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Tuesday, 19 May 2009

In praise of whistle-blowers?

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Kabinga Pande is urging officers in his ministry to report any officers found abusing resources meant for national development : 

“I want everyone working at this ministry to be a whistle blower because we cannot afford to lose billions of Kwacha to selfish individuals at the expense of developing the economy....As a ministry which deals with foreign issues, it is imperative not to be found in such scandals, I want it to be the ministry which others can look up to as an example where officers are honest in their dealings....".
This comes as no surprise because Mr Pande presides over the most corrupt ministry in the nation, if one is to go by the latest report of the Auditor General. We were promised recently by the Permanent Secretary that prosecutions would be forth coming.  I am not holding my breath because part of the problem with the Foreign Ministry is that it is crowded by political cadres who hold allegiance to the ruling party and not the Zambian people. 

But may be Mr Pande is genuinely floundering for advice. So here is my free advice. Whistle blowing is a "public good" whose benefits go beyond the individual. In econ-speak the social benefits outweigh the private benefits. But more importantly, no one is going to be a whistle blower if the private costs outweigh the private benefits (there are psychological benefits and of course, reduced corruption benefits all Zambian citizens, including employees at the Ministry). So what we need is the change in incentives so that employees find it attractive or less costly to blow the wistle. We don't want to give the employees at the Ministry cash rewards for whistle blowing because that defeats the overall objective of keeping Ministry costs to the minimum. What we need is something fairly simple  : effective legal protection against whistle blowers which protects the employee-employer relationship. This has the effect of substantially reducing personal costs.  Fortunately for Mr Pande there are many examples of this legislation where he could glean details, including our SADC friends in South Africa

Of course once the legislation is in place, we also need to improve the efficiency of our court system and ensure that special corruption courts are set up that deals with cases more quickly and brings corrupt people to justice.  I fear currently we lose twice : corruption and the substantial costs of prosecutions. Now for that Mr Pande will require help from the Justice Minister Mr Kunda. 


  1. How refreshing! Quite different from the views of the Inspector General of Police who promised to come down heavily on those people who leak govt documents inorder to embarass the BOMA. Unfortunately the Chief Justice uttered similar sentiments in his advice to lawyers. This was coming against the backdrop of the leaked AG advice to one Dora Siliya.

  2. Frank,

    On the Dora Siliya case I should also add that the subsequent actions taken by RB did not exactly encourage whistle blowers.


    A very good analysis, hitting the nail on the head and saying it as it is.

    If we're going to make serious effort to get of of this corruption quagmire, we must quit the pretence and accept it exists in the first place, unlike FTJ (as President) who infamously challenged people to prove corruption existed. He absolutely hated the accusation that there were corrupt elements in his govt.

    Mr Pande's statement is a good step in the right direction.

    However, words need to be followed up with specific actions, as you've said. Reports of an official from the Ministry of Health under investigation by the ACC of embezzling K10bn, who's now been moved to another ministry because of that investigation, show that Mr Pande's words are indeed small steps forwards while the rest of govt are making leaps backwards!

  3. The Dora Siliya whistle blowers have been treated harshly...some apparent even attacked by party cadres. The case of the Permanent Secretary Mr Mambwe was a sad one...some chiefs had to come to his rescue.

    I think the problem is that Government sees corruption through media is what captures the headlines..instead of long term and measure steps towards accountability..

  4. I agree that this is a good public statement to make, however I remain cautious. This is yet another area of Zambian government where the growing relationship with the PRC does not bode well, whose own approach toward whistleblowers is extremely draconian, as this investigative report, from Al Jazeera revealed in late April of this year. I think that this is an ominous outgrowth of the attitude that public statements on corruption are more important than the corruption itself. The US government seems torn between the demands of its citizens and constitution for full disclosure of alleged torture at overseas military facilities, and its own desire to shape media coverage and maintain public support for ongoing military operations. The recent reaction of the Zimbabwean government towards prison guards who helped reveal inhumane conditions in the facilities where they worked is another example closer to home. Being a whistleblower is never easy or comfortable, and it is very easy for a corrupt government to dramatically increase the private costs above any reasonable expectation of civic mindedness on the part of those with whistles to blow.

    As far as effective mechanisms for rewarding Ministry employees acting as whistleblowers without undue costs, certainly it is a tricky balance. Perhaps one cost-neutral mechanism (within Ministry budgets) would be to increase the official "seniority" of employees who provide information that aids in successful prosecutions, such that they qualify for promotions and/or pension benefits earlier than they otherwise would. At the very least this would discourage senior officials from recruiting and/or pressuring subordinates into actions that support their own corrupt activities, since such employees would stand to gain personally from successful prosecutions at the top. Convicted officials could then spend the rest of their lives paying back the costs of their own prosecutions as part of the punishment. Just a thought.


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