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British High Commission marks International Anti-Corruption Day

To mark the International Anti-Corruption Day on 9 December, British High Commissioner to Zambia James Thornton gave a speech. He said:

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James Thornton
James Thornton photo

It is an honour and a privilege to be here with you today.

Let me tell you a story.

Three contractors are bidding to fix a broken fence. They meet with an official of the company which owns the fence to see it and to draw up their quotes. The first contractor, an Indian, takes out a tape and does some measuring. He then punches some figures into a calculator and eventually tells the official that the job will cost $900 [material $400, labour $400 & $100 profit]. The second contractor, who is Chinese, does the same & said I can do it for $700 [material $300, labour $300 and $100 profit]. The third contractor doesn’t measure or use his calculator but whispers, $2700 to the official. The official says: you didn’t even do any measurement, how did you come up with such a high figure? The third contractor replies: $1000 for me, $1000 for you & $700 to hire the Chinese to do the job.

I think this story illustrates why corruption is bad. It can lead to massive waste in the allocation of scarce national resources.

But there is a further reason why corruption is bad. It is a deterrent to foreign investment. Reputable investors do not want to pay bribes. And, where they have the choice of countries to invest in, as they often do, a corrupt environment will make it more likely that they will go elsewhere. That is particularly true for investors from countries like the UK, where it is now an offence to pay bribes to foreign officials. Companies do not want to run the risk of prosecution.

In the rest of the speech I will talk about why corruption is prevalent, what the government has done about it, what remains to be done, and why we are all responsible for tackling the problem.

Let’s face it, corruption is tempting.

If we are in a position to accept a bribe, or even to ask for one, it is tempting to do so. The thought of having a bit more money than we currently do is always attractive. And, if money is tight, because we are on a low salary, or have lots of dependents, a bit more may make a lot of difference.

It is also tempting to pay a bribe if one is requested. If you need a document issued and a payment will persuade the official to produce it quickly, it may be very convenient just to hand over the money. Or, if you are a company and the government contract you are after will make a big difference to your profitability or even your viability, you may well see the advantage of paying off the officials responsible for the procurement.

It is because corruption is so tempting that it is such a problem in so many countries, and is so difficult to tackle.

Your Excellency, Ladies and Gentlemen, we should recognise the achievements of this country in tackling corruption.

There are active civil society groups which are determined to promote the fight. These include the Parliamentary Network, speaking today. It also includes the local chapter of Transparency International – which is well known within the TI network for its vigour.

Furthermore, the country has for many years had an agency solely dedicated to tackling corruption. And of course a recent President went to great efforts to ensure the corruption of his immediate predecessor, from the same party, was punished.

And when he came to power His Excellency the current President made it clear that corruption was unacceptable. He has publicly repeated that message on various occasions since.

The PF government reintroduced the abuse of office offence into Zambian law. It also substantially increased the resources of the Anti-Corruption Commission and changed its leadership.

I would like to pay tribute to Mrs Rosewyn Wandi, Director-General of the ACC. She is a lady who is committed to carrying out her mandate to the best of her ability. The British Government, which has long provided much of the ACC’s funding, is pleased to be working with her.

The ACC has achieved a lot. It has nearly finalised a new Strategy It has worked hard to raise awareness of the problem among civil society and youth. The fight against corruption has now been included in the school curriculum. It has brokered a National Anti-Corruption Policy. Under this government agencies have agreed a series of actions they will take against corruption. The ZRA has made particular progress, and has already established its Integrity Committee. The investigation and legal teams are working to deal with a big backlog of cases and bring wrong doers to court for prosecution in a timely manner. There have been some important arrests in the last few months thanks to collaboration between the ACC and ZRA. I am pleased to say that, according to at least one measure, these measures seem to be bearing fruit.

As many of you will know, Transparency International has a well-respected index which ranks countries according to perceptions of the corruption prevalent there.

This year Zambia’s score went up from thirty-seven out of a hundred to thirty-eight out of a hundred. That increase is a welcome step in the right direction. Zambia’s score puts it above six out of the eight countries that border it, and almost half way up the world league table.

But those figures indicate that there is still some way to go. Globally, eighty-two countries are still above Zambia. These include its neighbours Botswana and Namibia.

What still needs to be done?

Well, the government needs to go on leading the fight. There still needs to be a clear and consistent message from the top. That message should be that corruption will not be tolerated, and that anyone, whatever their position, found taking a bribe or embezzling funds will be dismissed and will be liable to prosecution.

The ACC would be the first to admit that it still has a lot of work to do. It knows that it needs to get better at investigating cases of corruption that are brought to its attention, and prosecuting those for which it has the evidence.

It still has a lot of work to do with government ministries. All the major spending ministries and parastatals need ethics committees. Stronger protection is needed for whistleblowers, so that they are safe to come forward and report corruption without fear of reprisal. And we support the proposals for public servants to be required to disclose their assets.

There are other things that the government can do. We think it is right that there should be an Access to Information Bill, as the Government has promised. The more information the public has about how government money is spent, the easier it is to detect where misappropriation may have taken place. The UK made transparency a major theme of its chairmanship of the G8 group of leading economies this year.

We were pleased that the Minister of Information, the Hon Kapeya, was able to attend the Summit of the Open Government Partnership in London in October. The Open Government Partnership is a group of almost sixty countries worldwide which are committed to transparency and accountability. Kenya and Tanzania are members, and Malawi is about to join. The lack of an Access to Information Act is the principal obstacle to Zambia meeting the standard to join the Partnership.

Zambia has become a more open society over the decades, starting with the transition to multi-party democracy in 1991. Now is the time to move to the next level.

I said earlier that corruption was tempting, particularly if you did not have much money. The Government has removed or reduced one temptation by substantially increasing publi sector salaries. Previously, it could be argued that public servants needed to augment their incomes in order to make ends meet. But most public servants are now, by Zambian standards, well-paid. In return for the big pay rises, the government should be enforcing the highest standards of probity on the part of those who work for it.

The government has a strategy for improving public financial management. This should help make it more difficult for large-scale corruption to occur. This strategy now needs to be fully implemented. The British Government plans to provide financial and technical assistance to help the Zambian authorities with this.

Other groups also have a role to play. There is a big place for investigative journalism. The UK will support the training of journalists to raise media standards.

And businessmen tell me that it is a struggle ensuring that their own organisations are free of corruption. They are committed to the fight because they know that corruption affects the bottom line.

Nevertheless, the temptation is for the rest of us to think that, though corruption is bad, tackling it is someone else’s problem. It is easy to say “the government should do something” or “the ACC should do something”.

However, if we want to get rid of corruption, every one of us needs to be active. We need to ask questions about how government money is spent. We need to resist the temptation to pay bribes even if it is convenient to do so. We need to create a culture in which those who engage in corruption or who connive at it are ostracized.

As Justice Kabalata, Chairman of the ACC Commissioners said just now, if we are inactive in the face of corruption, we are as bad as those who are themselves corrupt.

Nelson Mandela is much in our minds at the moment. The task of tackling corruption may seem daunting, at least to the ACC. Let me remind you of one of Mandela’s quotes: It always seems impossible until it is done.

Mandela was one of the truly great men of our time. I believe he was up there with giants like Mahatma Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and, in a somewhat different context, Winston Churchill.

Mandela was not in that league simply because he fought against oppression. Others did that too. He became an icon around the world because of his moral stature.

Mandela’s memory challenges us to be like him – to do the right thing even if it is difficult. One part of that right thing is tackling corruption in whatever way we can. If we resolve to be better people, in this and in other ways, we will be honouring him.

Thank you.

Published 10 December 2013