Majuro — When media reports on government ‘corruption’, it usually focuses on theft of money from government ministries or agencies. There is quite a bit of this across the Pacific, from Papua New Guinea to the Marshall Islands.
But more subtle practices of government both at high level—not passing legislation that would improve the accountability environment—and at lower levels—losing grant money needed to provide public services by not filing timely reports with donors—are not often in view, but greatly impact operations of government.
To give a few examples from the Marshall Islands:
• Soon after taking office in 2011, Marshall Islands Auditor General Junior Patrick laid out a plan to expand audits to focus not only on finances, but performance of government offices. The expansion called for a near doubling of staff, more supervisory auditors, and so on. But successive governments have failed to give his office the funds needed to hire all the staff his plan envisioned—despite confirmation of major theft of donor grant funds at the Ministry of Health in the 2010-to-2014 period.
• Legislation to replace the existing government ethics law with a stronger version, including requiring annual financial disclosure by high-level leaders, was introduced in 2012 and went nowhere. Admittedly it was introduced by opposition senators, which obviously reduces the chances of passage. But if our standard for evaluating this legislation is not political but rather whether or not it will improve accountability, then clearly, as the Auditor General spells out in his testimony in support of the legislation, the Nitijela missed another opportunity to improve government accountability and reduce corrupt practices.
• Earlier this month, the Marshall Islands Journal reported on its front page that the US government had, for the first time in 30 years, refused to fund the Ministry of Health’s Family Planning program ‘due to the failure by the Marshall Islands to submit necessary documents in a timely fashion as well as the fact they did not demonstrate financial need.’ We might politely ask how the Ministry of Health in a country that has the Pacific’s highest teen pregnancy rate could not ‘submit necessary documents’ or ‘demonstrate financial need’ to get routinely provided annual funding support from the U.S. federal government. In spite of this situation, employees still get their usual salaries.
• Both the Ministries of Health and Education routinely do not spend hundreds of thousands of dollars annually of budgeted, available money under the Compact of Free Association treaty with the U.S. Meanwhile, vendors providing services to these ministries get paid late or not at all, and schools complain about lack of supplies and the hospital in Majuro routinely runs out of basic medicines.
• A recent performance audit of the tax auditing office within the Ministry of Finance, for example, showed that in 2010 25 audits of local companies were planned but the sum total of none were conducted, while in 2011 30 were planned and only eight carried out.
Omissions—not doing work that undermines public services, not passing legislation that would help anti-corruption enforcement—don’t get the attention devoted to large-scale theft of government funds, but when all the omissions are added up, the price tag is hefty. This is why the Marshall Islands Auditor General’s effort—and those of other Public Auditors in the region—to ramp up performance auditing is so important. Financial audits only tell us if paper work is in place to justify spending. Performance audits tell us what government offices are doing with their funds and if they are meeting their public service objectives. What our leaders and public servants are doing when they are in their offices (we hope) 40 hours each week is an important question for audits—and the public—to ask.
Corruption comes in many forms: coming late and leaving early but getting fulltime pay, not carrying out the mission of a government office, manipulating tenders and funds for personal interest, and seeing some or all of the above and doing nothing about it. As we’ve seen in big nations such as the United States that have a significant level of audit and enforcement capability that does not exist in most small islands, corruption can still be widespread. Because it’s not readily observable in our islands does not mean it doesn’t exist. Let’s start looking and resolving corruption problems as we find them so the public gets the benefit of the “public service.”