Honduras: Entrenched Corruption Stymies Hope

Corruption in Honduras has taken root at every level of the state, which is helpless to combat it because of the lack of credibility of most of its institutions, the erosion of social capital and the public perception that the problem is here to stay.  (IPS) – Corruption in Honduras has taken root at every level of the state, which is helpless to combat it because of the lack of credibility of most of its institutions, the erosion of social capital and the public perception that the problem is here to stay.

This is the conclusion reached by the National Transparency Report produced by the National Anti-Corruption Council (CNA), a state body that operates independently in this country governed by the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti, who replaced President Manuel Zelaya when he was overthrown in a Jun. 28 coup.

The report analyses the state of corruption in the last two years and indicates that the problem is the third major cause for concern among Hondurans, after crime and unemployment.

"The fact that these three problems stand out among the concerns of the general public shows that the institutional changes needed for greater development are not taking place," Rolando Sierra, the report’s coordinator, told IPS.

He said that "until the rule of law is strengthened in this country, popular perceptions will continue to blame the justice system for failing to punish the corrupt."

Over the past decade, Honduras’ score has hovered between 2.3 and 2.7 on the Corruption Perceptions Index published by the Berlin-based global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International, which uses a scale of zero to 10, with zero indicating the highest corruption perception.

Honduras has not been able to climb out of the cellar of the most corrupt countries, Sierra said. The latest index, for 2009, awards it a score of 2.5.

The CNA report concentrates on state contracts and procurement, and addresses issues such as social capital, the perception of corruption, access to public information and the transparency law.

Sierra said there was a "slight improvement" in terms of anti-corruption legislation, but that confidence in oversight institutions remained low, with only between 20 and 40 percent of respondents in a national survey expressing trust. "None of them reached a credibility level of over 50 percent," he said.

This collective lack of trust is due to eloquent facts, such as that "no one has ever been imprisoned for corruption," while transparency indicators show that "the number of cases is increasing," the expert said.

"This country faces the challenge of ushering in democratic governance by means of a new institutional order," Sierra said.

A survey on perceptions of corruption, which informed the CNA report, showed that 95 percent of Hondurans feel there is a great deal of corruption.

Bribing the police, dubious financing of political campaigns and diversion of funds from public projects are perceived as the three most common types of corruption.

They are followed by bribery of officials to secure state procurement contracts, providing jobs to party activists, bribery of judges, tax evasion, selling off public property for a song, payment of illegal middlemen to obtain documents, theft of court files and providing employment for relatives.

The survey interviewed 1,350 people from 16 out of the 18 Honduran provinces, making it highly representative, Sierra said.

The responses indicate that corruption in Honduras is to be found in all three branches of the state. The judicial branch has the highest perception of corruption, complained of by 45.9 percent of the interviewees, followed by the executive branch with 24.8 percent, and the legislative branch with 20 percent.

Within the private sector, owners of large companies are perceived by 78.1 percent of respondents as being guilty of acts of corruption, foreign companies by 13.4 percent and small and medium business owners by 1.5 percent.

In civil society, trade unions were perceived as corrupt by 37.7 percent of respondents, professional associations by 36.1 percent and non-governmental organisations by 9.1 percent.

The report concludes that corruption is an everyday practice and way-of-life in the country.

The study also found there was a decline in social capital, defined as "the social norms, agreements, values and relations that are rooted in the structure of a community of individuals and that help them to act in concert to achieve common goals," because of the low level of trust most Hondurans have in other people.

Among the institutions that Hondurans still express confidence towards, the foremost are the Catholic and evangelical churches, with 39 and 36 percent of interviewees, respectively, responding favourably.

They are followed by international aid agencies, with 20 percent; the media, with 18 percent; and the armed forces, with 15 percent, three percentage points lower than in the previous survey carried out in 2006. The study points out that this information was gathered in May 2009, before the June coup.

According to businessman Juan Ferrera, the low levels of trust in other people and in institutions lead to generalised scepticism among the population, block initiatives for social transformation and increase uncertainty about the possibility of a better future.

Ferrera, a former head of the Honduran National Business Council (COHEP), told IPS the mistrust of state contracts and acquisitions, "one of the most discretionary areas of public administration," was remarkably high.

The most usual forms of corruption in public administration occur through direct and emergency contracting, changing clauses in contracts during the tender process, or declaring the tender process void because of a lack of bids, or lack of qualified bids.

Magda Cálix, a lawyer who is an expert on public administration, told IPS that the sectors most prone to corruption are health, education, infrastructure, telecommunications, electricity, and water and sanitation.

One of the most notorious cases of corruption in the last two years was the approval by parliament of a direct purchase of overpriced electricity from coal-fired plants, in spite of warnings from regulatory bodies and environmental organisations.

Another was a concession to the armed forces to build a civilian air terminal at the Palmerola air force base, in the central Comayagua valley, and a third was the spending of over 150,000 dollars to print windshield stickers for a scheme to cut down on vehicle traffic which was never implemented.

Cálix emphasised there are 12 laws in force that "attempt to curb corruption in contracts and acquisitions, but they are ambiguously worded and leave loopholes for discretionality and corruption."

For example, two years ago a transparency law came into effect to facilitate access to public information, which was seen as a concrete step against corruption.

But in spite of the law’s requirements to do so, the majority of state institutions publish little or nothing on their web sites about their budgets, salaries, contracts, financial reports or citizen participation.

At the end of its report, CNA proposes a comprehensive anti-corruption policy to strengthen independent auditing, accountability, professionalisation of the public administration, fraud prevention measures and the development of a culture of transparency.