Jamaica struggles with corruption.

Is Jamaica really very corrupt, as distinct from being perceived to be very corrupt? I ask that question because, once again, Transparency International (TI) has produced its Transparency Perception Index, for 2013. The press focus has been on ‘corruption’, ignoring the significance of ‘perception’ in the analysis. The TI analysis is “…a combination of surveys and assessments of corruption, collected by a variety of reputable institutions. The CPI is the most widely used indicator of corruption worldwide.” Jamaica scored 38/100, and ranked 83/177 (last year, it was 83/176). It looks like Jamaica is as corrupt as last year, in the eyes or minds of observers. We have a number of high-profile cases going on that would make people feel that corruption has been taking place, such as the ‘Cuban light bulbs’ case. But, looks may be deceptive, yet they play into people’s perception.

When defending its use of perception, TI argues that “Corruption generally comprises illegal activities, which are deliberately hidden and only come to light through scandals, investigations or prosecutions. There is no meaningful way to assess absolute levels of corruption in countries or territories on the basis of hard empirical data. Possible attempts to do so, such as by comparing bribes reported, the number of prosecutions brought or studying court cases directly linked to corruption, cannot be taken as definitive indicators of corruption levels. Instead, they show how effective prosecutors, the courts or the media are in investigating and exposing corruption. Capturing perceptions of corruption of those in a position to offer assessments of public sector corruption is the most reliable method of comparing relative corruption levels across countries.”

So, measuring actual corruption is very hard. The police officer making an improper suggestion about what it might take to ‘forget’ an infraction?corrupt police The Customs officer passing a piece of paper to a traveller with a number on it? The (politically affiliated) bureaucrat who only seems to see his ‘friend’ or ‘relative’ in line, or systematically put applications from known supporters of the other political parties at the bottom of the in-tray? The ‘expeditious’ processing of a contract for a ‘big’ person? These are simple examples, and many more may be other there.

But, perceptions of corruption are vague, and can also be wrong. I focus on this distinction for several reasons. First, I would prefer it if dealings with public (and private) officials were always the same for everyone, with no sense that anything improper was involved. That’s a hope that may never be attained. Humans are fallible–very fallible. Second, we have had a recent set of incidents that suggest corruption might have been in play, including, where a government minister (Richard Azan) was viewed by an oversight agency as having acted in a way that showed “political corruption”. He resigned. The Director of Public Prosecutions found no criminal case for him to answer. The PM reinstated the minister to his previous position. Public anger began to swell, with cries of “Corruption!’

The minister concerned, has turned things up a notch. He has been given leave to go to the Judicial Review Court to challenge the Contractor General’s (CG) report, which led to his resignation. The minister is arguing, amongst other things, that the definition of corruption used by the OCG is wrong; he’s also asking the court to rule that there was no evidence to support accusations of political corruption or any criminal act.

If corrupt practices abound, then citizens should be bringing those to the attention of agencies to deal with them, only then can cases be prosecuted. Of course, people may start to argue that they cannot get anywhere because “the system is corrupt”, which it may be, and they really are stuck. It may be that Jamaica is full of people who expect and accept that using political influence and position are a part of life, and only naive people would expect the system to work without those factors being very much in play. But, that makes the line between corruption and non-corruption very blurred.

If we accept that “the misuse of government power” is a simple and adequate definition of corruption, what does that really mean? If we define corruption as ‘dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power’, we can start to see and understand what would be problematic behaviour. Corruption need not involve bribery and personal gain by any individual may not be part of the process.

I have seen and heard of corrupt practices in many countries; sometimes, that involved bribery, sometimes it did not. Sometimes, the corrupt official tried to target me, or tried to target someone with whom I was working. Sometimes, the official was very direct, even if oblique (“It would make things easier if I got some help with my child’s school fees”). Sometimes, the official was very indirect, but seemingly, nevertheless clear, as one Customs officer was: “That’s a really lovely watch, really lovely…I wonder if I could ever get a watch like that?” Sometimes, envelopes would appear with large sums of money and a “Thank you” note, with a picture of something that made the context for the money clear. Sometimes, the trail was harder to see and harder to trace as it involved parts of large organizations: money in the national budget could not be accounted for properly goods were labelled ‘miscellaneous’, yet involved huge sums; new vehicles or arms appeared but no spending had apparently not taken place to procure them. The picture did not add up.

Finding corruption is hard–as TI indicated–but without identifying it, or trying to, I’m not going to be happy to read about perceptions.

Let’s get a good understanding of what it is that we have to counter, then see where, when and why it occurs, and how we can think about getting rid of it.

Never lose sight, too, that Jamaica is a region seen as ‘very corrupt’ in a world that is mostly corrupt (more than 2/3 of the 177 countries listed have scores below 50). Can we be better than the rest? It will be a stretch.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)