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Saturday 18 November 2017
Commentary

Betrayal in paradise

Elizabeth Solomon writes a weekly column for the Newsday. 

Two news stories last week sparked a train of thought about the future of democracy, as we know it.

The first was about the loss of millions of aid funding during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

The story was no surprise to me and we probably all knew, if we had stopped to think about it, that the massive outpouring of support for the containment efforts in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone would almost necessarily be accompanied by significant leakage of funds.

Nonetheless, I found the story nauseating. The image that lingers of my time in Sierra Leone is that of a woman contained by the penned-in area for Ebola patients with staring, terrified eyes. We, a contingent of United Nations aid workers, stared back from the safe side of the enclosure hoping not to lock eyes with hers. Between her and us, a vast ocean of different circumstance separated only by a rickety fence.

Gutted and silent on the long drive back to Freetown, someone chimed up simply, “Ebola is a disease of the poor.” More than 11,000 people died from Ebola in West Africa — a disgusting tortuous death — even as other people were dreaming up creative accounting ways to steal the money intended to save their lives. Such corruption is revolting.

The other news item that caught my eye was the announcement that the United States has pulled out of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Again, no surprise that the Trump administration would take the decision to exit a global anti-corruption effort that compels oil, gas and mining companies to be transparent in relation to their financial dealings with governments.

The action has been described by international EITI monitors as “disgraceful” because it undermines “the effort that aims to give citizens and watchdogs in poor but mineral-rich nations details on how much their government leaders get in taxes, royalties and lease payments. With that information, they can ensure the money is spent on roads and schools, not squirrelled away in foreign bank accounts.”

Archbishop Joseph Harris has called corruption in this country “endemic” and chastised those who point fingers to look more critically at their own corrupt practices.

I have no argument with that, but I cannot agree that low-level corrupt practices breed fraud and dishonesty on a larger scale. I see it as being the other way around. There is a fundamental betrayal at the heart of State-level corruption, where abuse of power leads to individual benefit.

The Transparency International website points out that corruption is often thought of as an economic or “white-collar crime.” That ignores the greater implications of corruption, the abuse of power at the expense of the many, which perpetuates social injustice and the exploitation of the vulnerable: denial of healthcare, education, economic opportunity and justice, as well as preventing the holding to account of leaders for the theft of resources.

Sometimes the abuse of power to redirect funds that should reach the public coffers doesn’t quite satisfy the legal definitions of corruption, admirably creative accounting perhaps but not really a crime, white-collar or otherwise.

Yes, well, that does not make the action any less morally repugnant. I am thinking here of course about the revelations of the Paradise Papers. The betrayal that underlies the uproar against tax evasion schemes is that the very people using their money and influence to squirrel away undeclared incomes, are the same ones influencing how the less wealthy should be taxed and to which needs public funds should be allocated.

Archbishop Harris has a point though: we all have an individual responsibility to exercise integrity in all our personal dealings, but finger-pointing is part of that responsibility. We must take up where sound journalism takes us. When corruption is exposed we must ask for better. The future of democracy depends on our engagement on these issues. We must demand fair play and to not be treated with contempt.

We deserve the dignity of transparency.

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