By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas is “stagnating” in the fight against corruption, Transparency International’s local representative warned yesterday, after this nation again slid in the global rankings.
Lemarque Campbell, of Citizens for a Better Bahamas, told Tribune Business that The Bahamas’ fall to its lowest-ever spot in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index reflected the Minnis administration’s failure to further deliver on promises that were a key feature of its 2017 election campaign.
While crediting the government for strengthening The Bahamas’ anti-money laundering legislation, and initiating the electronic public sector procurement system, Mr Campbell said efforts in other areas had either stalled, are inadequate or incomplete. He called for this nation to follow the likes of Malaysia and create its own National Anti-Corruption Plan to fight the menace.
The failure to finalise the long-awaited Freedom of Information Act; the lack of protection for government “whistleblowers”; the absence of political campaign finance laws; the failure to pass the Integrity Commission Bill; and uncertainties over the Public Disclosures Act were all cited by Mr Campbell as areas that combined to impact The Bahamas’ standing in the Index.
As a result, The Bahamas fell by one spot - from 28th to 29th place - and dropped further behind Barbados, which has replaced it as the Caribbean with the “least perceived corruption” in 25th spot. The Bahamas’ score of 65 in the 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index was flat against the prior year performance.
Mr Campbell, explaining that the index assessed impressions or beliefs about a country’s level of corruption, added that The Bahamas’ perceived failure to progress and deliver on past government promises “sends signals to investors” - both Bahamian and foreign.
He acknowledged that The Bahamas’ 29th place ranking still places this nation among the world’s least corrupt states, and in a far better place than “extreme cases” such as Venezuela and Guatemala when it comes to battling graft.
Yet Mr Campbell said corruption, together with crime and the economy, remained a major problem in the minds/perception of the Bahamian people based on how frequently the issue was raised in conversations and radio talk shows.
“This stagnation in the score we have reflects stagnation in delivering on campaign promises,” Mr Campbell told Tribune Business of The Bahamas’ ranking in the latest Corruption Perceptions Index. “That’s all it shows. It’s one thing to enact laws, but one thing we always lack is the ability to enforce them. That plays a significant role in how these results are gathered.
“What is most important is to look at the score. That’s been the trend in the English-speaking Caribbean countries; they’ve scored exactly the same as last year, which shows complete stagnation.”
Mr Campbell pointed out that the Minnis administration was in good company, as the current governments in Jamaica and Barbados were also voted into office on the back of campaign promises to tackle graft in all its forms.
“Despite bold anti-corruption plans, this stagnation and scores shows there has been no substantial improvement in the anti-corruption regime,” he said of The Bahamas. “Fast forward almost two years from May 2017 and we’re still at the same score.”
The Citizens for a Better Bahamas advocate said the Government had not completely ignored the issue, praising it for upgrading the Proceeds of Crime and Financial Transactions Reporting Acts - albeit in response to international pressure - and for initiating the electronic public procurement system to foster greater transparency and value for money.
The latter, though, is still in its infancy, and Mr Campbell said: “Given that it’s almost been two years since this administration came to power, there’s still a lot weaknesses in the anti-corruption regime, some of which we have been facing for some years.”
He cited the Freedom of Information Act and other legislative reforms where the Minnis administration has yet to deliver on its promises, and suggested The Bahamas follow the approach Malaysia’s government has taken to combating corruption.
Having spent a recent two-week study visit with that country’s Anti-Corruption Commission, Mr Campbell said Malaysia’s current prime minister had targeted perceived graft within weeks of taking office.
“When he came to power last year, in a matter of weeks he had established the National Anti-Corruption Task Force,” he revealed. “One of its first tasks was to develop a National Anti-Corruption Plan, and they will be presenting that at the end of this week.
“I’m not aware of our anti-corruption plan. There’s bits and pieces of legislation linked to it, but we need a major national anti-corruption plan. The Government has made significant strides towards improving the ease of doing business and becoming more competitive, but in tandem with this we must ensure we’re reducing corruption.
“The public want to see some steps taken beyond prosecutions of alleged political corruption. There’s still no tangible action that we can see. We need an actual plan, a National Anti-Corruption Plan, and ensure the necessary legislation is enacted and, most important, that there’s enforcement of this legislation. If we can just see some action.”
Mr Campbell said foreign investors are now “very stringent” in examining how individual nations enforce anti-corruption laws to ensure their investments and transactions are protected as much as possible before they part with their monies.
Pointing to constant criticisms of “opaque” public procurement processes in the US State Department’s investment climate reports on The Bahamas, he added: “This sends signals to foreign investors. They’re looking at: Are they going to be protected in their transaction? Are they going to bid in a fair process and not have to pay bribes to a foreign official?
“We have to have a strong anti-corruption regime to protect both local and foreign investors, and ensure we have a level playing field.... The Bahamas is still trying to portray that image that we are open for business and, in doing so, it’s one thing to ensure the ease of doing business but we must have anti-corruption mechanisms in place.
“Those two go hand-in-hand,” Mr Campbell continued. “For us who rely heavily on foreign direct investment, this is very important for us. Most of the economy is very reliant on it. Investors want to see some improvement, some delivery on promises made.
“This Corruption Perceptions Index is a perception based on business people and international experts. They look at what the Government is doing, and if it is improving the anti-corruption regime across the board. They look at the promises made by the administration, and see if they have delivered.
“If we are trying to lure investors into the country they’re looking at what the Minnis administration is going to do in delivering on its anti-corruption promises. We have to decipher between the rhetoric and actual actions.”
Mr Campbell said delivering on its anti-corruption promises should be “the number one priority” for the Government, adding: “It’s one thing to campaign and make promises to eradicate corruption. You’re never going to completely eradicate it, but you have to reach a point where it’s controlled.”
The Bahamian public’s perception of corruption levels, he added, suggested it was not under control. “We still have reports of corrupt activity in certain ministries,” Mr Campbell said. “Corruption is still talked about a lot by the public. It’s still a concern for the public.”
He added that Transparency International will also conduct a follow-up this year to 2018’s Global Corruption Barometer survey of The Bahamas as part of a wider Caribbean regional effort.
That survey found that despite “one in 10 Bahamians” disclosing they had paid a bribe within the past year to obtain public services, few - just 6 percent - reported this corruption to law enforcement.
The findings, based on a survey of 1,000 Bahamians conducted in October 2017 by the Public Domain research firm, found that almost half were too scared of the consequences - such as potential retaliation and victimisation - to report allegations of ‘rent seeking’ by public officials.
This was despite 52 per cent of respondents deeming it “socially acceptable” to report corruption to the authorities, with the findings suggesting ‘fear’ was a major obstacle to stamping out a problem that the Prime Minister previously estimated costs the Bahamian economy some $200 million per year.