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The Fight Against Corruption: On the Home Stretch?

Why September 2015 matters much in the global battle on routing out corruption.

People gathered at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on November 24, 2013 to protest against government corruption. Credit: charnsitr Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • Corruption knows no boundaries. That means all of us have a common purpose in defeating it.
  • It is ever harder for politicians and businessmen to get away with betraying the public at large.
  • World leaders’ better understanding of fighting corruption is a result of civil society campaigning.
  • Transparency International shows what civil society can achieve when campaigns have teeth.

Maybe the chickens are finally coming home to roost. Government scandals in a large number of countries, from China to Brazil to Iraq, are unleashing formidable public demands to end impunity for the powerful.

There is a groundswell of public protests against corruption around the world. The public at large is no longer willing to accept business as usual. As a result, it is becoming harder for politicians and businessmen to get away with looting public coffers for their own personal benefit.

Real action in real countries

In China, for example, the anticorruption policy of President Xi Jinping is entering its third year and thousands of Communist Party officials have been investigated and many indicted, with scores found guilty.

There is no indication that the campaign is easing, with new charges being leveled against current and former top officials on a frequent basis.

In Brazil, thousands of citizens recently marched in the streets calling for political reform.

Each day sees new headlines connected to the largest ever-corporate bribery investigation in the nation’s history, involving Petrobras, the state-owned oil giant, which turned itself into a piggy bank for political parties.

In a move reminiscent of Italy’s “’Clean Hands’ [Mani Pulite]” campaign, Brazil’s public prosecutors have been encouraged by the public’s reaction.

They have just charged both the powerful speaker of the lower house of Congress, Eduardo Cunha, as well as a former president and now senator, Collor de Mello, with corruption.

Large public protests against widespread corruption were recently seen in Baghdad. There, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is striving to push through far-reaching political changes.

He argues, with good reason, that these are essential to curb graft and restore public confidence in government.

When civil society has real teeth

A key factor in world leaders’ increased understanding of the importance of anticorruption – and hence improving global conditions – is a result of more than two decades of campaigning by civil society.

Paired with high-profile media investigations by courageous journalists of government and business abuse, the hope at this stage is that these efforts aren’t just making a dent, but that they will also lead to real, lasting change.

It was in Kenya 25 years ago that plans were hatched to establish the first global, non-partisan, not-for-profit, anti-corruption movement.

Peter Eigen, then the World Bank representative in Kenya, was frustrated that government officials were doing nothing about the rampant theft of aid funds.

In the face of such rampant corruption, not just a problem in Kenya, development progress fell far short of what it should have been, given all the hard work that went into formulating smart development policies and investment projects.

In scores of countries, recipient governments viewed foreign aid as a great opportunity to “milk” the system.

So Eigen started to speak with friends about establishing Transparency International (TI). It was formally launched in 1993 and has its global secretariat in Berlin, Germany.

TI’s growth – it now has more than 100 national organizations – and its campaign successes in combination with other civil society groups have heightened public awareness of the enormous damage it does to human rights, human security and economic development.

More than ever before, people in most countries today understand how corruption by top civil servants and politicians creates opportunities for lower-level officials to extort bribes for basic public services, too.

It is this perverse trickling down of the corruption mechanisms that robs vast numbers of people not just of their dignity, but also of any opportunity to see betterment for themselves, no matter how hard they labor.

Why September 2015 matters

September 2015 marks an important date in the global battle on routing out corruption. On September 25, in New York, world leaders meeting in the U.N. General Assembly are likely to approve 17 “Sustainable Development Goals” (SDGs), which also set 169 specific targets to be attained by 2030.

Many of these SDGs were already contained in the Millennium Development Goals approved in 2000. But now, for the first time, corruption is included in the overall agenda, as Goal 16.

This deals with justice and governance and includes a target that states: “Substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms.”

The broader goal here is to “Promote the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all and such as “Develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels.”

Ensuring effective implementation

TI and other civil society organizations are determined to ensure that this is not just empty talk. Ending impunity is the leading edge of a new TI multi-year strategy.

This will not be easy in some countries where corrupt and repressive regimes are determined to clamp-down on all opposition.

Nevertheless, activists are determined to ensure meaningful enforcement of Goal 16 and build on the broad public’s acute understanding today of what it costs them economically and in terms of their society’s development, if this goal and its targets are not turned into reality.

A number of prominent world leaders have been saying all the right things.

During his recent trip to Kenya and to Ethiopia, U.S. President Barack Obama declared, “Nothing will unlock Africa’s economic potential more than ending the cancer of corruption.” True.

And British Prime Minister David Cameron noted in a recent speech in Singapore, “The international community has looked the other way for too long. We simply cannot afford to side-step this issue or make excuses for corruption any more. We need to step up and tackle it.”

Anticorruption reforms need to move forward everywhere. This, of course, includes an understanding that corruption is also a problem in what used to be called the “first world.”

Unfortunately, corruption knows no boundaries. But that means that all of us have a common purpose in defeating it.

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About Frank Vogl

Frank Vogl is co-founder of Transparency International and author of Waging War on Corruption: Inside the Movement Fighting the Abuse of Power. [Washington D.C., United States]

Responses to “The Fight Against Corruption: On the Home Stretch?”

Archived Comments.

  1. On September 2, 2015 at 3:51 pm slightly optimistic responded with... #

    It would be helpful if we could see any examples of good financial governance by nations. Independence was certainly denied to statutory regulators and external auditors of finance in the UK, according to parliamentary inquiries into the 2008 financial crisis. No doubt this is common elsewhere. Auditing has been hopelessly politicised in favour of geopolitical advantage. Only the international protection of audit in global finance is likely to address this serious matter.

  2. On September 4, 2015 at 8:05 am PeterBurgess responded with... #

    I am 75 years old. I started doing international work in the 1970s, and my first World Bank assignment in 1978. I read engineering and economics at Cambridge and later earned a professional qualification as a Chartered Accountant in the UK. I became a corporate CFO in the United States at a very young age. I predate Peter Eigen in trying to make the case that you cannot have successful development when all the decisions about money are compromised by corruption. I did not make myself popular by using simple accounting to ‘follow the money’ … disgusted at what I found … and appalled by the unwillingness of any of the major institutions to take the corruption issue seriously. The ‘C’ word was banned at the World Bank!

    I thought the advent of Transparency International 20 years ago might be a game changer … but I have been seriously disappointed. I think the reason why TI and other anti-corruption initiatives have been ineffective is because they are addressing the problem as a policy matter rather than as a system issue. From my accounting perspective the big institutions have sidelined accounting as a critical management and control tool, and not surprisingly they quickly lose track of the money.

    Over and over again I have been told: ‘We have a humanitarian crisis, we don’t have the time to do the accounting’ … and then to be told later, ‘We are short of funds … we don’t know where all the money has gone.’

    The world is not short of accounting clerks, but we are short of managers that understand the important role that accounting clerks play in keeping the money flows going to the right places.

    We ought to be doing very much better

    Peter Burgess … TrueValueMetrics.org

  3. On September 5, 2015 at 12:21 am Lex Rieffel responded with... #

    “Corruption” is a negative concept. I hope soon TI can switch to a positive concept related to transparency and start beating the drum for “good governance”. Lex Rieffel