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Against the Kleptocratic State

by Izeth Hussain

(November 03, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In my article Kleptocracy and 18A in The Island of September 28 I pointed out that unless we get rid of the kleptocratic state and move towards its polar opposite, the meritocratic state, the expectation that we can outmatch the performance of Singapore and the East Asian countries will remain bizarre. In this article I want to argue that the kleptocratic state provides an important part of the answer to the question: What went wrong in Sri Lanka? No one questions that since 1948 our economic performance has been far far below our potential, and furthermore we came very close to a permanent break-up. The kleptocratic state was behind both those gigantic non-achievements.

But before proceeding with my argument, I must clarify the neologisms I am using. According to the dictionary "kleptomania" means the "Irresistible tendency to theft in persons not tempted to it by needy circumstances." The most famous kleptomaniac in history was George VI of Britain. Quite appropriate, when you come to think of it, because he headed the greatest empire of all time, what George Orwell felicitously called Britain’s "coolie empire", which was based on theft of the natural resources of the Afro-Asian countries. In 1966 Stanislav L. Andreski coined the also felicitous neologism "kleptocracy" to designate third world elites who were clearly under a compulsion to keep on robbing everything from everybody. That neologism quickly gained wide currency in political discourse, and came to be given the imprimatur of standard English by inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1989. But, strangely, it has gone into desuetude in recent years, perhaps because of the power of kleptocracy over the media. Anyway, for obvious reasons, it is time to resuscitate it and make it part of the normal political lexicon.

I suggest in addition the neologism "kleptocrat" to designate the person who is adept at illegitimately diverting other people’s money into his pocket, and "kleptocratic" which is necessary to designate the kleptocratic state. The people’s money, earned through their toil and tears, is handed over to the state as a trust in the expectation that it will be used for the benefit of the people as a whole. But if that money is used to benefit the relations, friends, and political supporters, of the wielders of state power, a process of theft clearly comes into play. The process is often described as the "patronage system", which I think is wholly inappropriate. When a patron appoints people to positions in his estate or business establishment he is using his own private money, and clearly no theft is involved. But when the wielders of state power use public money to benefit relations, friends, and political supporters, without the slightest regard for the good of the whole people, a process of theft is clearly involved. True, in this process no money is diverted into the pockets of the wielders of state power, but their power is enhanced, and besides their egos get much satisfaction by seeing supplicants crowding their gates.

But after all, it might be argued, is that not the sort of thing that goes on in practically every state in the world, with rare exceptions, at least to some extent? An illegitimate patron-client relationship goes into operation, and people get appointed to posts regardless of merit and suitability. Why, then, use the term "kleptocratic state"? The crucial point is that in those other states the exercise of the patron-client relationship is seen as illegitimate, an aberration, and certainly not normative. By contrast, in the kleptocratic state the exercise of that relationship is seen as legitimate and normative. I would say that the defining characteristic of the kleptocratic state is that the wielders of state power hold that they have the right to appoint any body they like to any post they like.

I will now provide some illustrations gathered from my checkered career in the SL Foreign Service. In 1975 the then Deputy Foreign Minister declared in the course of a discussion, in a tone that was firm, categorical, implying that no nonsense will be brooked about it, "We have the right to appoint any body we like to any post we like." I straightaway disagreed, pointing out that the Government had the power, not the right, to do so. I sensed that further discussion would be futile because it was obvious that the good man was asserting what was firmly established in his mind as a self-evident norm. I mentioned it thereafter to a colleague who also asserted, "Of course the Government has the right to appoint whomever it likes to any post it likes".

It is widely known of course that under the 1977 Government the kleptocratic state went to bizarre extremes in the foreign relations sector: an Ambassador in a West European country kept poultry and offered to sell eggs at special rates to his Ambassador colleagues; another Ambassador in a Middle Eastern country ran a lucrative employment agency from there, using for the purpose the electronic resources of the Foreign Ministry free of charge, and so on and on and on. I will focus here on just one case which declares most eloquently the depths of the degradation to which Sri Lanka sank under the 1977 kleptocratic state. The details were given to me by a politically appointed Ambassador at one of our most important posts. The then Foreign Minister kept on harassing a female stenographer to sleep with him, in exchange for which he would recruit her into the Foreign Service, not as a Probationer mind you , but straightaway as First Secretary! None can doubt that he certainly would have done so – with total impunity – had the lady obliged.

The 1994 Government began well by choosing Ambassadors who were well qualified, but there was a serious deterioration in later years. However, appointments at lower levels under the 1994 Government showed that the kleptocratic state was far from being a thing of the past. I assumed duties in Moscow in February 1995, and was shortly after required to appoint a student there to a diplomatic level post for which he was not qualified. His qualification really was that he was the nephew of a Deputy Minister. Later, after graduation, he was awarded that post but without any interviews to establish that he was the best qualified for it. Suddenly a post of Minister-Counselor was created, and filled for some months by the nephew of a big-shot politician, after which he proceeded to fill a post in our London High Commission. In his case too there was no question of an interview or any other process to establish that he was the best qualified for those posts.

I come now to a case that strikingly illustrates the persistence and the power of the kleptocratic factor under the present Government. According to the Sunday Times of October 24 the International Committee of the Red Cross had wanted to donate 400 tractors to persons adversely affected by the war, and had drawn up its list of deserving beneficiaries. But a Minister had negated that list and handed over the tractors to persons of his choice. That newspaper carried a photograph of a female ICRC staff member hiding behind a van and weeping into a handkerchief. If – as has to be expected according to established form – the Opposition fails to raise a furor about the episode, and our civil society merely scratches itself peacefully by way of reaction, it will be shown that not only our miscreant politicians but the SL public as a whole accepts the kleptocratic state as normative.

How has this degradation come about? The question arises because we all know that the British left behind them an apolitical bureaucracy of the sort required for the proper functioning of a modern nation state. I believe that the genesis of the kleptocratic state has to be sought in the socio-economic changes that took place in Afro-Asia in the aftermath of decolonization. The colonial powers bequeathed their powers and privileges to Westernized upper class and middle class elites. These came under challenge from the much more numerous lower middle class aspirants to elite status, who were closer to the people and could therefore claim with some justification that they were authentically nationalist unlike the Westernized comprador bourgeoisie. They came to power in Sri Lanka, India, Indonesia, Burma, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Algeria, Ghana, Guinea, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, etc, providing the backbone to the Non-Aligned Movement.

After seizing power, the problem facing the new aspirants to elite status was how to ascend the socio-economic ladder quickly, instead of waiting for the opportunities that would be provided by a long drawn-out process of economic development. The new aspirants were not qualified to fill the high-level prestigious posts in the administration, they did not have the qualifications to shine in the professions, and they did not have the expertise and the capital to succeed in business.

There was only one way by which they could quickly mount the socio-economic ladder: through the state sector, provided the holders of power were willing and able to appoint their relations, friends, and political supporters to any post they liked. It was that that led to the state taking over huge segments of the economy and the proliferation of state corporations. The ideological cover for the promotion of the interests of the new aspirants to elite status was the Afro-Asian socialism that prevailed in all the countries I mentioned in the preceding paragraph. Such, I believe, was the genesis of the kleptocratic state.

Several questions arise. Why is it that state kleptocracy was far less virulent in India than say in Sri Lanka, Guinea, and Egypt? Why is it that while state kleptocracy wrecked Sri Lanka’s Foreign Service after 1977 India continued to maintain one of the best Foreign Services in the world? Why is it that Sri Lanka’s politicians seem to show something like a fanatical devotion to the kleptocratic state as shown for instance by 18A, which allows control by politicians of all the institutions of the state, and allows also state kleptocracy to flourish? There are doubtless complex historical and cultural factors that could serve to answer these questions. As I cannot deal with them in this relatively brief article, I will conclude by giving the reasons why the kleptocratic state provides a good part of the answer to the question, What went wrong in Sri Lanka?

An obvious point is that under the kleptocratic state the state sector can be expected to malfunction because appointments are not usually made on merit, and that will certainly have a deleterious effect on economic performance. It has come to be accepted that exceptional economic performance depends on much more than allowing the free play of market forces, and that the state played a crucial role in the economic miracles of the East Asian economies. In Sri Lanka the kleptocratic state has become so firmly entrenched as the norm that there seems to be even an inability to understand what is meant by meritocracy. This was vividly illustrated by an episode during J.R.Jayewardena’s state visit to Singapore after coming to power in 1977. He had sought the release of a Sri Lankan pilot working for Singapore Airlines so that he could be put in charge of the Sri Lankan airline. According to his memoirs Lee Kuan Yew had wondered, "How does an airline pilot run an airline?" We see there a collision of different universes because for JRJ and his merry men the fact that the airline pilot was the son of a former big-shot politician meant that he was fully qualified to take on any job, a view that would have been incomprehensible to Lee Kuan Yew. Undoubtedly the kleptocratic state aggravated our ethnic problem. For various reasons the Tamils came to depend far more than the Sinhalese on state sector jobs. It seemed at the time of Independence that the Tamils had a privileged position in the state sector, and that there was a legitimate case for correcting an imbalance – or so it seemed to the Sinhalese though not to the Tamils. In any case successive Governments created a new anomalous imbalance that cried out for correction: the Sinhalese who constituted 74% of the population had 92% of the state sector jobs. Obviously that was possible because successive Governments claimed the kleptocratic right to appoint whomever they liked to any post they liked. In one but the last year of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Government it was decided to appoint 30,000 jobless graduates to posts in the state sector. It was found that the Tamils and the Muslims were conspicuous by their absence among the appointees. The fact that that was possible at a time when the Government was desperately trying to refute charges of anti-minority discrimination attests to the power of the kleptocratic drive in the state.

The kleptocratic state aggravated also the divisions among the Sinhalese themselves. The Commission headed by G.L.Peiris that investigated the 1989 JVP rebellion recorded that the reason most often cited by the rebels was that they failed to get state sector jobs despite their qualifications because preference was given to candidates with political backing. It would be true to say that the kleptocratic state motivated the two great SL rebellions of the last century. It led to politics as "organized hatred", and seriously divided practically every village between adherents of the two major parties. The divisiveness inherent in the kleptocratic state was concretely illustrated when President Premadasa visited a village to gift scores of houses built by the state. The beneficiaries were exclusively UNP supporters. The village which from ancient times had celebrated a folk-festival in common took to celebrating it separately by adherents of the two major parties.

I will conclude with a few observations on the moral dimension of the kleptocratic state problem. All societies are held together by common moral systems, and almost all of them strongly disapprove of theft. The only exception I know of is that of the Dobus, an account of whom is given in one of the classics of anthropology, Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture. In Sri Lanka the state has become inveterately kleptocratic while the people continue to disapprove of theft in the society. It can hardly be otherwise because theft goes against the second precept of Buddhism.

I will now provide a quotation on the importance of morality in Buddhist tradition for economic and other well-being. It is from the French scholar Robert Lingat’s book Royautes Bouddhiques, most of which is on the role of royalty in Sri Lanka. The quotation in translation goes, "According to Buddhist doctrine, the security and the prosperity of a country depends on the morality of its inhabitants. Thus the Buddha noted that the existence and independence of the Licchavis was based on seven traditional practices, none of which should ever be neglected: live in concord with each other, observe the Law, honour the aged, respect the females, venerate the sanctuaries, and treat well the Buddhist arahats." The list can of course vary from culture to culture. The important point is that in Buddhist doctrine an integral connection is seen between the observance of high moral standards and economic and other well-being. Tell a Friend

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