Opinion: Who will dare break the vicious cycle of corruption in the Pacific?

Photo: Tatia Currie/DevPolicy

“When you don’t take a stand against corruption you tacitly support it.” ― Kamal Haasa

The first instinct of a person responsible for the care of their loved ones in a modern-day Pacific society is to survive by seeking a sustainable income. This is not always easy in a small island country with scarce financial resources. The approach to accomplishing this task can vary widely depending upon the ethics and morals of the individual burdened with this obligation. Therein lies the rub.

Those of us who are just lowly citizens have witnessed a common trait among our politicians. Once in office, whether overtly or subconsciously, they use their family as an excuse to grab for all the gusto they can get during their four years in office. This time-honored political logic is fairly simple: If I don’t seize everything I possibly can while I am holding this coveted title, the next guy or gal who wins my seat will. 

This attitude makes for mind-grinding, stomach-churning four-year cycles where, during an election year, after having witnessed countless unjust actions in the previous three years, the challengers finally get to cry loudly about rampant corruption. It’s like a vision of the sun rising on a cloudless day. When they manage to defeat the incumbent and get elected, a new cycle of the same old thing begins. The minute their hands go down after taking the oath of office—swearing publicly not to use their titles for their own private gain—they start stuffing their pockets with public funds just like the last elected officials did. 

This vicious cycle is damaging to island societies as a whole because it creates an inefficient use of the scarce resources available to our Pacific island governments. Corruption wastes the talent and creativity of our youth. It takes away the incentive for a government official to be innovative, hardworking and honest. 

Corruption often creates situations where only a few lucky families get taken care of while the rest of our families suffer. The sad part is that the citizenry sits on the fence, thinking it futile to complain. Some are reluctant to stir the pot lest it cost them their job. Our legal systems are often either lackadaisical in nature or corrupt themselves, which exacerbates the feeling of hopelessness.  

Politicians do have a choice: Should I just do what I can for myself while I am in office? Or do I use this honor and this term of office to do what I can for the society that entrusted me to improve their lives?  Some try to balance this “choice” and a few succeed. But many go one way or the other and that typically solidifies their public persona. There are no secrets on an island. We all know what these officials are doing while in office— the good, the fair, the bad, the inept and even the downright evil.

The most useful and noble politicians with moral backbones and worthy intentions, choose the “greater good.” They realize that helping as many people as possible, in turn, helps their own families in a larger and more expansive way. It helps build a law-abiding society that has as its base at least a modicum of fairness and justice. By making sure public funds are used in a fair, transparent and accountable manner for their intended purposes, such as health care, social welfare or education, an atmosphere is created for family life to flourish.  

The elected officials who are trying to build a better society are not always popular with their fellow politicians and other high government officials. Typically, they are quietly despised. “Doing the right thing” in a society filled with greedy politicians and crooked high government officials is not easily accomplished. Sadly, as we often witness, it can come with dire consequences for all of us.

There are tried and true methods to reduce corruption, such as the appointment of an ombudsman, a government watchdog with the statutory ability to investigate government fraud and prosecute criminals. This system is imperative in countries where, even for the attorney general or public auditor, corruption is an overwhelming burden because of extended island family relationships and close community ties. 

But what parliament that is known for having institutionalized corruption would ever appoint an ombudsman? Perhaps it would take a bold, grassroots political upheaval to get that accomplished, but most likely it would still be a nonstarter. For some of these elected officials, creating an office to investigate systemic corruption is akin to holding a gun to their own heads, and then saying, “Stop these illegal practices or I’ll shoot.”

Corruption is a dangerous disease that eats away at a citizen’s faith in democracy.

We, Pacific citizens, have a huge and valuable part to play. As long as we continue to fence sit in total apathy, this cycle of corruption will never be broken: Our voices need to be heard loud, long and clear stating that we won’t tolerate this from our governments any longer.

Jack Niedenthal is the former secretary of Health & Human Services for the Marshall Islands, where he has lived and worked for 42 years. Niedenthal is the author of “For the Good of Mankind, An Oral History of the People of Bikini.” He is the president of Microwave Films, which has produced six award-winning feature films in the Marshallese language. Send feedback to jackniedenthal@gmail.com 

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this publication.