TI boss speaks about Rwanda’s fight against corruption

A Transparency International report last year ranked Rwanda the least corrupt country in Africa and was among the top 50 best performing countries in the world out of 177 surveyed. The New Times’ Eugene Kwibuka caught up with Huguette Labelle, Chair of the Board of Transparency International, as she wrapped up her trip in the country on Tuesday.
Huguette Labelle says there is need for strong institutions to fight corruption. Eugene Kwibuka
Huguette Labelle says there is need for strong institutions to fight corruption. Eugene Kwibuka

A Transparency International report last year ranked Rwanda the least corrupt country in Africa and was among the top 50 best performing countries in the world out of 177 surveyed. The New TimesEugene Kwibuka caught up with Huguette Labelle, Chair of the Board of Transparency International, as she wrapped up her trip in the country on Tuesday.

Below are the excerpts:

What have you found out on your visit to Rwanda?

The first thing that all countries need is rule of law, a judiciary that is professional and provides justice to all people as well as a professional police force that carries out independent investigations. The justice system in Rwanda is functional and there are also other institutions like the Office of the Ombudsman where people can report anything wrong.

There is also a law protecting whistle-blowers and a number of other laws. So, Rwanda’s legal framework, judiciary, and oversight institutions like the Auditor General are all functional and I think other countries need to emulate this.

What are the major legal and institutional gaps that most countries lack as far as fighting corruption is concerned? 

Many countries do not have the institutions or have them but they are not strong or lack independence. It is important for the prosecutor and Ombudsman to be independent so that they can dispense justice professionally. Unfortunately, these are some of the things lacking in many countries around the world. 

Transparency International Rwanda last year cited the police, decentralised entities and the judiciary as some of the most corrupt institutions in the country. What could be the cause of this?

Well, I think in many countries, the local traffic police is vulnerable to corruption even more than the police who investigate crime, for example. The other areas of vulnerability in any country are procurement and construction which happen a lot at the local level.

So, I think all countries have to strengthen local governance because this is the level of government that people interact with daily. It’s about access to health, education, justice, water, and being able to get a license without having to bribe. I think strengthening capacity and integrity at all levels of government is important but we need to pay more attention to the local levels in all countries.

What could be the most effective policy prescription when it comes to fighting corruption in these areas where people go to seek critical services?

There are many things that are important but one of them is to ensure that people hold public officials accountable. People need to know how money for healthcare, schools and roads etc is spent. The transparency of the flow of money all the way to the point of delivery is a very important aspect.

The other aspect is to ensure proper procurement procedures. And the third one is to ensure that local governance units perform their duties in such a way that services are rendered to people without request for bribes.  For example, ensuring that there is no cash transfer between the service delivery person and the person receiving the service. There are a number of other prescriptions but these are the most important.

In your view, what has Rwanda done differently to end up with less corruption?

There is strong commitment at the top. There is zero tolerance for corruption right from the top down to the citizenry. As I said earlier, many countries have laws in place that are not implemented, and have regulations that are not enforced. The big issues are always about procurement, local government, transparency, enforcement, and implementation of laws and regulations.

So, Rwanda has that political will from the top to do these things?

That’s what is perceived. That zero tolerance to corruption has been promoted is very important in any country.

This might be rather interesting but I would like to hear your thoughts. Staff writer for The New Yorker; Philip Gourevitch, whose second book on Rwanda will appear next spring, argues that “extreme distrust of one’s fellow citizens” in Rwanda as a result of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi is the reason why Rwanda is less corrupt. He essentially says that Rwandans find themselves with the only option to trust and protect their public institutions to hold society together. What are your thoughts about this? 

Well, that is his opinion. One of the things that Transparency International is interested in is for the people in communities to work closely with their local governments in the planning and delivery of programmes and on overseeing budgets and ensuring that there is no corruption at the time of procurement or construction.

I think that the involvement of all the people of the community is very important and there is some work, of course, in this country in that regard. I think this brings people together and, of course, the state has played a very important role in upholding unity. I think all our countries have to strive towards that. There are divisions in many countries around the world and this is not a good recipe for success. 

As Chair of the Board of Transparency International and indeed a member of several boards for organisations involved with development efforts—including the Africa Capacity Building Foundation, can you remind our readers just how much they benefit by living in a corrupt-free society?

If you live in a corrupt-free society or where there is little corruption, people feel safer and that’s a question of security. It’s a question of having better services for all, not just for a few. It’s a question of seeing justice being made as opposed to injustice.

But with corruption; you have lack of security, you have injustice, you have loss of money because some of the stolen money is sent to fiscal havens or outside the country. So, people see the money disappear but when you have the opposite, people are able to see that the resources of their country are used for the public good. There are many compelling reasons for countries around the world to fight corruption.

But some people say a little corruption makes business grow faster and do not see its negative toll. What do you think about this? 

Well, I have heard about that. But this kind of approach to life has destroyed countries around the world. You may get your material out of customs more quickly by putting money under the table but in the end you’ve just got the tips of your fingertips in the grinding machine and the rest of your body will go.

The first time you pay a bribe you think that you are doing fine, you think that you are getting something but you should be getting that something anyway without having to pay a bribe. And by the time you’ve paid, you become a complicit to fraud and that other person that you bribed will expect more and more.

That’s how you lose money and if this becomes known when you are investigated and you are taken to court you lose your company sometimes, you go to prison as well, and you pay very hefty fines.

Anything else that we didn’t get a chance to talk about so far about this topic?

Looking forward, I think it is important for all countries to fight money laundering and illicit trade. I know this is not a big issue in Rwanda but it can be in the future. Western countries—the G20 right now—have committed to cooperating in preventing money that has been stolen from being hidden in their countries. That whole area of stolen assets, money laundering, and illicit trade has to be taken very seriously by the whole world community because we can no longer work in isolation.



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