Sunday, October 30, 2011

An anti-corruption strategy

Less is more.

This applies well to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), a Pakistani government agency charged with fighting corruption. Somewhat paradoxically, shutting down the NAB would do more for anti-corruption than the NAB could ever do by remaining open.

Recently, opposition leader Chaudhary Nisar of the PML-N challenged the PPP government's appointment of the NAB chairman. Chaudhary has done this in the past; last year, he successfully challenged the NAB appointment of Justice Deedar Hussain Shah. Such politicking is quite common when it comes to the NAB. For every NAB news story involving the reimbursement of scam victims or successful prosecution of corrupt officials, there is another involving political machinations by one political party against another. Politicians view the NAB less as an anti-corruption body and more as a vehicle for political point-scoring.

And lest one believe that the PML-N opposition party is sincere in its criticism of the NAB, the purpose of their criticism is not so much reform of the NAB as it is criticism of the government for the sake of criticism itself. This is evidenced by the fact that the PML-N are planning to replace the NAB with their own version of anti-corruptionism, the NAC.

How seriously the PML-N takes the issue of corruption can be gauged by the fact that it wants the head of its proposed NAC to be a sitting judge of the Supreme Court. In other words, it would like to discard the fundamental democratic principle of separation-of-powers by combining the roles of the judiciary and the executive in a single person. A sure-fire path to corruption.

Assume, for a moment, that we can move beyond these political games. Can an institution like the NAB successfully enforce accountability? Ironically, the NAB itself suffers from an accountability problem.

Like other parliamentary systems, the Pakistani government has 3 branches: the executive which executes laws, the legislative which writes laws, and the judicial which interprets laws. The NAB is an executive agency and, as an executive agency, its members are appointed by the President. When a country is intent on fighting political corruption, the last thing it needs is for the ruling party to appoint the anti-corruption watchdogs.

The actual task of rooting out corruption is a drawn-out and systemic process that takes generations. It can't be attributed to a single individual or government. Rather, it requires steady reform of the existing judicial system and existing law enforcement agencies. Such a strategy would ensure that government does not become needlessly bureaucratic by an endless parade of politicized anti-corruption agencies. It is also entirely in keeping with how corruption has historically been stamped out in other societies.

How might such a strategy play out in Pakistan?

The 2010 floods that ravaged the country provide an illustrative example. After the floods, the provincial government of Punjab constituted a Flood Inquiry Tribunal which investigated the government response to the floods. The tribunal published a report (part 1 and part 2) that concluded that the Federal Flood Commission as well as the Irrigation and Power Department were accountable for lapses in the flood response. Among other things, the report recommends cooperation amongst the various flood-related government institutions for the creation of an Integrated National Flood Management Plan. It also recommends the creation of a National Water Policy / Plan and notes that the official National Water Policy is still in draft form and has been awaiting approval since 2005 (!).

Any political party which works to implement these report recommendations would do more for accountability than the existence of an "anti-corruption" institution could ever do.

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