By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Bahamians must "mobilise their outrage into action" if this nation is to defeat both real and perceived corruption plaguing society, governance reformers urged yesterday.
Matt Aubry, the Organisation for Responsible Governance's (ORG) executive director, told Tribune Business that The Bahamas has "a real unique opportunity" to attack graft given that 85 percent of Bahamians believe ordinary persons can make a difference in fighting it.
That finding was contained in Transparency International's latest Global Corruption Barometer study of the Latin America and Caribbean region, which also noted that 80 percent of Bahamians felt corruption in government was a major problem.
This placed The Bahamas behind only Trinidad & Tobago of the five Caribbean nations surveyed by Transparency International, while 45 percent of Bahamians polled feel corruption has increased over the past 12 months. Mr Aubry, though, argued that the findings did not surprise ORG ahead of the upcoming launch of its National Integrity Campaign.
"From the data we see in the Global Barometer, it is heartening to see 85 percent of Bahamians polled felt ordinary citizens can make a difference," he told Tribune Business. "That is what this campaign hinges on.
"What this poll shows is there's a real interest and appetite. The hope is, and ORG is trying to create the opportunity, for us to push forward in a way to change things. Just to be angry, just to be frustrated, just to be suspicious results in an emotional response that sees people vote to change the government every five years.
"A campaign on this legislation [the Integrity Commission Bill] that sits ready to go is a good potential solution to this.... It's critical to mobilise our discontent into action. That people not only see corruption as illegal, but its impact. It disproportionately affects those who have the least. They're waiting in line longer, unable to access government services, and most likely to be solicited."
Pointing to the Bill as an example, Mr Aubry said ORG had been puzzled as to why there was no public pressure on the government to move this anti-corruption legislation forward despite it "sitting" for two years and clear Bahamian frustration with the problems it is supposed to cure.
"The conclusion for is was that it's so ingrained in the culture that people feel this is what should be done. It's become the nature, it's become systematic, whether perceived or real, because of the inefficiency of the government system," Mr Aubry said of paying bribes to public officials.
"It's become a faster way around roadblocks, and an opportunity for many to move things along, get to the finish or how to jump the queue. It could easily shift to where there's no mention that you're expected to pay a bribe, but that this is the way of getting around an inefficient system. There's no need to solicit; everyone understands."
With such a culture "inculcated in the national processes", Mr Aubry said it could evolve to a situation where "the perception continues to exist beyond what the reality is" as the Government moves to digitise all its systems and processes to combat corruption and related crimes via initiatives such as e-procurement, Customs' Electronic Single Window (ESW) and Road Traffic's recent technology upgrades.
"People have felt that no matter what nothing's going to change," he added, revealing that ORG's National Integrity Campaign had undergone a "soft" summer launch involving youth engagement activities.
While Hurricane Dorian had delayed further progress, Mr Aubry pledged: "You'll see a much larger and broader launch in October going into the coming year. There is a real unique opportunity in The Bahamas that if we believe ordinary citizens can be part of the solution we can take a major step forward. "
The ORG executive director added that the $200m-$500m range given by the Prime Minister several years ago as to how much corruption costs The Bahamas annually was described as "indicative" of the problem's extent by Mr Aubry yesterday, although he acknowledged that its scale was hard to pin down.
The Transparency International report found that The Bahamas led the Latin American and Caribbean region for paying "bribes of convenience", with 41 percent of Bahamians who admitted to such payments citing this as the reason for doing so.
Such bribes were described as payments "to get things done more quickly or better", meaning that they were intended to facilitate "queue jumping" at Bahamian government agencies and/or to obtain permits, approvals and documents (passports, driver's licences, Immigration cards) when applicants did not have all the supporting paperwork required or are here illegally.
The results, obtained from 1,007 telephone interviews with Bahamians conducted by the Public Domain polling firm earlier this year, also revealed that the proportion of Bahamians paying a bribe within the past 12 months had doubled compared to Transparency International's survey of The Bahamas last year.
While the 2018 survey found that one in ten Bahamians, or ten percent, admitted to paying a bribe during the prior year, that percentage rose to 20 percent - one in five - for the 2019 survey, indicating that the graft culture is getting worse rather than improving.
And The Bahamas was also ranked second in the Latin American and Caribbean region for "sextortion", with 24 percent of Bahamians revealing they had personally been - or knew someone who had been - asked for sexual favours in return for receiving public services including health and education. Only Barbados, at 30 percent, achieved a worse ranking.