A version of this article was first published in The Globalist on September 1, 2015 Why September 2015 matters much in the global battle on routing out corruption.
Representatives from more than 110 countries met in Malaysia at the Transparency International annual meeting and then joined hundreds of other activists from across the world at the 2015 International Anti-Corruption Conference at the start of September. The timing was perfect, because later this month a landmark decision will be taken in the fight against impunity and corruption at the General Assembly of the United Nations.
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. (photo: TI Chairman Jose Ugaz calls for the end to impunity at the IACC in Malaysia)
Real Action Across the Globe
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.
September 27 at the United Nations
September 2015 marks an important date in the global battle on routing out corruption. On September 27, 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. (photo: TI Vice Chair Elena Panfilova speaks at the TI annual meeting in Malaysia) 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.