In what is seen as a realignment of priorities, the new government headed by His Highness the Prime Minister Sheikh Ahmad Al-Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah has pledged that all efforts will be exerted to fight corruption, protect state funds, and combat graft through protective and curative means, as well as upgrade the administrative system to make it more responsive and effective.

The fact that the prime minister made these comments in a speech delivered at the first meeting of the Council of Ministers, is probably indicative of the priority that the government affords to probity in the public realm. Recalling the directives by His Highness the Deputy Amir and Crown Prince Sheikh Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, to “tackle corruption and crack down on the corrupt”, the prime minister expressed his keenness to “open a new chapter of government action”.

Addressing his Cabinet colleagues, following their Constitutional oath-taking, the premier called on the ministers to work out a comprehensive program of reforms to address “the potential loopholes” in the administrative system in their respective ministries, with a view to improving public services, solving problems of citizens, and combating corruption and nepotism. He also emphasized the need to implement the law on all people without any exception, and highlighted the importance of protecting public and personal properties through a practical system of preventive procedures aimed at combating corruption.

The government’s invigorated focus on reducing corruption stems from its acknowledgement that anti-corruption initiatives are key to realizing many of its Vision 2035 New Kuwait development plans. Corruption in the public life is seen as a major stumbling block in achieving the government’s goals of diversifying the economy, reducing its dependency on hydrocarbon revenues, increasing public private partnerships, and fostering greater employment opportunities for nationals in the private sector workforce, as well as improving domestic market conditions to attract foreign investment.

In all fairness to the authorities, it needs reiterating that in recent years the government has exerted diligent efforts to reduce corruption and increase transparency in the public sector. The authorities further empowered the independent Kuwait Anti-corruption Authority (Nazaha) and also bolstered the anti-corruption legal framework through several initiatives and processes, as part of a broader national strategy to crack down on corruption in Kuwait
If the emphasis and urgency given to tackling corruption in public life by the highest levels of leadership is implemented in full measure, and in both letter and spirit, by everyone involved, it could herald a new era in the development of Kuwait, and could augur well for the country and its future. Although it is too early to tell how the high-level decisions will be implemented down the line, there are already indications that the message of eradicating corruption in public life is percolating through the administrative sector.

In late October, the Nazaha announced that it was speeding up the registering, assessing and finalizing of corruption reports it receives. The authority revealed that in the first nine months of the year, it had received 46 reports of corruption involving a dozen government institutions. And, out of the cases that it had referred to the Public Prosecution until the end of August 2022, seven final verdicts had been issued by various courts, including four convictions and three acquittals.

In an apparent sign of increased vigil against corruption at the administrative level, last week, the Ministry of Electricity, Water and Renewable Energy referred six of its employees in the Customer Services Sector to the Public Prosecution. This followed internal investigations that revealed serious financial manipulations that included reducing a transaction amount for a customer from KD40,000 to KD3,000. Other wrongdoings were found in replacement of electricity and water meters without proper documents and payment of due fees.

Although the uptick in monitoring and prosecuting low-level corruption cases is certainly commendable, it needs pointing out that the conviction rate in administrative cases are generally on the lower side, as the Nazaha statement reveals. Often this is due to the poor quality of investigations carried out by concerned officials, or the use of illegal policies or procedures to obtain evidence, which then gets squashed in court. Occasionally, it is also because of political pressures that are brought to bear on officials and litigants to drop cases.

More importantly, while instances of official corruption are now increasingly coming under legal scrutiny, and a few cases of major embezzlement of public funds and money-laundering grabbed media headlines in the past, these incidents are only the ‘tip of the iceberg’. Other versions of corruption that are often more pernicious and systemic prevails in Kuwait, and forms the portion of the proverbial iceberg that looms below the surface but which goes unreported and unindicted.

Wasta, or influence peddling, is one such form of corruption, where individuals use their personal connections or influence to garner favors for themselves or others. Whether the favors granted involve nepotism, are on a quid pro quo basis, or in exchange for financial gains, wasta remains the cornerstone of corruption and the base around which other improbities are built.

Bribing public officials to obtain unwarranted or unauthorized services, waiving or reducing fees for public services, deleting or decreasing fines charged for legal infractions, inflating or deflating evaluations, circumventing laws and a host of other such illegal activities can be traced back to wasta among individuals involved in these felonious acts.

The sponsorship system, or kafala, which prevails in Kuwait and elsewhere in the region, feeds off the same wasta ecology. While initially intended to ensure the welfare of foreign workers coming to the country, kafala has in many cases degenerated to become a lucrative rentier-model of business for the ‘kafeel’ or sponsor of the worker.

The disproportionate power wielded by the kafeel over migrant workers has often been described as a modern form of slavery. The provision for a kafeel to grant a work visa to a foreigner, or deny the renewal of a worker’s residency status, enables them to extort large sums of money or favors from the migrants in exchange for their residency status.

Kafeels engaged solely in visa-trading — an euphemism used for what is basically one form of human-trafficking — was until quite recently an open secret in Kuwait. Although in the last couple of years this has become a more clandestine operation, under pressure and prosecution by the authorities, the trade in visas continues unabated. If anything, it has now become a more expensive proposition for hapless workers who need to renew their residence status, or are seeking to obtain a new visa for their friends or relatives.

In addition to an increase in marginal workers who contribute to perpetuating the narrative of demographic imbalance, and generating xenophobia towards foreign workers among nationals, the rentier model of kafala business also lead to other forms of market distortions. The large sums of unlawful money in the hands of these traders allow them to indulge among others in real-estate speculations that raise prices to unrealistic levels in the property market, and to engage in the more riskier but lucrative import and trade in narcotics and other illegal substances.

While stamping out wasta would be an all but impossible task for the government, given how deeply entrenched it is in society, if the authorities are serious about tackling corruption they could probably begin by abolishing the aberrant kafala system. A better form of managing foreign workers would be for the government to be the sole sponsor of all migrants in the country, and to mandate a public entity, such as the Public Authority of Manpower, to bring in all foreign workers to the country as needed by the public and private sectors, as well as for households.

According to international entities and local stakeholders in combating corruption, in order for the government to tackle corruption it would need to bring about changes to several components in governance that currently aid and abet corruption in the country. These transformations should aim to cultivate and encourage the growth of strong democratic principles that provide for greater accountability in the public realm.

Government efforts should also be directed to build more responsive and independent institutions; commit to implementing social and economic reforms; and enforce the separation of powers among the arms of government, as well as protect civic space, the media and whistleblowers. As we approach the 20th anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Convention against Corruption, and the ear-marking of 9 December each year as International Anti-Corruption Day (IACD), all of us should take a deeper look at the significance of the Convention and the IACD to Kuwait, and what it entails from each one of us as individuals.
Each year the IACD seeks to raise awareness of corruption and of the role of the Convention in combating and preventing it. The day highlights the rights and responsibilities of everyone to thwarting corruption, and provides an opportunity for each one of us to recommit to collective action so as to address and prevent the occurrence of corruption and its harms. And, there is no denying that corruption has a deleterious impact on society and on people.

Corruption erodes democracy, impacts economic growth, undermines governance, distorts the quality and efficiency of state institutions and regulatory frameworks, hampers human resource development, and exacerbates inequality and poverty. But what constitutes corruption? In the public realm we could define corruption, at its most basic level, as abuse of entrusted power for private gain.

However, defining corruption comprehensively is difficult, as in order to define something we need to measure it. Corruption by its very nature takes place in secrecy and does not render itself to measurements. As the management doyen, Paul Drucker said, “What cannot be measured, cannot be managed”. In order to eradicate corruption, or at least manage its most deleterious effects on society, we need some form of measurement of corruption.

The Corruption Perception Index (CPI) developed in 1995 attempts to measure corruption to some extent by gauging perceptions of corruption in the public sector, among businesses, academia, analysts, and independent institutions in a country. The index is now published annually by the Berlin-based non-profit, non-governmental, transnational organization, Transparency International.

Transparency International’s 2021 Corruption Perception Index ranked Kuwait in 73rd place out of the 180 countries and territories around the world. Also, on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean) that ranks countries in the index, Kuwait scored 43, which leaves a lot of room for improvement. More than ever, it is now imperative for everyone to join hands with the government in its anti-corruption initiatives, so that it becomes a collective fight of us against corruption.

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