The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has apparently become more prudent in reviewing and disposing of low-profile pending cases in recent days. According to the organisation’s officials, there was a realization at the institutional level to focus on larger issues affecting the national economy rather than being bogged down with petty cases.
Low-profile cases against development agencies were under review for months without any conclusive move until recently when NAB started to conclude them. It seems NAB feels that development agencies and NGOs may face scrutiny only when there are visible accountability gaps identified and reported through authentic sources.
It is very encouraging to see NAB make decent moves as an institution with a bit of accountability contrary to its recent public image of harassment on political grounds.
Regarding cases against employees of the development sector, NAB says that it was not about money but about the visible gap of prosperity and plight between development professionals and the poor whose poverty is the reason for the riches of such development bosses. Well this does make a case for optics – but not accountability. All stakeholders would agree, though, that there is more to be done to institutionalize accountability in Pakistan.
This shift is positive because the unending low-profile cases had tarnished the institutional reputation of NAB in the eyes of the civil society and the public at large. The catch-all approach used in the past did not work well because it gave a free hand to arrest anyone on suspicion of having wealth beyond known means. The procedural flaws of litigation and lack of coherence in the treatment of registered references made it hard to establish the veracity of the allegations and the intent of individuals and institutions. While it is desirable to have an institutional mechanism to deal with corruption, it must be seen as functioning in the larger interest of state and society without being dubbed as prejudicial in dispensing justice. NAB has to establish its reputation as an autonomous institution to serve and safeguard the collective economic and political interests of citizens.
This can only be possible if NAB gives primacy to the legal merit of cases rather making political statements about matters sub judice. The legality of actions taken by NAB to arrest political leaders has been questioned time and again because of such statements. Whenever political leaders are arrested, media statements and images are issued before arriving at an objective conclusion of the case through technical investigations. The legality of a registered case must not be influenced through public debates; there is no harm in discussing the outcome of court proceedings on a given day without making judgment on the potential outcomes of a case.
The raison detre of NAB is to provide a formal and institutional mechanism of public accountability without compromising the fundamental principles of law and justice. If this objective is not met, the rest is politics only. The development sector may not be all clean and free of corruption but it is always important to set a precedent of fair play. For instance, some people in the development sector were questioned for drawing higher salaries. It is right to question the very high salaries drawn from public funds but not all highly paid professionals are criminal just because employers are ready to pay more to attract the best skills.
Accountability is a tricky game in a system of power imbalances where the powerful can subdue the weaker. The development sector is one of those soft targets if accountability is meant to assert this power of subduing the weaker. There is not much to be stolen from a multilayered system of checks and audits of donors, government, media and downward accountability to beneficiaries in social development and poverty alleviation programmes. However, accountability in the corporate sector is most complex and elusive because it has all the institutional instruments, money and power to evade public accountability. In Pakistan protests against workplace exploitation, harassment, forced terminations and low wages in the private sector were always ignored and silenced on the media with the collusion of the powerful. In the hospitality industry alone some 45, 000 employees were laid off in violation of labour laws during the last five years.
The untold miseries of the working class in Pakistan need to be the focus of NAB more urgently than its current drive of high-profile arrests on politico-economic grounds. This is exactly what is needed as accountability so that the powerful know that no one is above the law. NAB can be an important player in private-sector regulation through public accountability, consumer rights protections and wage regulation. But in order for this to happen, NAB itself has to undergo reconstitution, restructuring and functional alignment with global best practices of fair, transparent and inclusive institutional accountability. NAB must be equipped with all the technical, professional and tactical resources as well as complete institutional autonomy to ensure inclusive accountability.
Accountability is the key to good governance but it must be seen happening across the board and more importantly against those big fish whose corruption can potentially cause serious damage to the national economy. Corruption is endemic to capitalism and cannot be eradicated as economies start to grow under a neoliberal economic model. When large corporations grow in size and outreach, they always need cheaper sources of input and raw material to sustain competition. In doing so, they create a whole value chain of corruption and collusion. Big corporates will always strive to undermine the possibility of government regulations, and use state power to restraint labour movements.
Pakistan is a signatory to 39 different conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO) which bind private and public sector institutions to comply with labour laws in letter and spirit. In reality, some of the big private-sector companies in Pakistan violate labour laws with impunity – partly because the workers do not know about their work place and employment rights.
Pakistan is among those countries that have a pathetic record vis-à-vis labour rights and workplace dignity – especially in case of women workers. In labour courts there are thousands of pending cases related to violation of labour laws in wage allocation and forced termination which need to be addressed immediately to honour the national commitment to ILO conventions. With its recent shift of focus, can NAB bring industries, and private and public institutions under the radar of its accountability to protect labour right?
The writer is a social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.