have to do something to change the paradigm and come up with something to say how we develop this culture of integrity.
While some will say there are more pressing issues to address amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Aubry argued the Bahamas “doesn’t have that opportunity, that surplus” to continue. to lose hundreds of millions of dollars a year due to wasted taxpayers’ money, contracts awarded to less qualified bidders and investors who went elsewhere.
Describing the Bahamas’ relatively small population of 400,000 as “both a blessing and a curse”, he added that it was more difficult to protect evidence and encourage whistleblowers to come forward in a a society where everyone knows each other and where many people are linked by interlocking family relationships. .
But business and society, Mr. Aubry said, thrive best in an environment “not based on who you know or have to pay because bribery is the rule of the day…where you can grow your business in ways directly without having to find doors of access and opportunities.
“It opens the door to less than best-in-class, who can then settle in and not care about being diligent and being the best business partner,” he added.