Comment: How the Auditor General can combat corruption in Pakistan

Third world countries lag behind the developed world because institutions of the former are plagued with corruption and inefficiency. After the Panama Papers, reactions of the rulers and the ruled in both the developing and the developed world reflect this stark difference.

In Pakistan, politics after the Panama Papers revolved around corruption and accountability. The institutions whose main objective is to curb corruption have been criticised harshly by the courts and the people for their inefficiency to do their assigned tasks in line with the constitutional parameters.

Corruption is undoubtedly one of the main stumbling blocks in the way of achieving a fair and equitable society. It is high time for us to take stock of what has gone wrong in Pakistan when it comes to curbing corruption and holding the corrupt accountable.

There are several anti-corruption agencies working at federal and provincial levels. The agencies at the federal level are the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and at provincial level, there are Anti-Corruption Establishments (ACEs). NAB is the leading anti-corruption agency, but it is the most controversial as well.

NAB has failed terribly in curbing corruption through its three-pronged strategy; awareness, prevention and enforcement. Rather it has been used by the successive governments to settle score with the political opponents. It is also alleged to have legalised corruption by resorting to plea bargain. Resultantly, this has reinforced the impression among the public that if you have enough money, you can get out of trouble. Surprisingly no high-profile politician or bureaucrat has ever been convicted by the NAB. The “Say No to Corruption” mantra by the NAB becomes irrelevant when it is known as a plea bargain. This very inefficiency of the institution led the Supreme Court to declare it the dead one, meaning thereby that it is unable to take actions when it matters. Same is the case with the rest of the anti-corruption agencies in the country.

If international experience is to go by, anti-corruption agencies or mechanisms have an important role to play in combating corruption in the countries where levels of corruption are modest. In our case where corruption is wide-spread, these mechanisms cannot deliver because the problem lies beyond the scope of these agencies.

Wide-spread corruption means that the governance system is dysfunctional and the public sector organisations are not working with the given parameters. This is neither the domain of NAB nor any other anti-corruption agency in the country, and this is where the role of the Department of Auditor General of Pakistan (DGAP) becomes all the more important and highly relevant in improving the governance system.

As a national-level watchdog agency, the prime objective of the DGAP is to oversee the management of public finances. Traditionally its role has been seen as promoting public sector transparency and accountability. Government auditing is an important institutional arrangement in modern governance, aimed at monitoring, appraising and accountability. By monitoring how public resources are used, auditing can strengthen the accountability and reduce the misuse of authority and resources.

This unique position of the department can effectively be used to bring an end to corruption, provided the government strengthens the DGAP to do the same.

The DGAP is the only institution that can be instrumental in making public sector organisations act within the given legal and constitutional framework when it comes to financial discipline and accountability. Unlike the above-mentioned agencies, the DGAP conducts an audit of every public sector organisation on a regular basis and thus occupies a unique position given its outreach and close interaction with all the public sector entities. This unique position of the department can effectively be used in bringing an end to corruption provided the government strengthens the DGAP to do the same.

Many countries in the world have successfully used the government audit institutions to combat corruption. For example, the USA introduced the Government Accountability Office and Brazil established audit courts in order to have strong check on public sector institutions. Recently, China has successfully used government auditing in its fight against corruption. Traditionally the role of the DGAP, as indicated above, is seen as promoting public sector transparency and accountability. The role of the government auditing in fighting corruption is therefore taken as an indirect one, focusing on deterrence and prevention.

It is pertinent to remark here that the institutional framework of the DGAP is based on the Westminster model, also known as the Anglo-Saxon or Parliamentary model. Under this model, the National Audit Office, the DGAP in our case, is headed by an independent Auditor General who submit audit reports to the Public Accounts Committee. This model is used in United Kingdom and most Commonwealth countries. The Judicial or Napoleonic model is used by France, several countries in Europe, Turkey and Latin American countries including Brazil and Colombia. Under this arrangement, a Court of Audit becomes a part of the judicial system and it trials those engaged in the misuse of public funds and authority.

As the existing institutional arrangements in the country have not yielded the desired results of curbing corruption, there is dire need to revamp the system. By merging the above-mentioned models through the establishment of Audit Courts, fighting corruption will become the prime objective of the government auditing. Keeping in view the deplorable condition our institutions are in, the proposed Audit Courts will exert greater pressure on the public sector institutions to mend their ways by operating within legal and constitutional parameters. Through Audit Courts, fixing responsibility against those involved in the misuse of public funds and authority can be viewed as a potential threat to corrupt practices. The earlier we take steps in right direction, the better it can be.

Cover Image: Pakistan Disaster Relief/Flickr