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His Excellency Jon Benjamin’s speech delivered at the IMANI 10th anniversary dinner


Good evening to all of you and especially my diplomatic colleagues from Morocco, Denmark, Norway, Australia, Switzerland and Spain.

I’m very grateful to Franklin Cudjoe and all at IMANI for this invitation to speak to you this evening.  I’m not sure, Franklin, about what you have me sitting in:  it looks like you’re having me enstooled.  But, at least, this chair was definitely made in Ghana.

I start by congratulating IMANI on their tenth anniversary.

A person who is ten years old is still a child with adolescence on the near horizon but adulthood still quite some way off.  Since an organization such as yours can reasonably aspire to be around at least as long as any person, and probably much longer, IMANI is still likewise very much a relative newcomer, still growing, still developing. We wish you well on the continuation of your journey which you have started so impressively.

Now, I’m a diplomat and diplomats are sometimes known for speaking without actually saying anything, at least in public. But that isn’t really my style, so I start with some caveats to my remarks which I would humbly request you seriously consider before you pass comment.

Firstly, in case any of you think that anything that follows is too critical, then please know that I am a huge fan of, and advocate for, Ghana. I have been privileged to call this country home for the last exactly six months and I have received a fabulously warm and kind welcome. I, my government, the people of Britain generally wish nothing but the very greatest success and brightest possible future for Ghana and all its people on the long road towards full economic development. So, my starting position is as a firm and supportive friend both individually and as a representative of my country.

The UK and Ghana share common goals in many areas including economic development.  The UK has a large aid programme and is the only G7 country to have reached the UN target of devoting 0.7% of its GDP to development assistance, bilaterally, through the EU and through UN and other international agencies.  But in each country where we have a programme – and our programme here in Ghana amounts to tens of millions of pounds a year – we have to assure our citizens that money is being well-spent and can be accounted for.  I dare say that is the same for all of Ghana’s Development Partners.  That is not to say that we are seeking to impose specific policies or systems on sovereign governments – we aren’t.  But we have to be able to answer the reasonable questions that our Parliament and taxpayers ask, and of course many of those questions are asked by citizens in the countries we are assisting.

My second caveat is to tell you frankly that accepting this invitation was not necessarily a straightforward decision. I am well aware of a polarized party political climate.  And, perhaps given some history surrounding how actions of the British High Commission have been interpreted or misinterpreted in the past, I am also well aware that whatever I say this evening, even if I limit myself entirely to talking about the weather, will lead some to accuse me of being either a neo-colonialist or, more likely, of being pro one party or another, or perhaps of interfering in Ghana’s internal affairs.

So, let me address all that upfront.  To start with the ‘neo-colonialist’ tag.  Well I trust that even those here who profoundly disagree with me or my government – which is perfectly legitimate by the way – will do so on the basis of arguments, not insults.  Freedom of speech and the right to disagree are very strong British values. But also African ones:  I enjoyed a Zambian proverb I heard for the first time the other day. It says: “If two wise men always agree, then there is no need for one of them.”  In short, please feel free to challenge me on what I say here:  we welcome challenge.

And let me state unambiguously for the record – though I honestly don’t think I should need to do so as I hope it would be self-evident – the British government, the British High Commission, are – and I, myself, am – entirely neutral politically as regards Ghana’s domestic politics. It is for the people of Ghana and the people of Ghana alone to decide in periodic elections who should govern them. The British government celebrates Ghanaian democracy which has so much it can teach others in this region.  We have, we do now and we always will work happily with whichever government and leadership Ghanaian democracy produces at any given moment.  So, if anyone wants to claim that we are siding with one party or the other, they will get short shrift from us.  We aren’t and we won’t. Please don’t pray us in aid for domestic party political point scoring – that is simply not a game we are getting involved in.

And maybe there, too, is something for IMANI and other members of civil society to ponder, given your absolutely vital role in holding government – all governments – to account, objectively, analytically, factually.  It is perfectly legitimate for a think tank to be associated with a political party, as long as it does so openly and doesn’t instead pretend to be neutral while actually being an actor in inter-party squabbles. But any think tank that describes itself as neutral should be seen to be so, critiquing government certainly but equally and objectively without fear or favour. I trust that IMANI in protecting the reputation it has built up as a fearless critic of government will always be able to demonstrate that it is not harder on governments of one party than of another, but equally hard on all governments, without regard to their political stripes and not beholden to any one political group. Indeed, the long-term credibility of any such think tank depends on demonstrably taking such a neutral stance and avowedly maintaining real political independence.

Incidentally, to those who have asked me why I accepted this IMANI invitation and not one from another civil society organization, the answer is simple. Only IMANI invited me.  Had another think tank invited me to speak on this or another relevant subject, I would have been similarly delighted to accept.

A third and final caveat before I go further.  Some people suggested to me directly this week that I should pull out of this event, given that a part of the news agenda has been dominated in the last week or so by the consequences of a prominent drugs-related arrest in London of a person just off a flight from Accra.  But I don’t run away at the first sign of trouble or leave people in the lurch. The fact is that this invitation was extended to me and I accepted it well before that story broke.  Having made such a commitment, I honour it – I keep my word rather than letting down those I give it to.

And to those who accused us of interfering in internal affairs by issuing a statement about the case – our only statement I might add – then I’m sorry to tell them that we have every right publicly to correct an equally public, prior erroneous claim about our involvement in this case.  That is precisely one of the things diplomatic missions are there for.  We would not expect the Ghana High Commission in London to stay silent in the face of false information about Ghana in the UK.   We would certainly not accuse the Ghana High Commission of supposed “interference” for making such a correction, and do not accept that allegation against us in this case.

But, and I’m sorry to disappoint some of you, I won’t be making new statements about this drugs case today.  Or, indeed, any day.  It remains the subject of an ongoing police investigation and legal proceedings. The right place for all relevant information to be aired is in court. Trials take place in courts, not in the media.  As you have no doubt heard, the lady concerned in this case pleaded guilty today to the charges against her and will be sentenced on 5 January.  That means that the legal proceedings are ongoing and we should not be commenting on the detail before they are resolved.

Since I have been officially asked to do so here in Ghana, I can, however, repeat – and I stress repeat, as I said this clearly and publicly from the outset: check my Twitter account if you don’t believe me – I can repeat that the person arrested was not carrying a Ghanaian diplomatic passport. I honestly don’t know where that claim came from in the first place. It didn’t come from us. It wasn’t true at the start and, therefore, it still isn’t true now. The repetition of an incorrect rumor, whether by an Austrian newspaper or anyone else, doesn’t turn an untruth into a truth.  I hope that is clear.

And so back to the topic at hand – integrity in public office. That’s a high-sounding phrase, a very sophisticated one. It’s also a euphemism. What I suspect Franklin really means by that phrase is corruption. But even the word corruption is itself a bit of a longer word than it needs to be.  There’s a much better, shorter word for it in the English language and that word is ‘theft’.  Corruption is thieving, it is stealing, it is robbery.

So, let me give a short perspective about how that subject looks from a UK perspective.  But this is a speech not a lecture, so I am not lecturing.  How could I? Are we perfect in the UK in this regard? Far from it.  Of course we’re not. Growing up in London, I was well aware of occasional serious corruption allegations against elements in the police; there are former public officials in jail now in the UK for stealing from the public purse; and anyone who like me is a devotee of the British satirical and investigative magazine ‘Private Eye’ reads in each and every issue of it numerous allegations of corrupt practices, often incidentally allegedly involving parts of local government in areas where political power has not changed hands in a long time.

My point here is that some level of corruption exists everywhere, in every country and always has. That, sadly, just reflects the human condition: we are all imperfect beings, frequently falling short of whatever high standards we set ourselves or are set for us, though we are also capable of great good if we so decide. If each individual person is imperfect, we can hardly expect government or society – basically the sum total of some or all of those individuals – miraculously to be perfect.

But, not all governments and societies are equally imperfect either – far from it.  And there is some evidence of that, such as the much respected Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, the latest version of which comes out next week. Incidentally in 2013, of the 117 countries measured, the UK and Ghana occupied places 17 and 63 respectively. This index is not definitive but it allows us to see how countries are perceived to be performing in tackling, or not tackling corruption, both over time and in comparison to one another.

And how does Transparency International define corruption?  Simply as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”.  Another definition I like is: “the theft of the people’s money for personal enrichment”.  Whatever definition you prefer, Transparency International has an impressive track record, including for its political neutrality: its findings can’t just be dismissed.

I’m well aware that some people claim that corruption is a fixation of developed countries, enabling them to use examples of it as a stick to beat developing countries and to congratulate themselves on their supposedly superior moral values. But people in developing countries should care about corruption in any case, regardless of what we in Western countries think – and indeed many people in developing countries do. If you believe that government interventions – things like the provision of public goods and services, such as education, health, basic infrastructure; things like the protection of basic rights; the preservation of functioning markets and of the rule of law – if you believe that these things are all important for development and if, like me, you believe that corruption seriously impedes optimal government performance of these functions, then you have a clear case for corruption mattering very much to economic and social development. It’s not a difficult proposition.  The issue of corruption isn’t rocket science. Landing a space probe on a comet – now that’s rocket science. Figuring out why corruption is wrong – not so much.

And corruption isn’t just a moral issue, though it will always be that and should be.  If good economics is about the most efficient allocation of resources, then corruption tends towards the opposite: it depletes a country’s wealth, diverting revenue and resources from the public purse and the public good to corrupt officials’ and politicians’ pockets for private good and at public loss.

Corruption – for the purposes of this speech, the absence of public integrity – is also a transaction cost which businesses which indulge in it then have no choice but to factor into their calculations. The World Bank estimates that corruption adds at least 10% to the cost of doing business in many parts of the world, a cost usually passed on to customers in the prices they pay. The World Bank also says that “bribery has become a one trillion dollar industry”. Maybe some people think this is relatively harmless, that corruption is somehow a victimless crime: the company gets its contract, the official or politician gets his or her kickback, and life goes on – business is business, so what?

british high
His Excellency Jon Benjamin, British High Commissioner to Ghana

I don’t accept that ‘so what’?  When contracts are awarded on the basis of personal gain not whether they are best value for the community, or when services that are supposed to be free or low cost can only be secured for an extra unofficial ‘fee’, then everyone suffers.  Bribery and corruption mean decisions are made for the wrong reasons and that the public good is suppressed. Corruption is demonstrably a major hindrance to any country’s economic development, thwarting efforts to alleviate poverty, not least as it has a disproportionate impact on the poor and disadvantaged who literally can’t afford to take part in this illicit game.  They thereby lose access to public goods and services they have a legitimate right to.  In some senses, corruption is therefore not just stealing, it can also amount to the rich stealing from the poor.

To tackle corruption and keep it to a minimum in the context of those basic human imperfections I mentioned earlier, what can we do? I would suggest two overarching approaches: firstly, minimize the opportunities for it to happen through strong institutions with good systems that catch and bring to book those who transgress; and, secondly, set a culture which unambiguously teaches that it is wrong to be corrupt and enables people to blow the whistle on corruption when they see it.

In terms of minimizing the opportunities, that means crreating institutions that have clear values and lots of controls and balances. I recall that President Obama famously said here in Accra five years ago that what this continent needed was not more ‘Big Men’ but more big institutions: who can doubt that that assertion remains generally just as true today?

What does this mean in practice?  Well, it includes having an incorruptible and demonstrably politically neutral judiciary.  It includes having a fearless, confidence-inspiring anti-corruption agency with the right mandate and full political and public support.  It means for example replacing opaque single-source public procurement mechanisms with transparent tendering processes; it means even senior officials and ministers not being permitted to approve major spending decisions or payments alone without others signing off too; it means wherever possible putting services online and/or making legitimate payments for them cashless.  And it means regular intrusive oversight. I can tell you that right now, all this week, the British High Commission is receiving a visit by the UK’s National Audit Office which is combing through all our accounts and management processes.  If they find anything untoward, that we will be published and I will be held accountable.  We manage British taxpayers’ money: those tax payers have an absolute right to know we are using it properly.  They have a right to know what officials earn and to be assured that if a public servant is known to be buying property or cars, or funding their children’s education, at a cost way beyond their nominal salary, that anomaly will be fully investigated.

I should add, too, that when employees of my organization, the Foreign Office, have our regular security checks, we have to provide asset statements and explain in detail any apparent discrepancy between what we earn and what we own. That seems to me an important point of principle:  if any public servant anywhere appears to be living way beyond their official means, shouldn’t they be required to explain where their wealth came from, rather than glorying in it without question?  And if they can’t readily explain where it came from, shouldn’t they fear for their job?

But I would argue that the cultural aspect of tackling corruption is even more important than these mechanisms. Here’s a basic, simple question. If an official whether here in Ghana, in the UK or anywhere else is tempted to steal from the public purse or solicit an illegal payment, do they instinctively know deep down that what they are doing is wrong? Has their cultural upbringing given them some sort of innate sense that what they are doing is morally reprehensible or, rather, that it is acceptable?

If a child grows up seeing his parents paying off policemen who stop them in their car or if that child gets used to a practice whereby a few banknotes are slipped in with homework or an exam to ensure better grades, then the rot can set in very early. A child will see such practices as normal and practice them as an adult. And if a newly hired civil servant, teacher, policeman – any state official –  is not given at the outset, and then repeatedly reminded of, a code of ethics, such as ours in the UK, which stresses integrity, honesty and impartiality as prime values, then it maybe won’t be surprising if they don’t live up to them. But if they do have those values drummed into them, they won’t then be able to offer an excuse if later found to be corrupt.

Another vital question is this: are those caught flagrantly indulging in corruption charged and if found guilty are they severely punished?  That I would suggest is key.  Proper sanctions can have a huge deterrent effect.  A former senior official, prominent politician or high-flying minister publicly disgraced, his or her assets confiscated, and jailed for several years sends a hugely powerful message in any country in the world. The opposite of that – in effect, impunity – can send an equally powerful message: namely, that such behaviour is somehow normal, acceptable, unremarkable, or at least unpunishable. It’s a choice ultimately – between a zero tolerance and a ‘we tolerate anything’ approach.

What people at the top do in any organization or system sets an important tone.  Another African proverb I really like is that: “a fish rots from its head”. I couldn’t help noticing that last weekend the newly elected president of Indonesia flew in economy and checked in normally with other members of the public when flying to Singapore for a private, family engagement.  I lived in Indonesia for four years in the late 1980s when the corruption pertaining to the then leader was almost legendary. You just can’t underestimate the message the new president has just sent – simple but powerful.  Presumably some people in the Indonesian system will now think more carefully about how they travel at official expense.  And, incidentally, yes, whenever I fly to London from here at public expense I fly economy, not business or first class though I’m sometimes surprised at who I see flying upfront, presumably at someone else’s expense.

This point about getting the culture right and setting an example is central to combating corruption.  How can we hope to stop the micro corruption of junior officials whose official salary is barely enough for them to live on, if those same officials can point to numerous examples of others far senior to them practicing macro corruption motivated no longer by basic survival instincts but by pure greed and then ostentatiously showing off their wealth in public? And all the more so, if those junior officials can’t point to any recent, successfully concluded corruption cases that led to exemplary sentences.

Of course, establishing a culture where corruption is known to be unacceptable is one thing, and individuals in a leadership role can do a lot to help. But changing commonplace, established behaviour is another, and requires the collective endeavour, will and action of many ordinary people. Most people know corruption is wrong, but many feel trapped and that there is no alternative but to pay up and play the game. It is unrealistic to expect a single individual to buck the trend if they can see their neighbour is unfairly getting a service before they do. And the fact is, where corruption is established in systems, it can be hard for the ordinary person to go about his or her daily life without contributing to the system. So a collective agreement and effort is required, as well as the systems to prevent, and the institutions to catch and punish wrong-doers.

And in terms of the national interest of any country, it’s right to worry about the corroding effects of corruption on that country’s political culture and democracy.  If general trust in politicians goes down because of corruption, if few politicians are offering a long-term vision for their country because they are more focused on their own short-term prospects, if ordinary voters start saying “those politicians they’re all the same” or “parliament isn’t doing its job” or if they start asking “what’s the point of voting?” –  then either political apathy or potential political unrest start becoming major concerns and both are a real threat to the continued strength of hard-won democracy.

These are all serious issues worthy of national debate and where possible consensus.  If that debate doesn’t rise above cheap political point scoring – with one side blaming the other and then the ball being lobbed back again by the other side – then it just becomes more difficult to address corruption.  But none of the issues I have raised are specific to only one country, to only one party, to just one side or group of individuals, to just one government or at just one moment in time.  So, let me please emphatically repeat an earlier point.  I hope no political party or figure tries to pray the UK in aid as politically supporting one side against the other around the issues we are discussing tonight or any other issue for that matter.  We aren’t and we have no intention of doing so.

Now as I come towards the end of these remarks, no doubt many of you came here tonight hoping to hear the British High Commissioner dish the dirt. But I have only been in Ghana for six months and it seems hardly right for me to tell you – Ghanaians all – about what goes on in your country.  You are infinitely better qualified to do so than I am. But my own Ghanaian colleagues at the High Commission – and our Ghanaian employees outnumber our British colleagues by three to one – have told me a few eye-watering stories.  Many Ghanaian friends tell me similar stories, including Brits of Ghanaian origin from the Diaspora in London wanting to invest and set up businesses here but who encounter real frustrations in doing so.

And, yes, I have more than once seen with my own eyes policemen taking money from tro tro drivers at an impromptu road-block not 100 meters from the British Residence where I live.  And I won’t forget in a hurry my experience of visiting a government agency to secure various documents.  I went anonymously and waited a long time.  Nothing happened.  Then my job title was revealed.  Suddenly, I was attended to in five minutes and then received by the Director. That was very nice of him since there seemed to be lots of other members of the public waiting outside his office for an appointment.  But why should I receive any better, quicker or different service from anyone else, just because of my job title? I appreciate the courtesy intended but that differential treatment isn’t right either.

But perhaps the clearest personal example I can give is of something that has happened to me virtually every day in these first six months here, and frequently more than once a day. Can you guess what that is? Well, almost every day someone asks me for a visa – for themselves, their spouse, child, brother, friend or neighbour – and sometimes for their brother’s friend’s neighbour!  I’m already heartily tired of always saying the same thing, namely that if you comply with our immigration rules, you will get a visa. If you don’t, you won’t. Knowing me, or asking me for what is euphemistically called a “personal meeting” to lobby me, won’t make a blind bit of difference. I can neither impose, change nor reverse any visa decision taken by our visa experts, and, more importantly, nor would I want to work in or for a system where such ad hoc decision-making was possible merely on the whim of the big boss.

In case that isn’t clear enough, consider this. A year ago I was still British Ambassador in Chile. My wife who is Chilean needed a visa to accompany me to the UK – from the Embassy I myself was in charge of.  She applied online like all other applicants, she paid like everyone else, she was then called to the Embassy for an interview like everyone else, provided documentation, including about her bank accounts like everyone else, and then waited the requisite period for a decision – like everyone else.  Did she get her visa? Yes. Why? Because she clearly complied with our immigration law.  Not because she was my other half.  I was not, could not be, involved in the decision-making process and could have faced serious sanction if I had tried to influence the outcome.  So, please don’t ever ask me for a visa again – I didn’t and couldn’t influence the decision made on my own wife’s application process, so why do you think I’m going to influence yours?  Perhaps some people think I will do so because that is the type of bureaucratic mind-set they are accustomed to and they find it difficult to believe that the same mind-set doesn’t apply everywhere, though all of you can better answer if that is in fact the case than I can.

There are so many other aspects of this issue that time does not permit me to go into this evening but which are worth a mention in closing.  Tonight’s subject is integrity in the public sector but the integrity of others outside the public sector matters too.  For example, businesses can help fight corruption by the simple principle of refusing to indulge in it.  In the UK, we now have very tough legislation that makes it a criminal act to bribe an official anywhere in the world.

And here in Ghana where religion is so important, religious leaders can play an important part in keeping us on the straight and narrow. What they say, or don’t say, can make a big difference.  All religions teach about honesty, caring for the poor, and sharing wealth. Ghana has some truly excellent religious leaders who I respect deeply.  But their message seems to me sometimes to be  undermined by just one or two “men of God” whose prosperity message seems to glorify the amassing of great wealth without asking where it came from, including by living ostentatiously themselves. What signal does that send?

And, finally, what about the media, of which I see a large number of representatives here this evening.  I read, listen to and watch the Ghanaian media every day and they have an impressive record in, and commitment to, uncovering alleged wrongdoing, for which I congratulate them. But what are we to think when certain journalists expect the famous “soli” – to cover our events?  Isn’t covering the news actually their job to start with? And, if they aren’t paid sufficiently for doing so, isn’t that an issue between them and their employer, rather than our or anyone else’s problem?  And if those journalists who pride themselves on reporting corruption in others then ask for unofficial payments themselves, isn’t that just a touch hypocritical?

An event or story is either intrinsically newsworthy or it isn’t: it doesn’t become newsworthy because someone has paid for it – that isn’t journalism, it’s advertising which is perfectly legitimate in itself of course but is a different professional activity.  Now, I wonder if any of the media which report this speech tomorrow will include these comments of mine about this lack of probity by some of their own journalistic colleagues? I doubt it but, go on, surprise me!  And at least you now know officially that you will never receive any soli from the British High Commission!

I close by thanking you all for hearing me out, as a guest – a politically neutral guest – in your wonderful country.  As I said, this has been a speech not a lecture.  My view is just one among many.  I would be delighted to hear constructive criticism, corrections and alternative views to what I have said tonight, as all debate is welcome and in itself forms part of the work in progress everywhere in the world to improve integrity in public life.

Thank you to IMANI for this invitation and thank you to all of you again for your attention.

Follow the High Commissioner on Twitter @JonBenjamin19 

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