By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas 81st ranking in a new global bribery index must serve as a wake-up call to “keep our foot on the gas pedal” in the fight against corruption, governance reformers urged yesterday.
Matt Aubry, the Organisation for Responsible Governance’s (ORG) executive director, told Tribune Business that the 2019 Bribery Risk Matrix released by TRACE International further reinforced the importance of The Bahamas keeping the battle against graft “on the front burner”.
The Matrix, which focuses more on business and corporate-related bribery when compared to other indexes, found The Bahamas posed a “medium risk” with a combined score of 48 across four categories.
This nation was ranked below several Caribbean rivals that fared better than The Bahamas, including St Vincent and the Grenadines in 49th; Jamaica in 50th; Dominica in 54th; St Lucia in 61st; St Kitts and Nevis in 63rd; Antigua and Barbuda in 64th; Barbados in 66th; and Grenada in 67th.
The Bahamas gained the same score as Azerbaijan and Ghana, both of which were ranked immediately ahead of it in 79th and 80th, respectively, and both of which have featured regularly in media headlines relating to allegations of corruption, nepotism and kleptocracy.
However, the Bribery Risk Matrix placed The Bahamas ahead of rival international financial centres (IFCs), the Cayman Islands and Bermuda, in 98th and 135th spots, respectively. The Dominican Republic, in 112th, and Trinidad & Tobago in 115th, were behind this nation, as were Cuba (144th) and Haiti (170th).
TRACE International’s matrix focused on four key areas: Opportunity, or the frequency with which businesses have to interact with government officials, and the latter’s expectations of receiving “under-the-table” payments; the quality of anti-bribery defenses and their enforcement; government and civil service transparency; and the capacity for the media and civil society to provide oversight.
The Bahamas’ achieved its poorest ranking on “business interactions with government”, where it gained a score of 67 - the higher the score, the worse the rating. “The Bahamas receives a medium score of 67 in this domain, based on a high degree of government interaction, a medium expectation of bribes, and a high regulatory burden,” the Bribery Risk Matrix said.
This nation also fared poorly on transparency, with the index finding: “The Bahamas receives a medium score of 52 in this domain, based on medium governmental transparency and medium transparency of financial interests.”
However, the other two categories - anti-bribery enforcement and civil society oversight - were much better. “The Bahamas receives a good score of 30 in this domain, based on a high quality of anti-bribery dissuasion and a medium quality of anti-bribery enforcement,” the Bribery Risk Matrix said.
“The Bahamas receives a good score of 23 in this domain, based on a high degree of media freedom/quality and a high degree of civil society engagement.” This nation was then bracketed with Senegal and Cape Verde as “comparable jurisdictions”.
Mr Aubry said all such indices, including the likes of Transparency International’s Global Corruption Perceptions Index, take publicly available information sources such as the World Bank’s “ease of doing business” rankings and national government data and put them through “a mechanism” to come up with their findings.
Noting that the message delivered by the Bribery Risk Matrix was similar to the one coming from the recently-published Transparency International index, the ORG chief told Tribune Business: “None of them are 100 percent definitive or give the full picture on the ground, but both show the propensity for bribery and corruption here.”
Recalling how Transparency International had last year found The Bahamas leads the Latin American and Caribbean region for paying “bribes of convenience” to public officials so that “things are done more quickly or better”, Mr Aubry added: “It’s an ingrained dynamic we have to work through.
“An index like this [the Bribery Risk Matrix] just gives weight to what a lot of people feel is the case on the ground when dealing with interactions with government services. We’ve made some gains on this lately, and put some mechanisms in place, such as Customs’ Click2Clear, the online renewal of passports, and the digitisation of road traffic.
“Yet people are not very clear as to how to make a complaint about corruption,” Mr Aubry continued. “We need to put some attention to this issue. We know bribery and corruption can otherwise derail many of the good works being done in the Government and the private sector. It takes money away, reduces productivity and slows government and makes it a lot less efficient.
“Something like this reminds us to keep it on the front burner. Let this index serve as a reminder: Don’t take our foot off the gas pedal. We can use it to make real gains, use this to move forward to build stronger systems of enforcement, develop systems of control.”
Mr Aubry argued that bribery and corruption were not solely a government problem, but issues that all parts of Bahamian society needed to combat through changed behaviours and an acceptance that paying civil servants ‘lunch money’ for access to services they are duty-bound to deliver should not be viewed as a cultural norm.
“We need to look at stemming those bad actors in the private sector that use bribes to boost their business,” he blasted. “We know it’s ingrained, and we have to convince ourselves this is not the way it’s supposed to be and learn new behaviours.
“Learning these new behaviours is like going back to the gym to lift a 200-pound weight. You start small and build up to that act. Some businessmen and people will say this is the way we’ve always done it. Take small steps to open the door and then get out of it.”
Mr Aubry said ORG’s recently-launched National Integrity Campaign, launched to fight the culture of everyday, commonplace corruption, was already producing results and showing “light at the end of the tunnel”.
“More and more people are coming up and saying: ‘We don’t want to throw money at this for services we are due anyway’,” he added. “Government employees are saying they work hard and do well, and are not prepared to throw it all away.
“Change is coming, but it’s going to be slow. More importantly, it will improve the quality of life and make the cost and ease of doing business in The Bahamas much better scenarios.”