Corruption appears to be intractable and continues to raise its ugly head. Since the Constituent Assembly elections in 2008, rent-seeking culture among politicians and public officials has become rampant. Of the many factors that encourage corrupt practices, poor integrity in national institutions is one. The integrity reform agenda always remained a low-key issue among government’s policy priorities since Nepal embarked on a slew of anti-corruption measures in the last two decades.
Since 1990s, the state-initiated crusade against corruption has remained patchy. Our inability to fight corruption largely owes to the prevailing deficiency of policy on national integrity system. We often tried to strengthen one particular state institution while completely overlooking reforms in others. With 67 scores, the Global Integrity Report rates Nepal’s overall national integrity system as ‘weak’, among the 65 countries assessed. Nepal has been awarded weak ratings on anti-corruption, rule of law, public administration and civil service categories. Non-existent regulations on political financing are a factor behind ‘very weak’ ratings on electoral integrity and accountability.
National integrity system is a composite form of legislature, executive, judiciary, police, anti-graft bodies, media, private sector, and civil society, among many others. The concept of a single national integrity system places state organs in a coherent institutional framework designed to tackle corruption and bad governance from within. Establishing a sound and effective national integrity system aims at identifying systemic loopholes and underlying problems to make all these institutions function in an integrated way. In a nutshell, reforming national integrity system is about promoting better governance thorough a holistic reform approach that helps reduce corruption and fraud from all aspects of society.
As there is no single blueprint for preventing corruption worldwide, there is a growing international attention on the need to formulate unique national integrity plans. The need to strengthen key institutions that work best to prevent corruption has been widely felt.
The Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) was empowered in 2002 by amending the law. This led to a spree of midnight raids and crackdowns on corrupt bureaucrats and politicians in the following years. But subsequent policy failure in initiating concurrent reforms in other national institutions such as judiciary, police and bureaucracy, among others, resulted in lackadaisical corruption-control measures. In the integrated governance system of today, success or failure of one state institution is also determined by the performance of other institutions.
Over the past decade, we fallaciously perceived the CIAA and the National Vigilance Centre as being the sole agencies to deal with corruption. This was our misconception because in absence of political will power, corruption could not be controlled merely by the efforts of one or two anti-graft bodies.
Experiences have shown that single-agency approach to corruption control that is short of strong political will has already failed in many countries. Thus, the effectiveness of national integrity system primarily depends on the political will and favorable policy contexts.
Successive governments could not tie up national integrity concept with policymaking. This imbalance resulted in rampant corruption. Countries with effective integrity system look at corruption as a ‘high risk, low reward’ endeavor whereas countries having weak integrity systems like Nepal perceive corruption as ‘low risk, high reward’ deal. This makes the punishment of corrupt offenders less likely. Therefore, the anti-corruption policy within effective integrity set-up needs to focus more on preventive rather than on curative aspects of the malaise.
In many countries, integrity reform is being applied as diagnostic treatment for corruption and poor governance. Hong Kong and Singapore introduced sweeping integrity reforms in 1970s and 1960s respectively. In these countries, graft is perceived as a high-risk but low-reward undertaking, because of which they have the highest prosecution rates for corruption in entire Asia. In both these city-states, the government apprehends and severely punishes corrupt individuals regardless of their official position and political power.
Both the civil servants and politicians in Nepal regard graft as a low-risk but high reward activity because of weak national integrity, poor disciplinary control in civil service and graft-savvy political system. Comparison of prosecution rate in both Hong Kong and Singapore with the rates in other countries shows that a corrupt civil servant or politician there is 35 times more likely to be detected and punished than their counterparts in other Asian countries, including Nepal. Therefore, the rising trend of corruption in Nepal can be interpreted as an offshoot of the policy pitfalls and low risk of detection and punishment mechanisms fueled by poor institutional integrity.
State campaign against corruption hopelessly nosedived, despite CIAA’s efforts, due to a weak national integrity system. We have abundant examples of how a fragile integrity system posed a threat to good governance and anti-corruption endeavors in the past. The CIAA lodged a number of charge-sheets against ex-ministers, police generals and secretaries at the Special Court. But the court scrapped many of them based on ‘the statute of limitations’. A fragile national integrity system led to failure, pushing the CIAA campaign down the pan.
When the anti-graft body and the court collaborate on ´zero tolerance´ against graft, significant progress can be made in tackling corruption in just a few years. In the last two years, Nepal has seen renewed inter-agency collaboration and some integrity in judiciary. As a result, the highest number of high-profile corruption prosecutions so far happened in the last two years. Three former ministers were tossed behind the bars on corruption cases while four former Inspector Generals of Police were convicted of corruption by the Special Court last year.
Countries can improve the effectiveness of their national integrity system by adopting three measures. First, political will to curb corruption should be combined with independent anti-corruption agencies. Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand and South Korea have relied on a single independent anti-corruption agency as a key instrument of their anti-corruption strategies. Second, strong civil society should mobilize other sectors to fight corruption. South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand have been particularly successful in this regard.
Third, as widespread corruption cannot be solved overnight, a sectoral approach can also be used by targeting those government departments that are most vulnerable to the problem. To create ‘islands of integrity’, countries battered by systemic corruption can take up sectoral strategies. When corruption is widespread, it makes sense to focus limited anti-corruption resources on those sectors that are in urgent need of reform first. A second advantage of this approach is that it takes into account the specific characteristics of each sector, identifies key vulnerabilities and recommends strategies accordingly. Therefore, the sectoral approach can ultimately pave the way for strengthened national integrity system.
As an exigency, the strategic debate on controlling corruption in Nepal must move beyond conventional policy patterns. Policy makers must come to an understanding that corruption cannot be fought sustainably by ´stand alone reform´ approaches. Thus, the government ought to show itself as being capable of formulating national integrity plan as a long-term policy urgency and strategy. Unless we introduce comprehensive reforms in national integrity system, there will not be much of a dent on the scale of systemic corruption plaguing us for decades.