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Whistle-blowing: Will it work?


(June 28, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Lawyers, accountants and auditors met this week at a seminar to discuss the merits of whistle-blowing as a means of ending corruption in Sri Lanka. Speaker after speaker on the panel extolled the virtues of whistle-blowing and the need for such a mechanism but it was also pointed out that Sri Lanka is yet to have a whistle-blowing culture.

What is whistle-blowing? It’s ‘blowing the whistle (like a sports referee does in halting play when an infringement has been spotted)’ when corrupt activities are observed by an employee (could be an ordinary worker or a director) and reported to the higher-ups.

But will it work? There were pros and cons discussed but the biggest issue as far as we are concerned – and this is also to do with seminars and workshops that deal with a range of issues of public concern – is that debates like these, at the end of the day, to nowhere. Ofcourse in a democracy, there is a need to exchange ideas and vigorous thought. But in a country like Sri Lanka where there is a desperate need for quick solutions to burning issues, these seminars are not solutions-based or problem-solving. Ineffective and no action. Just talk. They discuss the problem and come up, sometimes with responses, but which are impractical to enforce quickly in the environment we live in.

Some speakers pointed out that whistle-blowing won’t work as the laws needs to be effective – like in the case of the Commission dealing with bribery issues. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, former chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), told the seminar that in the first five years of the re-activated Commission (after 1994), only one case was filed - of a teacher being charged for taking a tea set as a bribe.

He said the COPE report had strictures against many state corporations and private companies in its functioning and on privatisation issues but no action was taken until some individuals went to the Supreme Court and found justice (LMS, Waters Edge and Sri Lanka Insurance). Otherwise even parliament scrutiny didn’t proceed beyond reporting!

Another disappointing feature at the seminar was the absence (or maybe a few were present) of middle level executives and lower-rankers in an organisation, as they are the ones who would normally blow (or want to blow) the whistle. For example, a lower-ranked worker at the National Blood Bank was the whistle-blower in the scandal at that institute which got wide play in the media but he was subsequently victimised by the authorities.

Most of those present were Chairmen, Managing Directors and senior executives of companies. If there were others, they may have been at the back of the hall instead of the front which is not right because the seminar addresses (or should address) this category of staff. In the Sri Lankan context (particularly where the ‘Old Boys Club’ is a powerful tool of influence in the private sector), its rarely that directors and MDs who are employees would squeal on their ‘bosses’, leaving the smaller fry to raise issues.
But what about victimisation and harassment as the Blood Bank employee found out – when he raised the alarm over wrongdoing in the institution by the bosses? Thus you don’t need rocket science to understand how the system works in Sri Lanka in the corruption game. Complain and you become the victim!!

LOLC Chairman Rohini Nanayakkara said when she was heading a bank, she received anonymous petitions about wrongdoing and this helped to correct matters. Very often anonymous petitions can be scurrilous, vindictive and motivated by jeolously. However in Ms Nanayakkara’s case there appeared to be a semblance of truth in the allegations in the anonymous letters as action was taken after an investigation.

Thus rather than waiting for the laws to be effective – how often it is said that Sri Lanka has all the laws to deal with societal problems but lack implementation like the Anti-Bribery Commission which goes after small fry while the big fish escape the net – other mechanisms need to be put in place, swiftly, to deal with this menace to society.

In this context, a whistle-blowing hotline to facilitate information could be a good start in companies and can be part of company policy. What is however laughable is that there is a whistle-blowing policy at one particular company but the chief arbitrator is the big guy who himself has been slammed for corruption! This is like the phrase “Horage ammagen pena ahanawa (asking the rogue’s mother to read the crystal ball).”

Parliamentarian Rajapakse, who has been repeatedly beating the drum on the need for action on COPE reports, also agreed with a member of the audience that whistle-blowing policies won’t work if there is no governance and transparency at the top in the state and private sectors. “If the top is corrupt (and protected), a whistle-blowing culture will not emerge however much we push it.”

However, hotlines with provision for anonymity to providers of information if they prefer to remain anonymous or protection against victimisation (maybe through another state-regulated body) of the employee, may be the way forward to create a whistle-blowing culture. In many countries the hotline facility in whistle-blowing is working. Effectiveness of the law can be dealt with, after this process to set the ball rolling. Organisations like Transparency International and regulatory bodies can play a big role in creating this interest.
-Sri Lanka Guardian

1 comment

CA Saliya, NZ said...

One should have faith on the top even to send petitions about wrong doing. Mrs Nanayakkara has it. Saliya

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