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An insider perspective on tackling corruption strategically

Bhutan's anti-corruption commissioners. Left to right: A. Karma Rinzin, Deki Pema and Jamtsho. (Image: Anti-Corruption Commission of Bhutan)

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Every country needs to coordinate its actions against corruption. Anti-corruption agencies play a pivotal role in enforcement, prevention and investigation. They are key to tackling systemic issues, rather than just chasing isolated cases or undertaking piecemeal law-making. If they are independent and well-resourced, anti-corruption agencies can make a big difference and have the potential to hold even the most powerful people in society to account.

Transparency International works with anti-corruption agencies (ACAs) and governments throughout the world to help strengthen them. One of the ways we do this is by assessing their effectiveness, opportunities for improvement and whether the government and other stakeholders ACAs depend on are letting them tackle corruption effectively.

In our most recent publication, we assessed Bhutan’s agency and we caught up with this agency’s commissioners to get an insider perspective on running an ACA.

Transparency International: What do you see as the most important role of an anti-corruption agency?

Bhutan anti-corruption commissioners: Corruption is as ancient as it is universal, and Bhutan has also not been spared the menace. It is a silent white-collar crime involving willing partners. Human and organisational weaknesses breed corruption. It undermines the rule of law and erodes the institutional capacity of the government as procedures are disregarded, resources siphoned off and officials promoted without merit. It profits only a small number of people, but burdens the nation and its citizens, breeding inequality and injustice.

Thus, the role of an ACA is to both educate on and prevent corruption as well as to ensure strong deterrence in society through strategic, incisive and effective investigations, taking those responsible to task and holding them accountable.

Transparency International: What are the key corruption trends in Bhutan right now? And what is your strategy for tackling them?

Bhutan commissioners: Abuse of function and conflict of interest are seen as the “most rampant” types of corruption wherein 65.5 per cent of service users said that knowing a public official is beneficial in accessing services. Out of a total of 289 complaints requiring further action we received in 2020/21, 160 pertained to the abuse of functions, followed by 27 complaints on embezzlement. Acts like these are usually enabled by lack of transparency and accountability, manipulation of budgets, weak supervision and monitoring, among other weaknesses.

Our commission - in its sustained efforts to prevent and fight corruption - uses a three-pronged approach of:

i. Prevention through the review and analysis of systemic weaknesses that may enable corruption, and subsequent creation of corrective anti-corruption measures to safeguard the integrity of the systems.

ii. Education to build an informed citizenry through targeted programmes and bring positive behavioural change against corruption. Key audiences include students in school and further education and civil servants, among others.

iii. Swift, effective and unbiased investigation to expose and deter acts of corruption.

Transparency International: What are your biggest challenges?

Bhutan commissioners: There is a general perception that it is the duty of the Anti-Corruption Commission of Bhutan and few dedicated agencies to promote integrity and accountability culture – there is a lack of ownership in the uptake of anti-corruption measures, which are often viewed as additional tasks rather than as integral part of the governance system.

Secondly, misplaced compassion is a challenge in building a “zero tolerance” culture towards corruption – unless one is directly and tangibly victimised by corruption, people often empathise with those implicated in corruption cases, making it a daunting task to bring a paradigm shift in the attitude of the people towards corruption.

At the organisational level, we have limited institutional capacity to keep pace with the ingenuity of corruption in the context of a rapidly changing environment coupled with technological advancement. Moreover, our commission’s officials are exposed in this small and close-knit society and the risk of reprisals could inhibit them from fearlessly carrying out the mandate.

Transparency International: How much political interference do you get?

Bhutan commissioners: The Anti-Corruption Commission of Bhutan is fortunate to be praised in the region for receiving strong political will in fighting corruption. The fight against corruption is high on the national agenda with consistent attention being paid to it, including at the highest level by the head of state. Successive governments have also provided unstinting support, including integrity measures being mainstreamed in the current five-year plan. Thus, political will is strong and interference minimal.

However, Bhutan’s young democracy must be maintained to ensure that governments tackle corruption rather than embrace it. While we have smoothly and successfully transitioned into a democratic constitutional monarchy with three rounds of parliamentary elections, the possibility of undermining the sacrosanctity of free and fair elections cannot be ruled out; with the expansion and increasing role of the private sector in socio-economic development, private influence on elections could promote a political system that is more into vote buying, job patronage and clientelism.

Transparency International: Do you think ACAs are an effective way of fighting corruption?

Bhutan commissioners: An ACA with strong legal framework underpinned by adequate financial resources and independent staff is key towards fighting corruption. However, many ACAs are rendered toothless by political interference. In addition, many are faced with limited resources, a weak legal framework and inadequate mandates in fighting corruption, which undermine the ultimate commitment to combating it. Therefore, the mere establishment of ACAs without adequate powers and independence cannot be an effective way of fighting corruption.

Transparency International: What is the role of civil society organisations like Transparency International in supporting ACAs?

Bhutan commissioners: Civil society organisations have an important role in not only providing oversight of ACAs, but also in strengthening the agencies by making robust recommendations on reinforcing their internal systems and encouraging stakeholders to provide necessary support to ACAs.

Transparency International: What difference does regional and global cooperation make to combating corruption in the country?

Bhutan commissioners: Increasingly, corruption is becoming borderless – calling for concerted and coordinated efforts among regional and global counterparts. Such cooperation will not only prove advantageous in strengthening the institutional capacity through exchange of resources and best practices, but also in information sharing in case of cross-border investigations.

Read the full 2021 assessment of the Bhutan anti-corruption commission.