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Can corruption do any good?

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Every discussion on how to improve the delivery of public goods and services in Uganda ends up focusing on how to fight corruption. In public services like health, education and infrastructure, public officials divert resources from their intended purpose to private pockets. We are thus saddled with ghost schools and hospitals, ghost teachers and medical workers and of course our popular potholes.

We have spent the last twenty years trying to find safeguards against corruption. Our newspapers have returned handsome profits exposing it. Many institutions have been put in place to fight the problem ‘ the IGG, PPDA, a ministry of ethics and integrity, parliamentary oversight committees, civil society pressure groups ‘ everything has been done. But as most Ugandans would attest, corruption has only grown bigger, not smaller.

I think after two decades of failure, we need to reframe the debate on corruption. Rather than continue to obsess about how to eliminate it, we should begin to debate how we can use it (or the lessons it teaches us) to deliver public goods and services. Public servants have demonstrated that they place private gain above the public good. Our government has shown that it is disinterested or incapable of fighting it. How can we exploit the greed of our public servants to deliver the common good?

To answer this question, I go back to the late 1990s. When cars increased in this city, parking space became scarce. Motorists would park on pavements. Kampala City Council (KCC) banned this practice and ordered the Local Administration Police (LAP) to impound any wrongly parked car. This immediately became the most effective activity of the city council. Within ten minutes of wrong parking anywhere in the city’s Central Business District (CBD), your car would be towed away. LAP officers would be seen patrolling city streets with breakdowns hungrily hunting down any wrongly parked car.

Why this enthusiasm? KCC is the most corrupt and inefficient body I know in Uganda; it cannot collect taxes, pick garbage, fill a pothole or approve your building plan without a bribe ‘ and only after six months of waiting. Under the new rules, any wrongly parked car in Kampala would be impounded, taken and dumped into a KCC yard along Sixth Street. To collect it, the offender had to pay a fine of Shs15,000 to KCC and the cost of the breakdown, Shs 20,000. How KCC arrived at the Shs 20,000 provides insight into how to incentivize public servants to deliver public goods and services in a country where corruption has become standard operating procedure.

To eliminate ambiguities and haggling over the price of the breakdown, KCC had established a standard fee based on the longest distance from Sixth Street i.e. Nateete, Bweyogerere and Kawempe. Yet 100% of all vehicles impounded were from Kampala’s CBD ‘ Kampala Road or Luwum Street where it cost a mere Shs5,000 to take a vehicle to Sixth Street. This meant that if a LAP officer impounded your car from Jinja Road, you paid Shs 20,000 for the breakdown even though the owner of the breakdown actually charged Shs5,000. The difference (Shs15,000) would go into the pocket of the LAP officer who had impounded it. This in-built bribe turned an incompetent LAP into the most efficient machine our nation has ever seen.

Let us apply this logic to the road sector. Our roads have been deteriorating for a decade now. You may think it is due to lack of money. In the 2006/07 budget, donors gave Uganda US$256m for our roads; our government put up another US$80m of its own money. By end of the financial year, the Ministry of Works had spent all the government of Uganda money and more but only 27% of donor money.

I asked the Minister of Works, John Nasasira, why this was so. Good John told me that donor money has cumbersome procedures which make it difficult to get it released on time. If this is true, then other recipients must be in the same pot. So I went to Rwanda for a comparative study. I found that the government there actually spends over 100% of donor money. The procedures are always met in time. This puzzled me because in terms of institutional quality, Uganda is far a head of Rwanda. Upon reflection, I realised that the two countries have different institutional characteristics.

I get the sense that most Rwandan public servants, even when corrupt, have a deeply entrenched attitude of working for the good of their country. This is less so in Uganda where personal gain takes precedence over the collective good. The “cumbersome” procedures in getting donor money were put there to block official theft. They ended up undermining incentives for civil servants to process donor funded road reconstruction contracts. Why would a civil servant earning Shs800,000 a month fight hard to deliver a road worth US$ 150m when his children are going hungry?

The solution to the Ugandan dilemma is rooted in the KCC example above. Let us assume donors give us US$100m to build a road. They can say that if the civil servants in charge do the right quality of road within a specified time, they will be given a bonus of 10% of the contract-sum i.e. US$ 10m which they can share. Most people do not want to steal; they want an honest work’s pay. I suspect most civil servants would fight to get their 10% bonus rather than suffer the indignity of stealing and in the process deliver the goods and services. The same incentives can be given to those who inspect work.

Because public debate over corruption in Uganda is largely conducted with moral appeals, it is difficult to bring such practical lessons to the table. In any case, I am suspicious that my argument has many weaknesses. But it forms the point from which we can begin to think differently about how to improve public sector efficiency and effectiveness. It may be in harnessing individual greed, more than in tapping our people’s altruism, that we may be able to build a public sector that is responsive to national goals.


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