UNDP study on corruption - Retarding economic development

UNDP study on corruption — Retarding economic development

A recent UNDP study points out that corruption in Asia undermines democratic institutions, retards economic development and contributes to government instability. Conceding that addressing corruption is a daunting task, it says it is nevertheless crucial if governments are serious about inclusive growth, says G. SRINIVASAN.

Democracy is by far the best bet against pervasive corruption, unlike a totalitarian form of governance or monarchy, where it may be confined to a chosen few but is difficult to root out. Yet, democracy, per se, does not ensure a corruption-free dispensation when a large part of the population remains illiterate or lacks awareness of basic rights.

This is the outcome of the lack of universal education or even elementary education, despite the state's avowed declaration that a citizen's right to education is inalienable.

This is the reason why a recent United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) study has come to the conclusion that "better human development conditions — widespread education and an informed citizenry with a voice to influence decision-makers in government and businesses — can help combat corruption".

In a flagship annual publication Asia-Pacific Human Development Report, from its regional centre in Colombo and titled "Tackling Corruption, Transforming Lives" the UNDP's Director, Regional Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, Mr Hafiz A. Pasha, puts the issue of venality bluntly.

Undermining democracies

In Mr Pasha's words: "Corruption undermines democratic institutions, retards economic development and contributes to government instability.

It attacks the foundation of democratic institutions by distorting electoral processes, perverting the rule of law and creating bureaucratic quagmires whose only reason for existence is the soliciting of bribes. Economic development is stunted because outside direct investment is discouraged and small businesses within the country often find it impossible to overcome the 'start-up costs' required because of corruption".

According to the UNDP, corruption in the region takes many forms. But the overall distinction is between 'grand' and 'petty' corruption, the former typically entailing relatively large bribes from contractors or other corporations, generally associated with high-level politicians or officials.

Petty corruption, on the other hand, involves smaller amounts but more frequent transactions — lower-level public officials demanding 'speed money' to issue licenses, for instance, or to allow full access to schools, hospitals or public utilities. It tends to hit the daily lives of a large number of people, especially the poor, to whom the amounts involved are hardly 'petty'.

Stating that paying bribes for admission to hospitals is common in South Asia, the reports says: "One survey of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka found that health workers often demanded bribes for admission to hospital, to provide a bed, or to give subsidised medications".

This is further exacerbated by the development that up to a third of the drugs distributed in some countries of the region might be expired or counterfeit. Moreover, the poor often bear a significant financial burden when they have to buy bandages or syringes when hospitals run short of supplies that are meant to be free.

Access to education

Besides the well-documented instances of how corruption is inherent in the education sector at all levels, the question is if access to education for the really needy is made so difficult by the state, which is supposed to guarantee universal primary education, how can the poor, in turn, educate their children to make them responsible citizens to contribute their mite to development?

Perhaps political parties have a vested interest in keeping the access to basic education to vast army of poor and downtrodden segments difficult so that their vote bank is intact with the added bonus that they would never go bankrupt as long as the poor remain in their blessed illiteracy.

It is time the authorities and civil societies in the developing and emerging countries in the region including India found ways to ensure inclusive growth. Inclusiveness loses force when it fails to address such basic issues as the right to education, better health and living conditions for millions of the poor through purposeful public investment.

In fact, if public education at the primary level remains woefully inadequate for want of teachers or more institutions with basic infrastructure such as buildings and staff and other amenities, the mushrooming of schools in the private sector at the nursery, secondary or tertiary levels does not help in any way as their fees are prohibitive.

Unless primary education is made easily accessible to all in the country, particularly to the lakhs of poor students, India's ambition of becoming a developed country by 2020 will remain a mirage; nor will inclusive growth have any development content if the country's underbelly remains undernourished and mired in illiteracy with its attendant problems.

In the absence of adequate provisioning for basic and primary education by the state, poor people will remain the silent victims of the vested interests who exploit them to make a fast buck, with complete disregard for the value-based ethics that is India's true inheritance.

From the top

The UNDP report is not off the mark when it advocates "crushing corruption from the top" as the authorities must perforce address the issue at all levels of government as well as the private sector — reforming institutions and processes to shrink the space and opportunities for corruption while fostering effective systems for detecting malpractices and taking the offenders to task.

In this regard, the report's accent on civil service reform strikes a chord because it is an area dear to the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, who promised a lot when he assumed office in 2004. But as the UPA government is nearing the end of its five-year term, administrative reforms, like other reforms of far-reaching nature, remain on the drawing board for want of support or anticipating stout opposition from allies and supporting parties that seem jittery at the very mention of economic reform.

In fact, the report reminisces that some countries in Asia had merit-based policies in the past but have not maintained this tradition and often make appointments on the basis of favouritism.

But, in India, besides nepotism in appointment, caste-based reservation of seats in both education and employment has made a mockery of the merit.

Reservation may be a compulsion of the times and survival politics for many a party in a democracy but it need not be at the cost of merit particularly when the country is in dire need of experts in both traditional sciences and in frontier technologies.

As the UNDP report concedes, addressing corruption could be a daunting task. But it also admits that from a human development perspective, one priority is transparent — governments should seek ways of reducing the forms of corruption that hit the poor the hardest — in health and education services, for instance.

From this perspective, it is time that the authorities took serious note of the long neglect of these twin crucial areas —primary education and primary health.

If no drastic overhaul of existing practices in these two areas is possible, at least the canker of corruption should be stamped out so that the weaker sections can aspire to a better future.

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