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How Can We Reduce Corruption if Integrity is a Personal Choice?

| 4 Minute Read
Democracy and Governance | Anti-corruption

In a country like Liberia, where internal conflict has sometimes reinforced survival skills at the expense of ethics, Chief of Party Victoria Cooper-Enchia provides recommendations to rebuild a culture of integrity.

African governments have contested elections on a platform of ridding the country of corruption for many years. They berate predecessors for not doing enough, when they have no tangible plans for addressing corruption’s root cause, the lack of integrity.

If a lack of integrity is the root cause of corruption, then it is important to define integrity. Integrity is personal; it is a character trait and not a generality applied across a society. Integrity is different from what we call ethics, which has external rules and beliefs, checks, balances, and consequences for non-compliant behavior. Integrity and ethics are close relatives; however, one is individual the other communal.

Integrity is exemplified by honesty and consistency in doing the “right” thing according to one’s values, beliefs, and principles, even when no one is watching. A person is not born with or without either integrity or ethics; they are learned from the family and society. The consistent internalization and reinforcement of family and societal rules and beliefs for correct behavior, over time, becomes one’s personal choice, creating integrity. One may choose to adopt the rules, values, beliefs, and principles of the family, society, or a combination of both in determining those to which one ardently adheres. It is against these rules and beliefs, at the personal and societal level, that person is considered to “have integrity” or not and a society is considered “ethical” or not.

What does this mean for anti-corruption efforts? To mainstream integrity, there must be a common set of rules, values, beliefs, and principles applicable for an ethical public sector that are at least acceptable, if not consistent, with those held by individual employees. The creation of anti-corruption laws and commissions, offices of government conduct, codes of behavior, and similar initiatives will not effectively reduce corruption if individual integrity is not addressed.

Mainstreaming Integrity in Practice: The Case of Liberia

The state of anti-corruption efforts in Liberia demonstrates this idea well. In 2006 Liberia inaugurated the first democratically elected female president in Africa. Like many other leaders, she declared corruption “public enemy number one” and took the reins of a country where 14 years of civil conflict had destroyed the very fabric of society and the economy. This conflict had deepened the fundamental public distrust of the government, a distrust that had existed prior to the conflict because of decades of financial mismanagement and a perceived lack of integrity among civil and public servants as well as elected and appointed officials.

In a consistent fight against public enemy number one in Liberia, laws have been enacted creating various institutions and legal frameworks to guide the behavior of public servants. These include the General Auditing Commission (2005), the Public Procurement and Concessions Commission Act (2005), the Governance Commission Act (2007), the Liberia Anti-Corruption Commission Act (2008), the Public Finance Management Act (2009), the Liberia Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative Act (2009), the Freedom of Information Act (2010), and the National Code of Conduct for All Public Officials and Employees (2014). With these, it would be expected that corruption would be well abated.

Laws Are Not Enough

Yet, in 2012 the National Integrity Barometer survey was undertaken to assess public perception of corrupt practices in Liberia regarding service delivery in the health, education, judiciary, civil protection, and business sectors. It used corruption as the barometer for integrity, with the objective of providing information to help curb corruption; promote transparency, accountability, and integrity in the public service; and better inform policies for improved governance. Survey data was collected from 1,400 households and 600 businesses in seven counties and four sectors.

The results showed that six years after the end of the conflict, corruption remained a major problem. Some survey comments revealed that public health workers, immigration officers, police, and court employees considered corruption to be caused by 1) leaders widely underpaying staff, 2) operational funds being centralized, 3) the nepotism of leaders in employment practices, and 4) poor policies suffering from poor implementation. Public sector employees considered their leaders to be ultimately responsible for their corrupt behavior, not themselves.

Public sector employees considered their leaders to be ultimately responsible for their corrupt behavior, not themselves.

Integrity in Liberia’s Public Sector

Why do public sector employees not consider themselves responsible for their own corrupt behavior? In other words, why do they lack a sense of personal integrity?

The concept of mainstreaming integrity in public administration in Liberia presumes there is an understanding, by the majority, of integrity’s meaning, need, and impact. The current public service is representative of the 32 percent of Liberia’s population aged 36 to 65. The future public service will be representative of the 65 percent of the population under 35. A major portion of both groups had their lives disrupted by a civil conflict which required them to perfect survival skills in an environment where ethics and integrity had no place. With this backdrop and the results of recent surveys on corruption, there is little basis to assume that there is a common set of rules, values, beliefs, and principles applicable to the society, public sector, or individual to guide ethical behavior and integrity, although they may have existed before the conflict.

Can Liberia Change?

If the government can make a concerted effort to instill a sense of integrity in individuals among the public sector, then the answer is yes. There is a fundamental need to return to first principles and obtain an interpretation of ethics and integrity in the Liberian context. It would then be the responsibility of leadership to demonstrate, encourage, and enforce these principles.

While there are several government bodies in Liberia which have some elements of enhancing integrity in the public sector, Liberia must create a dedicated body for this purpose. This body, the Public Sector Coalition for Ethical Leadership and Integrity, would enable public servants to engage in dialogue with civil society and possibly faith communities, to re-establish, develop, and articulate those ethical behaviors considered acceptable in society. These would be reinforced in the public sector and, over time, they would become internalized, facilitating change not only in public administration but in Liberian society. For more information about this process, read my full paper.

Public sector employees considered their leaders to be ultimately responsible for their corrupt behavior, not themselves.

Building ethical behavior and integrity is a long-term process, even with a continuing commitment from the top. Yet, it is a process worth undertaking. It is only when the integrity of individual civil servants is respected and reinforced by leaders and society, with the political will to penalize non-compliance with common, agreed-upon ethical standards, that corruption will begin to be reduced in a sustainable way.