This article was published in the print edition of Diplomatic Courier
By Frank Vogl, May 23, 2013.
China’s President Xi Jinping has announced a full-scale attack on corruption, stressing that he will crack down on both "tigers" and "flies"–powerful leaders and lowly bureaucrats in the government. He is the first leader of China to so publicly condemn corruption and to acknowledge that it is a rising threat to governmental cohesion and economic prosperity.
Almost every day sees new headlines across the world about corruption, from indictments of public officials in New York State, to tens of thousands of Indian citizens coming together in New Delhi in vast anti-graft protests.
The number of concrete examples of public statements and actions against the abuse of public office for personal gain has never been greater. Yet skepticism is commonplace. After all, millions of people today are trapped in awful misery, lacking basic nutrition, healthcare, sanitation, and housing in countries vastly rich in oil and other natural resources whose top politicians and their cronies enjoy vast wealth. Then, for example, there are young women in many countries who have managed to get to universities only to face extortion from professors, who may seek cash for study notes, or sexual favors in return for passing grades. Indeed, the human rights abuse and the constant indignities hurled upon the poor by corrupt officials remains an intolerable blight.
And, when low-level corruption is widespread, as it is in dozens of countries, then be assured that in those same countries the levels of grand corruption, involving vast sums flowing into the bank accounts of powerful leaders, are very high. Given that more than 120 countries out of a total of 176 ranked in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index have a score of below 50 out of 100 highlights that the abuse of public office for private gain remains a massive problem.
But skeptics who believe that the situation cannot get better and that the war on corruption cannot see significant, sustainable victories underestimate the formidable achievements seen in the generation from the fall of the Berlin Wall through the rise of the Arab Spring.
The building blocs for an effective attack on corruption in many countries have now been put in place. In some countries we are indeed at a tipping point where coming years are likely to see meaningful progress. President Xi Jinping, like many leaders, are recognizing that we are living in an age of transparency, where corrupt officials and their business partners have fewer and fewer places to hide and where the corrosive impact of graft is threatening economic development and security. Just consider:
·Exactly 20 years ago, in May 1993, Berlin-based Transparency International (TI) was founded as the first international anti-corruption non-governmental organization (NGO); today TI has 100 national chapters, a staff of 150 people at its secretariat and thousands of members, and it is one of many anti-corruption NGOs operating with real impact.
·There were very few academics specializing in this field 20 years ago; now 5,000 people subscribe to the TI-managed Anti-Corruption Research Network.
·Two decades ago there was not a single international inter-governmental anti-corruption convention–now there are regional pacts: an OECD Anti-Bribery Convention and a United Nations Convention Against Corruption. Then, not a single aid agency publicly even discussed graft, now all of them led by the World Bank have major good governance programs.
·Impunity is now more challenged than ever: politicians from Brazil to Nigeria are being investigated, as are even the largest and most powerful corporations. For example, HSBC, Europe’s largest bank settled a money laundering case with U.S. Justice Department with a record $1.92 billion fine, while the U.S. prosecutors are now investigating alleged large-scale foreign bribery by Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer.
·Increasing numbers of investigative journalism organizations, such as ProPublica and Global Witness are building public awareness of the crime of corruption, alongside a multitude of national media organizations across the globe, while news of corruption is viral on social media, such as Titter and Facebook.
These are just some of the specific developments that are combining to change the dynamics of the battles to counter corruption. The journey is long, but the anti-corruption movement has climbed beyond base camp–which is fairly high–yet still has the rest of Everest to surmount.
Reaching the high peaks requires courageous and skilled leaders, and never before have anti-corruption NGOs been so richly endowed. When I wrote my book, I called on leading anti-corruption activists in many countries to review drafts and offer advice and they all did. I called on José Ugaz in Peru who told me by e-mail: “We just found a bomb under my car.” I chatted with J.C. Weliamuna in Sri Lanka, whose office has been bombed, and who told me that he no longer dares to travel with his family and now needs bodyguards constantly at his side. And I spoke with Elena Panfilova in Russia, who, as ever, sounded cheerful, despite the mounting and ever-more dangerous Kremlin threats and pressures on all pro-democracy NGOs in Moscow.
These NGO leaders and many like them have mobilized grassroots actions and are building powerful protest movements. They have a momentum that, despite the increasing restrictions placed on their freedom to travel and to organize, is unstoppable. Just as the power of the anti-corruption idea was underestimated by such former presidents as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, so it is and it will be by many other leaders who strive to resist public demands for governmental transparency and accountability.
Pierre Landell-Mills, a co-founder and former President of the Partnership for Transparency Fund, has surveyed scores of individual anti-corruption projects pursued over the last decade by NGOs in Asia and in Africa. When you put all the projects together, he concludes in his brand new book, Citizens Against Corruption: “It becomes evident that we have a true revolution in the making...if countless such projects across the globe were aggregated, then we would soon reach the ‘tipping point’ where the relationship of citizens to their governments starts to shift from deliberate opacity and lack of accountability to one where public officials will not dare to abuse their power or steal the common wealth.”
I know there will be many reverses and disappointments in the long march to curb corruption. But, nobody should underestimate the courage and the professionalism of civil society activists campaigning for human and civil rights and social justice. And, most importantly, nobody should underestimate the rising determination of mass publics in scores of countries who know more about corruption in their governments than ever before, who are ever-more connected through social media in this age of transparency–and who see the battle against corruption in terms of their individual dignity and self-respect. They are frustrated and fed-up with daily humiliations at the hands of policemen, healthcare workers and lowly officials. They want justice.