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Perception, or why the current anti-corruption strategy of Sierra Leone will not work: A country in need of a shock

By: Remco Bernaerdts

INTRODUCTION

After decades of corruption scandals, an efficient anti-corruption program is a necessity for economic growth and stability in Sierra Leone. With this in mind, this article will evaluate anti-corruption efforts in Sierra Leone as outlined in their National Anti-Corruption Strategy (2018-2020) (“NACS”) and as seen in the practice of its Anti-Corruption Commission (“ACC”). It will look more specifically at the current political situation, conflicting cultural norms, means to influence citizens’ calculations for engaging in corruption and mor specifically the tipping point model. It will formulate an answer to the sentiment that Sierra Leone may be at a turning point. Or was it tipping point?

THE TIMES THEY ARE A-CHANGIN’?

Sierra Leone finds itself on the bottom of almost every governance indicator. On the one hand, there is corruption at the highest levels of government. On the other hand, corruption is rampant all across society and has permeated almost every sector. There is a widespread view among Sierra Leoneans that their country is through and through corrupt.

However, many citizens recently became optimistic. Since the March 31st election, a new administration has come to power. The new president has listed anti-corruption as one of his four priorities. Conform this renewed political will, the ACC also welcomed a new leader.

A few months later, in November, Sierra Leone received an unprecedented score of 71 percent in the control of corruption indicator of the United States Government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation. The country was up 22 points from the previous year. The new administration attributed this to its robust strategy to combat corruption. This strategy is formulated in the NACS, which was developed to tackle the pervasive corruption.

However, although many lauded the past months as a big change, it remains to be seen whether this is actually the case. A renewed political will and one ranking are not necessarily sufficient evidence of a big change. This cautious view is reinforced by the 2018 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index which was released three days ago. Sierra Leone can be found on place 129, only one place up from 2017. Therefore, it is desirable to take a closer look at the NACS and its implementation before speaking of a big change.

CORRUPT CULTURES

In order to be effective, the NACS will have to address what many citizens see as the “unchangeable corrupt culture” which manifests itself in Sierra Leone. However, unlike popular opinion in Sierra Leonean society, the problem of widespread corruption is not necessarily due to a culture that values corruption, and it is definitely not unchangeable.

It is true that there is a link between culture and corruption. Cultural factors such as the importance of family ties, a high degree of collectivism, a tendency towards hierarchy and high cultural diversity adversely affect the freedom from corruption in a society. Sierra Leone scores high in rankings of these factors.

However, it would be wrong to conclude that this shows a cultural appreciation for corruption. More correct would be to see this in terms of a cultural conflict. As can be observed in most corrupt countries, the citizens of Sierra Leone severely detest corruption and condemn corrupt practices. The conflict is thus between cultural norms which would entail corrupt acts and the widespread norm of rejecting corrupt acts. Therefore, the problem of an “unchangeable” culture does not impose itself. Rather, the government should approach corruption as a cultural conflict for which the decision context should be changed. Corruption remains a crime of calculation, and by changing structures, information and incentives, the government can influence the calculation of its citizens when the conflict occurs.

INFLUENCING CITIZENS’ CALCULATIONS

This article is based on the premise that perception is key when it comes to influencing the calculations of citizens. It is essential that they believe that the government is finally serious about eradicating corruption. This changes the incentive structure both in terms of deterrence and encouragement. And in turn essential for perception, is how justice is done. The importance of the specific public perception of justice cannot be underestimated when it comes to fighting corruption. Therefore, in the following evaluation of the NACS, it is important to look at how it addresses the citizens’ perceptions in general and through the courts.

Before anything else, it should be noted that the mere existence of the ACC is an important measure to control corruption. The existence of such a body raises the chances of detection. Its mandate was expanded in 2008 and now includes the power to prevent, investigate, prosecute and punish corruption.

Because of this powerful mandate, the ACC has the means to influence peoples’ perception of corruption even unrelated to the judiciary. The continuing attention to the well-developed Public Education and Outreach Program is a positive element of the NACS. Educational programs are a good policy tool to change attitudes about corruption.

Now, turning to the judiciary, it is important that the citizens can bring corrupt acts to the attention of the ACC and the courts. Measures which allow for the public and agents to report corruption increase the likelihood that corruption will be detected. The ACC has had a “Pay No Bribe” project since 2017. This project enables citizens to report incidents via a mobile app and call center and ended up increasing the number of reports. It was a good policy decision to keep this this program, even after its termination this year. However, the lack of a whistle blower policy as well as a witness protection program is a missed opportunity. Although both problems are identified in the NACS, there is only mention of instituting a witness protection program and not of a whistle blower policy.   

Essential to the public’s perception is the judiciary. Unfortunately, the judiciary in Sierra Leone is notoriously weak. The judiciary has not provided adequate support in fighting corruption, as the ACC faces difficulties with very lengthy proceedings which in some cases last for more than eight years. The judiciary is furthermore very negatively perceived by the citizens. The objective of establishing special anti-corruption courts with assigned judges is therefore a good measure proposed in the NACS. However, this has not yet been achieved.

This idea could nonetheless be fundamental to the anti-corruption efforts. The NACS missed a great opportunity by not focusing more on a special court. With the appropriate characteristics, such a court can become the crucial battleground in the fight against corruption.

A first policy matter will be to engage in capacity building. It will for instance be necessary to make courtrooms available, as well as to appoint a sufficient number of well-trained judges. It will also be important to pay the judges an adequate and regular salary. This will reduce the need for a corrupt income. As Sierra Leone is a value-based society where reputations are important, other nonmonetary rewards can be considered as well. Prestige can be seen as a useful incentive to the judges. An impressive courtroom as well as VIP visits to the proceedings are possible rewards. Having public trials can further add to the judges’ prestige by the increase in publicity.

More importantly, however, is the effect of public trials with sufficient media coverage on the citizens. It can combat the negative views citizens have about the judiciary and create a public perception of justice. Special court or not, citizens will be able to see that the government is engaged in a genuine fight against corruption and that corrupt individuals are being punished. Cooperation with the media is therefore very important, and the fact that this is not addressed anywhere in the NACS is a missed opportunity.  

SIERRA LEONE AND ITS TIPPING POINT

The fundamental mistake of the NACS is its failure to see how the whole could be bigger than the sum of different parts. It is not enough to have the different measures operate in a vacuum. When applied with vision, they can change peoples’ behavior across society.

Imagine that one graph can teach someone more than a hundred reports on corruption. Now look at this graph. It is likely that this graph captures the phenomenon of corruption. The core idea of this graph is that the gain for an individual of engaging in corruption depends upon the level of corruption in society. This comes intuitively, as the cost of being corrupt is higher when few people are corrupt, whereas it will only be very low when almost everyone is corrupt. When almost everyone is corrupt, there is barely any reputational damage, a minimal chance of detection…

The graph operates under the assumption that a person has a binary choice to be either corrupt or not, and that the person knows whether others are corrupt. The x-axis represents the proportion of actors doing their civic duty, in our case this means not engaging in corruption. The y-axis represents value. The “willingness to pay” curve is the benefit a person obtains from doing his civic duty and the “actual cost” curve is the cost. 

The mechanics of the graph are easy. Suppose that the proportion of people doing their civic duty equals a point before the point where the curves cross, such as 15%. This person will not do his civil duty, because the cost is higher than the benefit.  This will reduce the proportion of actors, but the person at 14% will face the same problem. This goes on and on, and ends up on the left side of the graph with nobody doing his civic duty, which thus means that practically everybody will engage in corruption. When the proportion of actors doing their civic duty starts past the point where the curves cross, however, the opposite happens. It will be beneficial for that person to do his civic duty, so the proportion grows, and it will be beneficial for everyone after that. Therefore, we will move towards everyone doing his civic duty. Two stable equilibria exist at the corners of the graph and they are diametrically opposed. The point where the curves cross is known as the “tipping point”. When a lesser proportion of actors do their civic duty, it will move towards practically nobody doing his duty, and when a larger proportion of actors do their civic duty, it will move towards practically everybody doing his civic duty.

A foundational insight from this graph is that a society which is currently on the wrong side of the tipping point, needs some sort of shock to get to the other side of the tipping point. If an event can suddenly cause a sufficiently large proportion of the population to do its civic duty, the logic kicks in and corruption will be drastically reduced. It is unfortunately unclear what exactly could constitute such a shock.

IN SEARCH OF A SHOCK

What is clear, however, is that the discussed measures by themselves do not shock the system. At best, they move the curves. For instance, educational programs or a special court as described would only increase citizens’ willingness to do their civic duty. That is not to say that this by itself has no purpose. As it moves the curves in a favorable manner, the tipping point will be situated at a lesser proportion of the population. Nonetheless, this is not the necessary shock and therefore by itself does not adequately address the problem of corruption in Sierra Leone.

It is nonetheless possible to imagine an intervention that would constitute a shock. The shock to the system could come from high-profile prosecutions before the courts in a highly-visible fashion while obtaining quick wins. This may be limited in scope, but it is better to focus on a few priorities instead of a holistic approach. Such an intervention, which would be carried out by the ACC in interaction with the courts, would have a profound impact on the perception of Sierra Leoneans of anti-corruption efforts which could influence their calculations and make them positively change their behavior. The impact would be maximized if the intervention was carried out in a smaller community. The intervention could “shock” a significantly larger proportion of society into doing its duty, and thus could bring Sierra Leone over the tipping point and towards an unseen reduction of corruption.

Furthermore, it is desirable to recall the context in which the ACC and its NACS operate. After years of corruption scandals, a new administration came to power and made corruption a top priority. A new leadership of the ACC was established and initial results were looking good. If there was ever a time in which a shock could be created…

SIERRA LEONE MISSING ITS CUE

So how then, did the ACC in its implementation of the NACS do? It is good that the NACS aims for “quick wins”. It also recognizes that the ACC must do more in terms of prosecutions in order to deter people and that the prosecution power must be used to go after high-level individuals. They recognize that this will improve their public image and thus will positively influence the perception of the citizens.

However, the NACS fails to recognize how quintessential this measure is and how it could create an effective shock to the system. It is treated as one more measure in the framework of anti-corruption efforts, rather than a foundational effort to influence the perception of Sierra Leoneans through the courts.  This is a huge missed opportunity.

A closer look at the use by the ACC of its prosecution powers in practice is warranted. Although it is difficult to get a complete overview, certain tendencies become clear based on information in all the ACC’s press releases as well as its overview of past and present cases. Since March, the ACC obtained convictions for a store keeper, a fuel dealer, two impersonators and a bursar of a school. It settled cases with the Deputy Director-General and Resident Engineer of the National Social Security and Insurance Trust, the Commissioner-General and Director of Finance of the National Revenue Authority and the Director of Finance of the National Electoral Commission. The amounts range from 97 348 dollars to 592 736 dollars. Under indictment are among others the former Vice President, the Minister of Mines, the deputy ministers, the President and the Deputy President of the driver’s union and the Director-General and Board Chairperson of the National Social Security and Insurance Trust.

The tendency seems to be that low-level individuals get convicted easily, whereas the high-level individuals get a settlement before or after they are indicted. The NACS recognizes multiple times that this is the ACC’s reputation among Sierra Leoneans. It furthermore only concerns people from the past administration. This use of the prosecution power is a missed opportunity to show the Sierra Leoneans that their government is serious about its anti-corruption efforts and that there has been a break with the past.

The NACS furthermore misses the opportunity to increase the effect of prosecutions by not carrying them out in a smaller community. The objectives to devolve the ACC further from a national and regional presence to a district level are good. However, the declared purpose of this is to increase reporting. The NACS fails to recognize that perception could better be influenced in a smaller community and that this would require allowing regional and district offices to prosecute prominent individuals from the communities at that level.

The months after the March 31st election were crucial. The political events created a setting in which a shock could take place. However, by failing to recognize how its prosecution powers could be used to that effect, the ACC missed its chance. Although momentum may have passed, it is possible that this failure could be remedied in the pending cases. It is important that the ACC uses the cases that are now in court in order to show that nobody is above the law and that the government is serious about its anti-corruption efforts.

CONCLUSION

Sierra Leone needs an efficient anti-corruption strategy in order to move forward. After the March 31st election there was genuine hope that this could be achieved. In order to be efficient, the strategy in Sierra Leone must resolve existing cultural conflict by changing the calculations of citizens. For this purpose, perception is arguably the most important thing. The best tool to alter perception would be the judiciary, but by failing to enhance the courts and to utilize the media for public trials, the NACS misses a huge opportunity. Although some good steps are taken in the NACS, there is a failure to see that the whole is bigger than the sum of the different parts. The measures taken as well as the additional measures proposed by this article could move the curves of the tipping point model. However, this is only one part of the needed intervention. An effective intervention must complement this with a shock, impacting the perceptions of a significant proportion of citizens which will alter their calculations and cause them to do their civic duty, leading to others doing the same. Although the situation lend itself to such a shock being created by highly-visible prosecutions of high-profile individuals with a short and intense campaign preferably within small communities, the ACC missed its cue and failed to shock the system. It therefore seems that Sierra Leone is not at a turning point, but still on the wrong side of the tipping point. Part of a Pink Floyd song comes to mind to describe this: “No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.”

There is still hope, however. The perceived changes that came with the new administration have not worn off yet, there is furthermore still an opportunity to turn the special court into an effective battleground and the cases still pending against top individuals provide a second chance of getting the highly-visible and high-profile prosecution right. It is not too late for the ACC to achieve its vision: “A corrupt free Sierra Leone which will ensure that the socio-economic needs of the Citizens are met.”

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