• Bahamians feel cronyism, nepotism rife
• But wide gulf between perception, reality
• ‘Transparency is the tool’ to restore trust
By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Renewed demands for greater government transparency were sparked yesterday by research showing over 90 percent of Bahamians believe nepotism, cronyism and corruption is “frequent” among politicians and public officials.
The World Justice Project, a non-profit group whose stated aim is to “advance the rule of law worldwide”, unveiled a report showing The Bahamas is among the Caribbean nations who have the least regard for the integrity of their political leaders and civil servants.
The Corruption in the Caribbean report, which focused on 14 nations including The Bahamas, found that 90 percent of Bahamians believe public officials “very frequently” or “frequently” influence the hiring of friends and family members in the civil service. And 89 percent feel the same officials often influence the award of government contracts to friends and family members. Both marks represented Caribbean highs.
The findings, based on face-to-face interviews with 500 Bahamians by DMR Insights Ltd, revealed equally low perceptions of local politicians. Some 92 percent asserted that the country’s political leaders “very frequently” or “frequently” ensure their family, friends and cronies advance “on the basis of patronage instead of merit” - another regional high. And 91 percent believe politicians are often influencing the award of contracts to persons “close to themselves”.
Some 79 percent of Bahamians polled also feel politicians frequently accept “bribes or gifts” to influence public contracts and decisions, while 72 percent believe they often also use taxpayer funds “for personal or family needs”. The World Justice Project report was said to have been backed by the US Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs’ Office of Western Hemisphere.
However, the results also showed there was a wide gulf between perceived and actual corruption in The Bahamas. For while more than nine out of every ten Bahamian respondents had high corruption perceptions, the number reporting that they had actually been solicited to pay a bribe to public officials within the past year was lower than the Caribbean regional average.
And, while many voiced fears and concerns about corrupt practices, just 2-3 percent of the 500 Bahamians interviewed said they had personally encountered graft. Just 2 percent said police officers and Customs officers, for example, had sought to extort or obtain financial compensation from them.
Matt Aubry, the Organisation for Responsible Governance’s director, told Tribune Business the survey’s findings further exposed the urgent need for greater openness and transparency in government as a means to restore public trust in the country’s institutions, democratic system and officials.
While ORG did not participate in the World Justice Project’s research, he added that its findings reinforced how vulnerable The Bahamas is to potentially-damaging graft perceptions when the on-ground reality may be far different. While questioning whether a 500-person sample is statistically significant, Mr Aubry said such beliefs often “perpetuate” themselves unless a nation takes robust action to counter them.
“It speaks to the real issue and challenge with the perception of corruption,” the ORG chief told this newspaper. “One of the more important values of being transparent regardless of your political beliefs about it is that it gives you a chance to flesh out what the actual circumstances are.”
Pointing to the wide gulf, where 90-plus percent of Bahamians perceive politicians and public officials to be engaged in corrupt practices, but just 2-3 percent report being actual victims, Mr Aubry said: “The dichotomy is really part of the challenge. It perpetuates itself. We already know there’s a global deficit in trust in public officials.”
Suggesting that this erosion of trust has been worsened due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and how governments have handled it, as well as increasingly partisan politics in many democracies, he added that the emergence of such trends has “led to inferences or perceptions of corruption that are greater than may be the case”.
The best antidote to evaporating public trust in government, Mr Aubry said, was compliance with the highest levels of transparency. He added that The Bahamas has already enacted legal reforms that it has seemingly got no to little credit for, including the Public Procurement Act as well as the digitisation of multiple government services as a means to eliminate reliance on cash.
“The fact is the perception does not match up to reality,” the ORG chief said. “All of a sudden we’re seeing differences between what is actually happening and perception. Transparency is a major tool to dispel that.” However, that can only work if the Government complies with the likes of the Public Procurement Act, and its requirements to disclose public contract bid winners and the amount they have been awarded.
Delayed financial reporting and disclosures also “perpetuate the perception of corruption”, Mr Aubry warned, adding that “the sense of negativity is stuck very hard” even though “there are many things The Bahamas is doing very positively”. These efforts, he added, would be boosted by reform of the Public Disclosures Act, full enactment of the Freedom of Information Act, and the revival of legislation to create an Integrity Commission and ombudsman.
Tribune Business reached out to the World Justice Project for comment and, while contact was made, no reply was received before press time last night. However, its survey revealed that 49 percent of Bahamians believe “all” or “most” government officials are involved in corrupt practices.
Similarly low perceptions were held of Royal Bahamas Defence Force officers, with 46 percent of those interviewed believing they engage in graft, while 48 percent harboured similar suspicions about the media. A further 40 percent also perceived “all” or “most” defence attorneys as being involved with corrupt practices, while 42 percent held the same belief about Customs officers.
And, when it came to elections, some 13 percent of Bahamian respondents said they were asked to vote a certain way in exchange “for a favour or some money/goods”. A further 15 percent alleged household members had received similar incentives from political operatives. Both marks were slightly above the Caribbean average.
The acceptability of graft as a cultural norm in The Bahamas was also slightly higher than the regional average. For example, 16 percent of Bahamians interviewed said it was “always” or “usually” acceptable for public officials to be recruited based on family ties and friendships, while another 14 percent felt it was fine for civil servants to request bribes “to speed up administrative procedures”. And some 19 percent felt it was acceptable for Bahamians to offer such bribes.