January 12, 2007

It's the About the Application of the Law Stupid!

The Managing Director of the IMF recently visited the country I am in. I read and re-read his concluding statement and it seemed very on-point:

"...Creating an environment conducive to private sector development is another priority area. In this context, strengthening governance, including a sound and predictable legal and regulatory framework, and an efficient judiciary is important."
It sounded almost as pertinent as the New Year speeches our President makes every year. Just as the Director of the IMF, our President really does seem to understand what is wrong with the country. The problem with him is the same as the problem with the Director of the IMF, they are either powerless to do anything about it other than making speeches that give people like me a half an hour's worth of hope that things will change, or they want to look the other way.

A few years ago, our President, in his New Year's speech announced the passage of a law eliminating taxes and duties on all information technology products. I was still living in the States then. About a month after his declaration, I landed in this country with computers, printers and other equipment for our local subsidiary. The customs officers were quick to tell me that we had to pay an inordinate amount of customs duty. We reminded them that the Head of State had announced that there was no more customs duty. They said that they had heard the speech as well and the law had been passed but that the “texts of application” of the law had not yet been drafted so we still had to pay. Of course, they offered a "discount" to keep it off the books. I thought that the receipt would be a weapon to use in the struggle to improve the business environment so we paid up.

A month later, the “texts of application” were published. Before anyone had a chance to take advantage of the new law, they repealed it. Taxes and duties were back on. No speech, no announcement, just those nasty “texts of application” that cancelled the law. Imagine the consequences for a company that placed a large technology order from overseas that had not yet received its merchandise? Not a nice surprise, especially not when the taxes and duties are about 50% of the value of the technology.

Back to the recent IMF visit. Of course, high on the list of the discussions was the fight against corruption. As in the President’s New Year’s speech and in many other political speeches, the government reiterated its commitment against corruption. But that little problem of the “texts of application” of the law creeps up again. In their Letter of Intent following the visit of the IMF, the country stated:

In April 2006, the government enacted a law defining the modalities for application of [the law], which refers to the disclosure of assets by senior government officials. Nevertheless, the commission that was to have been set up under this law to receive the asset declarations has not yet been established because the legal texts governing the application of the law have not yet been prepared. Similarly, the National Commission to Fight Corruption, created in March 2006, is not yet operational as its members have not yet been named, given the considerable time needed to ascertain the integrity of potential members.
Given that corruption is the government’s top priority, you start to understand why nothing changes here. And every time the World Bank, the IMF or US Government officials come in, our government will proudly display the laws on the books to fight corruption, to improve the environment for the private sector, to fight poverty, improve education, etc. And the World Bank and friends will have their conscience relieved that their admonitions were effective and that finally the Country is "behaving." The laws are well written and sound great. The problem is not just that they are not applied but that there is no consequence for not applying them. The judges can see the laws and chose to ignore them with no consequence, same with the police, the custom agents and all other public servants. Until the Country has to account for the non-application of its laws, it will not establish mechanisms to enforce them.

1 comment:

  1. Seems to me that if a government behaves like thieves, then its minions should be treated like thieves. Obviously, you cannot round them up and put them in jail because they hold the keys to the jail, but surely there must be a more creative way to get technology hardware into the country.

    Why tell them at all? Would we tell someone we know is prone to thievery that we just acquired a diamond necklace and will be leaving it in our kitchen tonight? Thievery is wrong whether committed by private individuals or groups like the mafia or by official groups like governments.

    These comments are not at all meant to be critical. I've been there. I naively traveled to Indonesia, thinking I was moving there (ha ha), only to have my entire music collection on CD confiscated because I would not essentially buy them again at the customs desk. This from a country that doesn't enforce copyright laws.

    Hang in there, B, and don't forget to ask for help from the one who's last on your list of interests on your profile. ;-)


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