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Corruption and patronage culture rampant

State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), which have cost the state mammoth amounts of state funds over the past few decades, are victims of a patronage culture fostered by corrupt politicians, says a new report on the state of these organisations released by Colombo-based think tank Advocata.

The report quotes Finance Ministry Secretary Dr R.H.S. Samaratunga as saying that successive Sri Lankan governments have pumped a colossal Rs.1, 150 billion into the upkeep of these SOEs up to 2017.

This is money that could have been spent on developing schools and hospitals as well as maintaining much-needed infrastructure.

The report says that lifting limits on political campaign spending and abolishing transparency of those money trails in 1978 opened the floodgates of corruption.

The report points out that “wealthy backers, some connected to the underworld, provide labour and fund campaigns in return for political protection or rewards.” Because of this culture, the people who end up getting elected to office are those with “access to cash and manpower – not intellect or ability.”

Naturally, this means that the state’s technical capacity to formulate policy and implement them are insufficient. The report notes that “the concept of independent policy analysis does not exist, leaving a vacuum vulnerable to capture by special interest groups.”

After the Member is elected, they try to recover their “investment” in the political venture or start building up a war chest to be re-elected. He or she also has to provide jobs and wherewithal to their supporters and for this, SOEs provide opportunities for the politicians to stuff these enterprises with staff that exceed requirements. In one egregious incident, the State Engineering Corporation recruited a mind-blowing 451 persons to fill 41 vacancies in December 2015. That is more than ten times the required number of persons, according to inquiries conducted by Parliament’s Committee on Public Enterprise (COPE).

The reason why the SOEs are a soft target for the corrupt is weak governance practices, the Advocata report says.

The report suggests that adopting “comprehensive corporate governance practices is a route that many countries have taken to strengthen the accountability of SOEs. These governance practices strengthen the governing bodies that oversee and control (shareholders or owner meetings, board and management, internal monitoring structures), define clear rules of engagement between the different actors, and increase transparency and accountability towards the stakeholders.”