In recent years, the country’s National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has risen to prominence as the leading voice against corruption and bribery. We have seen proactive awareness raising campaigns with the ‘say NO to corruption’ slogan across major urban cities. While this message deeply resonates with the general public, the autonomy and legitimacy of this institution has been questioned due to unsubstantiated accusations, lack of evidence, inconsistent decision-making and nepotism.
There are several conflicting political and social views of NAB’s efficacy and accountability mechanism, all of which essentially culminate to assess the process and veracity of verdicts against influential individuals. While it is necessary to hold people answerable for their direct actions, thinking of corruption primarily in the context of illegal activities and private gain is a narrow perspective which excludes policy and legislative influences that undermine institutions.
Instead, we need to look at the deeper and broader causes and enablers of institutional corruption which pervert the moral fabric of organisations, create a prolific environment of wrongdoing and result in a systematic divergence from their core purpose of serving the public interest. This broader perspective looks beyond why individuals engage in wrongful acts and focuses on the systematic policies that encourage corrupt practices as a collective and permissible act.
According to Transparency International, Pakistan has dropped four spots and currently ranks at 124 out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perception Index. Neighboring countries also rank high with India at 86, Bangladesh at 146, Iran at 149 and Afghanistan at 165. This leads to the obvious question; are individuals inherently more corrupt in the South Asian region when compared with Western nations that rank under 10? The short answer is no.
These individuals operate within an environment that has institutionalised corruption as a thriving, integral and systematic practice. These regional differences can be attributed to three key aspects; collective wrongdoing in the name of organisations, exploiting legitimate institutional polices, and making corruption widely present beyond government to a wide variety of contexts such as mass media and commerce. As an example, campaign fundraising is legitimate, yet lobbying with special interest groups and selective donors results in a monopoly of power, which undermines the fundamental democratic process of equitable representation.
Pakistan ranks 124 out of 180 countries in the Corruption Perception Index. Neighboring countries also rank high with India at 86, Bangladesh at 146, Iran at 149 and Afghanistan at 165. Are individuals inherently more corrupt in the South Asian region when compared with Western nations that rank under 10? The short answer is no.
This distinction becomes even more murky when we look at public offices which make acts of corruption legal and even ethical. Specifically, this translates to institutions demanding financial and/or other incentives to perform their existing obligatory duties with the justification that they are ‘going above and beyond their jobs’. In this case, an officer responsible for conducting field visits to monitor performance and compliance, will make a clear division between department mandated visits and public-private partnership monitoring for the same purpose. They will not consider this to be a corrupt act, which is further legitimised by their institution’s official authorisation. This in turn directly ties one of their primary responsibilities to financial gain in the name of the organisation as a collective act.
Consequently, if these practices are not obliged, meaningful and impactful work is hindered or simply not allowed to continue, with the interests of one or several institutions taking precedence over serving the public interest. Imagine the grave implications of such complex and multi-faceted corrupt practices for sectors such as health, education and water sanitation to name a few.
This is one of the many prevalent instances of deeply entrenched institutional corruption, which extends beyond the public sphere and weakens the integrity, functioning and performance of organisations. To understand and address systematic corruption, it is essential to analyse the regulatory practices, public polices and even broader societal discourses which contribute to it. Mostly, this is difficult to identify as these practices are deeply intertwined with authorised and legitimate policies and procedures of institutions, with its agents acting on behalf of the collective.
The solution requires a paradigm shift from policing individuals to institutions. We cannot expect people with different moral beliefs and financial needs to always act in the best interest of their organisation, and hold answerable those who digress. Instead, we need to shift this responsibility from people to systems by challenging the policies which cause organisations to deviate from their core purpose, exploit integral practices and justify their legality and permissibility. This should be done by replacing legitimised institutional practices that threaten the very purpose of organisational mandates with those that ensure accountability and transparency and most importantly keep the whole system in check, not just selective agents.