I’d argue that political and economic elites have greatest responsibility for the persistence of corruption in Trinidad and Tobago. It’s true that state officials, from the most petty to the most powerful, are involved, whether for a bottle of scotch, a bag of cash, a big cheque or small house. It’s also true that citizens of all classes engage in corrupt behaviour, illegality and disregard for law.
However, the scale and impunity of corruption differs vastly among classes, and there have never been convictions of ‘big fish’ or for white-collar crime. The impact of such impunity in a context of economic inequality means that if the big boys can get away with unbridled greed, then the small man thinks it is right to give it a try as part as one of many survival strategies. Even with patron-clientalism, corruption among the wealthy hits impoverishment among the poor more severely. Hypocrisy about this at the top is real.
Political and economic elites also have the most informal and formal influence on legal and institutional protections or their lack, for in all kinds of familiar ways, their business is interlocked with each other and the state. They may not be able to make public officials or the state bureaucracy work as efficiently or modernly they would like, but the story of a ‘culture of corruption’ is far more stratified than the narrative of ‘all of us are equally responsible’.
Some have more connected contacts than others and some can gain more than others – it is they who have both more to lose and more responsibility for ending the kind of corruption among their friends to which is regularly turned a blind eye.
Frankly, for the political parties, their financiers and their middle and upper ranking beneficiaries, the entire purpose of the state appears to not be about managing the social contract, but to legitimize and launder questionable personal gain.
This isn’t too surprising. Postcolonial societies like ours were founded on the intersection between elites, government and white-collar crime, known as colonialism, and the virtually unchanged state as we inherited it historically provided the managing infrastructure.
I therefore think its worth tempering a story about the role all of us have to play in curbing corruption with one that demands greater responsibility from those with greater privilege and power, as well state officials at all levels. Keep in mind that, in Trinidad and Tobago, confidence in the police and the justice system is half of the world average, and because people feel ‘advantage’ is the order of the day, nobody trusts anybody.
It’s in this context that Transparency International released its Corruption Perception index on Wednesday. Trinidad and Tobago scored 35, with freedom from corruption being 100, and our score was four points lower than in 2013. Our public sector is increasingly perceived to be corrupt.
This is a global problem, not defined by race, political party or religion. Indeed, resource rich countries are at highest risk of corruption simply because so much wealth creates greater opportunity for public resources to be twisted into private gain at all levels of the state and society. Such wealth may provoke corruption, but tackling state officials’ and institutions’ failure, and failure to hold political and economic elites accountable, might give trust and truth more currency.
The Trinidad and Tobago launch drew different perspectives about how to curb corruption; the proverbial, ‘What we go do?’ question that persistently plagues us in relation to government and state. Some suggestions were for the reintroduction of ethics curriculum in schools. Some felt that corruption was so widespread in our society that it was everyone’s responsibility to not be enticed to pull strings, use contacts or grease palms in their dealings, whether with the Port Authority or Licensing or in securing contracts.
Other suggestions pointed to promised procurement legislation and official structures for monitoring compliance and breaches as well as the necessity for whistleblower legislation. Ever hopeful, the Trinidad and Tobago chapter of TI has planned trainings with a range of state officials, from the Auditor-General’s office to the Ministry of Planning.
The bottom line is that we are doing poorly. Without an urgent shift, the only outcome is greater inequality.