Merit, cronyism and political patronage
The ongoing European economic crisis has been analysed from different perspectives by economists and sociologists who try to find the root cause of such a depressing phase in modern economic history. One question that has often been asked is why northern European states generally seem to perform better economically than the southern states, especially those bordering the Mediterranean.
A common argument in these analyses is that southern European states are plagued by endemic corruption nepotism, cronyism, favouritism and political patronage that sap the life out of their economies. Interestingly, a study published in the Social Behaviour and Personality Journal in 2008 claims that these negative traits are more prevalent in services industries in small countries “like Cyprus and Malta”. “Services provided in this labour-intensive environment are more open to corruption than those in larger organisations.”
One would have thought that by appointing a technocratic government a country would have a better chance of promoting a meritocratic system of public governance to combat political patronage that is prevalent in most Mediterranean countries.
Mario Monti, the Italian technocrat prime minister, obsessively extols the benefits of meritocracy. He has said: “The culture of the Italians must change. Italy can become more competitive only if we introduce in our system much more meritocracy, which means more responsibility in the public and private sector.”
Yet he has already lost a number of his own technocratic ministers who were accused of southern European negative traits. The latest incident relates to Adelfio Elio Cardinale, a powerful under-secretary for heath in the Monti government. Cardinale is a prominent Sicilian radiologist who is also a university professor and a Cavaliere di Gran Croce with an impeccable professional CV. He is now being accused of resorting to favouritism to promote the daughter of a medical colleague to become a research officer in the University of Palermo.
Favouritism, cronyism and patronage are not just an exclusive vice of politicians. It is ingrained in the southern European psyche and is spread in varying degrees in all southern European states, including Malta. In an article in Spiegel Online, Hans-Jurgen Schlamp states that “jobs for your friends, contracts for your relatives, cash handouts for everyone” is the way that public governance in conducted in Sicily and indeed in other Mediterranean countries.
A recent report by Eurostat claims that the Maltese are among the EU citizens that are most reluctant to discuss politics with friends. Yet we have the highest percentage of people who regularly vote in a general election. Some of our politicians try to flatter us by saying that the Maltese are committed to parliamentary democracy and they show this commitment by carrying out their civic duty religiously by voting in every election.
Other, more credible, social observers comment that the Maltese are shrewd enough to invest in a ‘political saint’ that can make their lives easier in a micro country where politicians have a figure in every economic and social pie that is baking.
The Spiegel Online report makes a very objective comment: “Countries like Germany and the Netherlands, of course, likewise have examples of incompetent administration, a sluggish justice system and politicians interested solely in preserving their own power. But such problems tend not to become symptomatic. They can disrupt the smooth running of the country and cost a lot of money, but they don’t destroy the foundation of the state.”
Nepotism originated in the Papal States and quickly spread around the Mediterranean. It is still regarded as normal in most southern European countries to woo voters by granting planning permission, handing out jobs or offering tax relief. Many ordinary Italians, Greeks, Cypriots and Maltese believe that “without friends in high places, you are lost”.
Only education can help us overcome this debilitating weakness. If only our religious and political leaders would come out with a plan to combat this moral, social and economic curse that threatens our future prosperity.
It is primarily the government’s responsibility to show the way ahead. It’s no use promoting merit as a hallmark of our society if we then fail to reward merit in all cases and not only occasionally. The victims of management practices based on nepotism, cronyism and political patronage have every right to have injustices committed against them reversed when the winds of change blow in their way.
Promoting merit in the governance of the public and private sectors is the hallmark of a fair society.