In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.
Originally appeared on The Morning
Why should we have a limited government? – Part III
By Aneetha Warusavitarana
The World Bank quite simply defines corruption as the “abuse of public office for private gain”. Accordingly, public office can be abused when private agents actively offer or accept bribes, institute practices of patronage and nepotism, and engage in the theft of state assets or misuse public funds. In Sri Lanka, corruption has become institutionalised and can range from the traffic policeman who accepts a bribe to a high-ranking bureaucrat siphoning public money for personal expenses.
In 2018, Sri Lanka ranked 89th out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. As a country, we score 38 out of 100, with 100 representing a clean, corruption-free country. The magnitude of this problem is clear.
What’s the big deal about corruption?
Is corruption really bad? You can’t deny that when your garbage is piling up, it’s easier to bribe the garbage collectors to take your garbage than visit your municipal council and file a complaint. Sometimes, it can just be easier to pay a bribe to the traffic police than go to court and settle a traffic violation, or to pay a little extra and get your driving license renewed faster. These are all very mundane, commonplace occurrences that have become normalised to the point one does not think of it as “corruption”. It’s just a small payment to make your life a little easier – a small payment to ensure an application is processed smoothly. So, if corruption can make things simpler, what’s the issue?
While corruption on this scale can appear to be insignificant, in reality, it is one component of a much larger, systemic problem which has far-reaching consequences. Corruption in government is institutional, and given the outsized role the Sri Lankan Government plays in markets and business, the impact is far-reaching. The difficulty in holding government officials accountable and the considerable discretion they can wield creates an environment in which corruption can flourish.
The far-reaching impacts of corruption
Large corruption scandals often focus on the amount of money that has been misused, placing emphasis on face value loss that is created by corruption. However, the impact of one act of bribery or corruption goes far beyond the initial monetary loss. Corruption raises the transaction costs of conducting business and creates uncertainty in the market. In an environment where corruption flourishes, a business will not win a contract based on merit and skill alone. Procurement-related issues (read: corruption) associated with the Kerawalapitiya Power Plant meant that it took three years to award the tender. This lowers profitability within firms and creates an overall environment of uncertainty which discourages foreign investment. The result is that the positive spillover effects from investments, like increased competition and technology transfers, will not take place. Corruption also reduces the attractiveness of entrepreneurship, resulting in higher prices and lower quality. The problem does not end there. The culture of corruption is one of impunity and complete disregard for the rule of law. When this culture permeates the government, it affects the independence and credibility of the legislature and the judiciary – the very institutions which should be ensuring that the rule of law is upheld.
State-Owned Enterprises and corruption
Sri Lanka’s state-owned enterprises are a prime example of institutionalised corruption. In Advocata’s flagship report, the State of State Enterprises in Sri Lanka – 2019, the problem of corruption is a key issue tackled. In this report, corruption is explained through the perverse incentives that exist in the Sri Lankan bureaucracy. In the case of state-owned enterprises, as the money invested in state-owned enterprises is not of the politicians, there are no incentives for politicians to work towards making these enterprises efficient or productive. However, given the deep-rooted culture of patronage that exists in Sri Lanka, there is a strong incentive for politicians to use state-owned enterprises for their own gain. The lack of oversight or accountability means politicians can hire almost indiscriminately, giving out jobs for political gain. The reports from the Committee on Public Enterprise (COPE) make this abundantly clear, highlighting the numerous instances where recruitment had taken place without the appropriate approval from the Department of Management Services.
This problem is exacerbated by weak systems of accountability and governance. While the COPE and the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) do play a role in the governance of state-owned enterprises, they have access to limited resources and equipment and are in need of specialised skills such as legal aid.
What is the solution?
If corruption is the abuse of public office for private gain, then in order to stop corruption, we should focus our attention on how and where this abuse happens. When the government moves outside its core mandate to protect life, liberty, and property, it grows in size and in scope, making the government difficult to monitor and hold accountable. Additionally, as a government grows in size, so does its spending. Changing a culture of corruption will take a great deal of political will and leadership, as well as buy-in from the bureaucracy. While accountability and transparency play an important role in countering corruption, the effects of this are seen in the long term. In the short term, focus should be on limiting the scope of the government and thereby drastically reducing government spending. A 10% cut of Rs. 3 million is significantly lower than a 10% cut of Rs. 300 million; reducing government spending is the fastest way to reduce corruption in quantitative terms. A reduction in government spending will also make transparency within the government easier to enforce, helping create a culture of accountability.
If we are to seriously tackle the problem of corruption in government, the role and scope of the government needs to be revisited and limited.