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ICAC: Ten years on – why we are still the champions of fraud and corruption

Should it really be surprising that ten years after the inception of ICAC, the last report from Transparency International indicates that the perception of corruption in Mauritius is gaining ground?
When it comes down to it, the everyday Mauritian is the “traceur” or “magouilleur” par excellence – familiar examples being falsifying a home address to get a child into a perceived “star school”, bribing whoever it takes to pass a driving test or somehow manage to get more carry-on luggage than the allowed quota at an Air Mauritius counter. Such behaviour has even been exported – Mauritians are notoriously involved in passport scams across Europe. There is an undeniable cultural factor interlinked with the corruption problem in our country.
After all, old habits die hard! However, one cannot bring a sociological study to underline the inefficiency of the law as a defence to a charge of bribery. It is nonetheless contended that the fight against corruption in Mauritius cannot overlook the fact that Mauritians have been fashioned by the specific social norms of our community, and that there should a clear policy strategy to further a paradigm shift in the way of life of our citizens.
Why do some diplomats park illegally?
Put simply, it is argued that ‘Mauritian culture’ is a significant ingredient of corrupt behaviour and that the particular social norms of our country can explain the high rate of corruption.
In Cultures of Corruption: Evidence From Diplomatic Parking Tickets, authors Raymond Fisman and Edward Miguel evaluated the role of social norms in corruption by analysing parking violations among international diplomats from 149 nations living in New York City. The act of parking illegally was chosen because it sat well with the idea of corruption – namely the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. The study based itself on the precept that since the diplomats were immune from prosecution and did not fear legal consequences, then their behaviour was in fact influenced by their social norms from their respective countries.
The results were remarkable. The diplomats from countries with perceptibly high levels of corruption incurred more parking tickets, thus illustrating that cultural norms do have an effect on the conduct of public officials. Hence the highest ranking countries were the likes of Kuwait, Pakistan and Nigeria. Countries whose diplomats did not incur parking tickets included Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Incidentally, Mauritius was ranked 35th! This may be unwelcome news for those who think that stricter laws are the only way to hamper the advance of fraud and corruption.
Nepotism and payoffs have become so imbued with the local norms that they are at odds with the notions that bureaucratic processes should be impersonal. Apparently the BOI official who has been caught in the recent scandal of bribes does not think he did anything wrong ; one day, such a statement could easily come from one of those kids who knew his parents falsified their address to get him in a school outside of their catchment area.
Such a theme has been studied in the African and Chinese contexts. Outsiders may tag a kind of behaviour as corrupt, but the insiders to the system perceive the same behaviour as acceptable. Such research explains that traditions privileging loyalties to friends, family, religion or ethnic groups blur the importance of adhering to rules. This can be linked to the ‘ti-copain’ phenomenon in Mauritius.
Research in various African countries underlines the trend that political figures and public officials who have enriched themselves then believe that they should return the favour by favouring those who have helped them rise. This sounds viciously familiar to the proximity between business and politicians in Mauritius.
A paradigm shift from the old mumpsimus
If it is acknowledged that social norms may be responsible for the high rate of fraud and corruption in the country, it begs the question: can any strategy successfully encourage social change for the better?
The answer is in the affirmative, and comes from a number of players engaged in the development discourse, such as the World Bank. They point to the case of Female Genital Cutting in Africa, in which a strategy based on collective engagement rather than individual behaviour succeeded in eradicating such a practice in villages. There were two crucial elements; firstly a top-down, rule based approach was substituted for an interactive mode with the local communities where the implications of such behaviour were explained and debated until FGC was abandoned, and secondly acknowledging that it was a collective rather than an individual problem.
Investing in collective change in the struggle against the corruption in Mauritius must start with the children and youth. It is high time for the introduction for a Civic Service which should last throughout the whole schooling system. A course which focuses on ethics and integrity aiming to develop new norms of behaviour in the younger generations will go a long way. Other potential simple educational strategies are debating competitions, essay writing competitions and exchange programmes which will encourage young minds to challenge the status quo and critically approach a better social system.
Of course, not all Mauritians are corrupt, and it is time for such individuals to become community leaders and advocate a change in the layman’s behaviour. After all, the injustice and irony of the corruption gnawing away at our society, is that the citizens who do choose to live honestly are the ones on the losing side.

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