Trouble in paradise: corruption in the Caribbean has become normalised | Kenneth Mohammed

When Transparency International published its 2022 corruption perception index (CPI) at the end of January much was written about some of the rich countries that saw significant falls in their scores. Austria, Canada and Luxembourg were among those who fell, while the UK slipped to its worst-ever position on the index, dropping from a high score of 82 in 2017 to 73 in 2022.

Corruption initiatives worldwide seem to have run aground as the countries perceived as the least corrupt have shown little or no improvement, as seen with Germany, France and Switzerland.

Meanwhile, in the Caribbean nothing has been said or done about the situation of these countries languishing in the lower echelons of the CPI.

The Caribbean region stretches from the Bahamas to Trinidad and Tobago and can be said to include non-island countries from Belize to Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. It is home to some of the wealthiest politicians in the world – yet, the ever-popular posts on social media about the richest or best paid in the region tend to ignore most of the millionaire and billionaire politicians of Trinidad and Tobago and other islands.

It is interesting to see the net worth of these politicians, and shocking that some were of average wealth, only becoming millionaires or billionaires since taking office. Meanwhile, the citizens who voted them into power have become poorer, more disempowered and more disfranchised.

How did these politicians get so wealthy?

I believe some have done it legitimately, as professionals in other fields. Others have profited as politicians, using insider information and receiving contracts through proxies, such as wives, friends and colleagues, and some through kickbacks and bribes.

One ongoing corruption case in the region involves Michael Misick, premier of Turks and Caicos, a British overseas territory. Misick resigned in 2009 when a UK commission found a high probability of systemic corruption amounting to £75m in the sale of crown lands.

Misick later fled to Brazil but was extradited in 2014. There have been many similar allegations of corruption in the region over the last five decades, for example in Haiti. And let us not forget the allegations against Jack Warner, former Fifa vice-president and national security minister in a previous Trinidad and Tobago government. He is still fighting extradition to the US on bribery and corruption charges.

Corruption in the Caribbean has shown no improvement over the last decadeas we seem to be content to have set up shop at the bottom of the CPI. In terms of points, with 100 as a perfect score, Barbados dropped from 76 in 2012 to 65 in 2022, the Bahamas from 71 to 64 and St Lucia from 71 to an astonishing 55.

Some islands have been consistent in achieving low scores on the CPI as democracy continues to be eroded, moving steadfastly to autocracy, where the political and business elite has captured the legislature and law enforcement.

Take the islands ranked poorly in the Caribbean: Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. There has been no significant improvement over the last decade in any of these countries except for Guyana, which moved up from a score of 28 in 2012 to 40 in 2022. No doubt, its recent discovery of large oil deposits may send it back down if that wealth is allowed to be exploited by its politicians and by “business experts” from its salivating neighbours.

What of the watchdogs, the social activists, the financial intelligence units, the integrity commissions, the other agencies and organisations charged with leading the anti-corruption fight in this region? The results show they lack meaningful influence in creating change.

Transparency International has, over the last two decades, done an amazing job in bringing awareness to global corruption issues. However, TI itself is not without criticism in the Caribbean region.

One chapter in Trinidad and Tobago came under scrutiny from social and political activists – but with total silence from its head office in Berlin. This was an interesting case. A past chair of the Trinidad chapter, after retiring from the post, went on to accept a position as high commissioner to Jamaica in September 2019. Of course, there was a period in between positions, so not much was read into it, but was the former, and much-loved, West Indies cricketer Deryck Murray oblivious to the optics and the possible perception in accepting what can be perceived as a political appointment?

A controversial past situation was the appointment of Fern Narcis-Scope as a director of Transparency International Trinidad and Tobago. Scope was a legal officer in the Elections and Boundary Commission (EBC) when the People’s National Movement (PNM) took power in 2015. She was propelled to chief elections officer in September 2017, amid much uproar, especially from the deputy chief elections officer Lena Sahadeo, who filed a freedom of information request to understand why she was overlooked as a natural successor to the position. This originated with an allegation made in the Senate by opposition member Wade Mark accusing Narcis-Scope of being related to a PNM minister. This was denied by the EBC.

The EBC under Narcis-Scope was later accused of gerrymandering to create undue advantage for the PNM in 2021. Lawyers for June McKenzie, a resident of Tobago, accused it of attempting to move boundary lines to sway an election in Tobago.

Narcis-Scope denied any wrongdoing in relation to the commission’s report and said it was consistent with the statutorily prescribed procedure.

Transparency International has responded that Narcis-Scope has served her time and is no longer a director (although she remains on its website listed as a director).

The question remains, is the organisation’s head office in Berlin oblivious to what transpires in its chapters? It said it has robust procedures for reviewing its chapters, which are independent entities, and also added that Trinidad and Tobago was last reviewed and reaccredited in 2021.

A director of an agency such as Transparency International should at least be beyond reproach of any conflict of interest and not hold political positions. Any chair of Transparency International Trinidad and Tobago should ensure that these situations never occur again. Alas, the modus operandi of most institutions in this country is to simply keep quiet until the well-known nine-day memory of its citizens soon kicks in; Transparency International seems to be no exception.

Repeatedly, we have seen nepotism, fraud, bribery, kickbacks, conflicts of interest, revolving-door syndrome – all these forms of corruption being normalised in the Caribbean, with absolutely no outrage or protests by the citizens and taxpayers of these islands. Not to mention the utter mismanagement of public funds on vanity projects, awarding unqualified contractors resulting in poor infrastructure, the corrupting influence of political financiers, and the gifting of public contracts to wives, girlfriends, friends, and family.

Sad indeed, as the region has lost that “paradise” title and the once-held ambition to becoming classified as “developed” countries. Sad as well that the complacent citizens are complicit without fully appreciating that fact.

A spokesperson for Transparency International said: “Our national chapters are independent entities, and adhere to Transparency International’s policies, values and principles.

“Serious concerns regarding a chapter’s misconduct or allegations of unethical practices can be raised through two channels available to the public. Concerns may be communicated directly to the chapter itself, or can also be raised to the board ethics committee of Transparency International, with contacts and guidance available on our website here. In the event that concerns are raised about a Board Ethics Committee member, that person would recuse themself from the case and the Board Ethics Committee will proceed as a panel.

“In addition to this, the Transparency International secretariat has a robust internal system in which we regularly check the health of our national chapters as well as the situation in terms of integrity complaints. The Trinidad and Tobago chapter underwent its last review in 2021 and was reaccredited having thoroughly undergone the reaccreditation process.”

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