National Integrity Action (NIA) celebrated its sixth anniversary today (Saturday, December 9) – UN International Anti-Corruption Day. Around 1,500 Jamaicans (mostly young people) from across the island joined the Integrity Gathering in downtown Kingston. NIA founder and CEO Professor Trevor Munroe hearkened back to a meeting six years ago at the University of the West Indies (UWI), attended by only 30 or 40 people at the time. Now, NIA has grown – “like Topsy,” as the saying goes.
Young NIA members in blue or white polo shirts (along with Integrity Ambassadors from various communities, members of the student-led Integrity Action Movement and Board members) mingled with government ministers, the Political Ombudswoman Donna Parchment Brown, the Chief Justice Zaila McCalla, Horace Levy of Jamaicans for Justice, Linnette Vassell of the Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre (WROC), the Revenue Protection Division head Major Joanna Lewin, Auditor General Pamela Monroe Ellis – and other important people. NIA’s principal donor, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) attended (and long may they stay the course with NIA) and its impactful COMET II programme was also well represented. Opposition representative Ronald Thwaites left after the keynote speech.
The theme for the day is United Against Corruption for Development, Peace and Security. For the UN, corruption appears to be an increasingly “big deal.” It was described as “one of the biggest impediments to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).” It’s a cross-cutting, insidious, equal opportunity issue that affects security, health, education, economic growth – you name it. The UN has just started a major global anti-corruption campaign.
Minister of Justice Delroy Chuck (a former Rhodes Scholar, along with Professor Munroe) pointed to a particular factor that emboldens corrupt practices: delays and inefficiency in providing government services, which tempt people to try to “beat the system” in order to get what they want quickly. “Illicit enrichment” is usually a part of the picture, noted Minister Chuck, who said he would do everything he could to rectify this decades-old problem. He did not explain exactly how – but did remind us of the Integrity Commission legislation. He is waiting for the Governor General’s selection of five commissioners to this single anti-corruption body (a merger of the the Commission for the Prevention of Corruption, the Integrity Commission and the Office of the Contractor General). He hopes the appointments will take place before Christmas. The Minister, in his usual earnest tone, insisted that corruption must be exposed “at all levels” in order to transform Jamaica into a “modern, civilised, democratic society.”
Custos of Kingston Steadman Fuller read out the Governor General’s remarks – which I particularly liked. The GG has a good speechwriter. I hope to obtain a copy and post it, later. He referred to the persistent “absence of trust” in the society, and admonished: “You can’t reap what you don’t sow.” How very true.
Businessman Gary “Butch” Hendrickson, Chairman and CEO of National Baking Company, was an inspired choice for a guest speaker. He was down to earth, funny and thought-provoking. In his conversational manner, he told the audience to “take care of your democracy. Try thinking of Jamaica without it. You don’t want that, believe me.”
Hendrickson was quite blunt: “My generation has failed you,” he admitted to the young people. Older Jamaicans have not done a good enough job of nation-building. Now, he urged, “You don’t have much time, but you will have to lead the change.” He suggested that often the Government really does need help from the people – such as in the anti-corruption fight – advising the youth to “be the power behind them.” Close partnerships and working together will be much more effective than blaming each other. He also stressed the importance of civil discourse when making demands of the Government; “Don’t demand – ask,” he said, while cautioning: “The people who are the quietest [about corruption] are those who are hurt the most.”
He was equally blunt on the role of the private sector, observing that no corruption can take place without private sector involvement. He suggested that the private sector needs to play a much more active role in the anti-corruption battle. How true, but how rarely this is articulated by any of his colleagues!
And when are we going to catch the big fish? Perhaps a representative of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) could have provided an answer – if any representative was there, and I believe there may have been one or two low-ranking members, at best. “Please, Minister,” said Hendrickson (perhaps addressing the wrong person) “Name them and shame them! The higher up the hill they live, the headlines should be bigger.” The hills are, of course, generally the territory of the “big man.”
Particularly relevant for Jamaica are the obvious linkages between corruption and crime. Here is where I have some concerns. While the Major Organised Crime and Anti-Corruption Agency (MOCA) was deservedly praised by more than one speaker, the absence of a representative of the JCF was noticeable – at least to me. MOCA, by the way, is independent of the JCF and reports directly to the National Security Council chaired by the Prime Minister.While many other government agencies were acknowledged, it struck me that no one had mentioned a JCF representative (an Assistant or Deputy Commissioner, perhaps?) and I suspect there were none in attendance.
This seems quite puzzling, especially against the background of certain events, widely reported in the media, that allegedly involve some form of police corruption. Is the top leadership of the JCF serious about the level of corruption in its ranks? Are the waters below being polluted by those above?
The Integrity Gathering was not, however, all grand speeches. The youth played their part. Professor Munroe invited NIA partners such as WROC to talk about their work; and two Integrity Ambassadors – Jamila Maitland from Rose Town, Kingston and Chad Edwards from Barrett Town, St. James – spoke about their training as community journalists under the COMET II programme, the stories they had produced and the outreach they were engaged in, including a fathers’ workshop in the troubled Rockfort area of Kingston and meetings with cab drivers in Kitson Town, St. Catherine, among many other projects. The message here was: “Do the Right Thing.” The Jamaica Youth Theatre performed with vigour, and there was more entertainment later. There was also the airing of a succinct and informative documentary film about our first National Hero, Marcus Garvey, which Minister of Education Youth and Information Senator Ruel Reid said will be distributed in schools (and by the way, civics is now taught in schools).
In many ways, corruption is a symptom of – or a contributing factor to – the issue of inequality that we worry about so often. Acknowledging his own privilege, Hendrickson pointed to the selfishness of those flouting our “night noise” laws, making Jamaicans less fortunate than him – especially schoolchildren and seniors – suffer. Why are they not enforced, he asked? An audience member responded emphatically with one word: “Corruption.” What say you, JCF?
Professor Munroe is proud of NIA’s achievements over the past six years, but concedes: “Far more needs to be done.”