The roots of corruption

Political corruption and its fall out is again the centre of discussion, with threats to ‘shut down’ Islamabad and generally create chaos. Of course, corruption has an extremely negative impact on the working of any country and governance within it, but corruption at the top of the pyramid also has a far wider effect on shaping the nature of society and the state, by determining behaviour at many different levels.

The matter is not just about the misuse of money. After all, only a tiny percentage of the population has money to spend on bribery or engage in tactics of the kind used by the powerful. But wrongdoing at the top tiers does seep downwards in a number of different ways. This perhaps is almost inevitable and has been noted from studies in a number of societies.

We know from experience and observation that corruption is very often linked in to other unethical practices such as nepotism. Imran Khan is not wrong when he describes how the cycle works, with political leaders hand-picking the persons they appoint to significant posts and then using them to meet their own needs, in exchange for rewards.

The matter was taken up by the apex court in the case of Pakistan under the tenure of former president Zardari. But we all know that identical problems have occurred before, continue to happen and quite possibly will happen again in the future.

The question that arises is whether behaviour at the top of the political command has an impact on the way people act in their daily lives.         What evidence we have, from economists including Nobel Prize laureate Amartya Sen, among others, suggests that it does. It is possible then that the growth in corruption could explain the increasingly unethical and immoral conduct we see in all spheres of life.

The parallels cannot be entirely coincidental. Those who have written about Pakistani society in the 1950s or 1960s, or who have spoken about it at public forums, note that in many ways it was less corrupt and also more ethical. Integrity was not as far removed from day to day affairs as it appears to be now.

We see this lack of integrity everywhere. It is the reason why bone scan tests have been used by schools to determine what should be a simple matter: the correct age of a very small child seeking admission. These schools have also resorted to even more desperate measures including a study of children’s teeth and their development.

The same complete lack of ethics invades almost every other area of life. For the most inconsequential sporting contests, parents seem to be willing to resort to having false documentation prepared and then defending themselves by claiming others do the same or that they had no choice. This is also true in many other arenas, whether it involves an application for employment or the filling in of a form for entry into an institute of higher educational learning.

At least one foreign mission in Pakistan has noted that this is the country where the most fraudulent information is provided when visa applications are filled out, creating the need for intense checking and of course the unfair denial of visas to many who have simply been pulled down because other citizens in the country resort to dishonesty.

This dishonesty is not really something to be taken lightly. It goes beyond telling a white lie or the other small acts of deception we are perhaps all guilty of. Dishonesty which affects others essentially reflects an attitude of extreme self-centeredness and an inability to look beyond one’s own needs. When parents indulge in such behaviour, they not only embarrass small children, who are by nature essentially honest, but also pass on a terrible message which carries on from one generation to the next.

This is the pattern that has brought us to the situation we live in today. We see the same kind of unethical practices in the sale of goods, in business, and tragically even in the healthcare sector. It has for many citizens become a major hassle with no guarantee that repairmen will do what they are paid for or that money paid out will purchase what was sought.

Of course, there are exceptions to this. But they are becoming the minority faster and faster. More and more label them as essentially unrealistic in the desire to impose some kind of ethical code or prevent dishonest practices. This applies to cheating at schools, where a child or older student who refuses to cheat may be ostracised, subjected to bullying and in some cases even reprimanded by members of staff for creating a problem within the classroom environment.

The rampant cheating that occurs in board level examinations is testified to by the fact that exam centres are now surrounded by scores of policemen because students are believed to be prepared to go to virtually any lengths to cheat. Of course, those lower down the social ladder, who use the most crude means to cheat, for example by sending in another candidate in their place or by smuggling written answers into the exam hall, are most likely to get caught. The more privileged get away by bribing examiners more discreetly and in a manner which is not immediately visible.

The challenge here is not really to catch out these people, but to ask why there is such a grave lack of integrity or basic honesty. We have in so many ways really given up attempts to alter the situation. Too many simply go along with it. But we should try to recognise that the matter is in many ways immensely important to the quality of life in the country, to the beliefs of its citizens, and to the next generation that is emerging from within the ruins of a state that has in so many ways been wrecked by years of indifference from its leaders.

The excuse we hear most often for either uncivil behaviour or unethical practices is that everyone else too is engaging in them and that if a particular person does not do so they will be ‘left behind’. We need to create an environment in which more people are ready to be left behind rather than to move ahead by trampling over the rights of others or, when they can, using fraud to justify small matters of life.

The example of course comes from the malpractices we see in the upper tiers of society: from politicians, business leaders and from others in institutions that we know better than to touch.

The result will lead to disaster. In fact, it already has. Dealing with the Panama leaks and the revelations about the doings of scores of people in the country will not solve the problem as a whole. It could possibly be a start to this process, but the process itself needs to be much wider. It needs to involve the education system, the media, the clergy and other sources of influence in lives.

Things have worsened steeply over the past few years and the climb down the rungs of the ladder which leads to further anarchy with almost no one willing to do the right thing is beginning to grow faster and faster by the day.

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