Address by Frank Vogl,
Author of “Waging War on Corruption, Inside the Movement Fighting the Abuse of Power”
October 31, 2012
The United Nations Convention Against Corruption is the formal acceptance by the governments of the world, via the UN General Assembly, that not only is corruption wrong, but that it should be actively confronted. This is a milestone in the long fight to build a more honest system of governance across much of the world.
Over the last 20 years I have worked with Transparency International, as a volunteer, to help build a global anti-corruption organization that speaks truth to power. I have friends who are threatened and yet I know, more surely today than ever, that we will win. In my book, Waging War on Corruption: Inside the Movement Fighting the Abuse of Power I explain why.
Indeed, the purpose of writing this book is to strive to change the public conversation, from one of skepticism, indeed sometimes cynicism, about ever being able to contain corruption, to one of hope and very cautious optimism.
An enormous amount is at stake for our civilization in securing the success of the fight against corruption. As former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Anan has noted:
“Corruption is an insidious plague that has a wide range of corrosive effects on societies. It undermines democracy and the rule of law, leads to violations of human rights, distorts markets, erodes the quality of life and allows organized crime, terrorism and other threats to human security to flourish.”
The crimes of corruption are not abstract issues. Every time an official steals from the public purse, then someone suffers. Every time an official acts as a villain, then there is a victim. There are tens of millions of victims across the world today. We are all victims of corruption. Be it in the poorest countries where hospitals and schools and clean water and decent housing are denied the very poor because dictators have looted the national treasuries; or be it in the wealthiest industrial countries where money and politics undermines governance integrity.
In my book I have a chapter titled Corruption Crimes. Permit me to read to you the opening part of this chapter:
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is a strident and courageous anti-corruption advocate who served some years ago as Finance Minister and Foreign Minister of Nigeria, then became a World Bank Managing Director, and then was appointed again as her country’s Finance Minister in July 2011. Ngozi gave a lecture in June 2007 in Washington where she told the story of Rose, a 21-year-old university student in Nigeria:
“Rose, from a poor rural family, could not purchase the series of class notes sold by her lecturer to students as part of the reading material for her class. The lecturer, who used these moneys to supplement his income, noticed that Rose was not purchasing the notes and penalized her through low grades for her work. When she explained she couldn’t pay she was asked to make up with other favors which she refused. The failing grade she was given was instrumental in her withdrawal from the university which put an end to her higher education. An individual and an entire family lost their hope and pathway to escape poverty. When I followed up on this story, I found that it was by no means an isolated case. It was part of a systemic rot that had befallen what had once been a very good tertiary education system in Nigeria.”
There are tens of millions of young people like Rose. They are the victims of extortion. They have been cheated of their rights. They and their families, through no fault of their own, have had their lives wrecked by officials who care only about enriching themselves.
Ultimately, the success of efforts to curb corruption on a sustainable basis — nationally and internationally — will depend on the existence of strong and independent legal systems that can enforce laws that criminalize the abuse of public office for private gain.
I believe that this can only evolve if countries have strong democratic institutions that ensure the checks and balances between branches of the government and include effective nongovernmental watchdogs, from the media to civil society organizations and independent academic institutions.
It is easy to be sceptical about winning the war against corruption. Now, I believe that the outlook for fighting corruption is far brighter than most of you probably recognize. An enormous amount has been accomplished over the last 20 years, led by civil society. Indeed, part of my book tells the stories of the courageous leaders of anti-corruption movements from Russia to Peru to Zimbabwe, whose impact has been formidable.
- 20 years ago there was no international civil society movement dedicated to fighting corruption. Today, Transparency International has a 100 national chapters, there are hundreds of NGOs across the world engaged in fighting corruption, PTF has provided over 200 grants to a number of these NGOs.
- 20 years ago there were hardly any academics in this field, now 5,000 people subscribe to TI’s research network. In the early 1990s, there was not a “think tank” in Washington that had expertise on this issue as far as I know.
- 20 years ago there was not a single anti-corruption international convention – Nancy played a key role in the very first one for Latin America – now we have an array of conventions, and a host of new national laws, notably in the OECD countries. In 1996, there was not a single official multilateral agency that was willing to discuss corruption and adopt anti-corruption as a priority – today, the OECD, World Bank, United Nations, even G20 summits, are all on the anti-corruption battleship.
- From the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, to Occupy Wall Street, to mass demonstrations in India, Pakistan and beyond, we are now seeing greater public mass engagement for more accountable government, for greater transparency and for justice, than ever before. This is not a passing fad. Reforms often see failure, setbacks, dejection – but do not underestimate the power of mass engagement.
- 20 years ago we did not have the Internet and mass e-mail and social media and the tools to disseminate anti-corruption news, or organizations like Global Witness and ProPublica and Global Integrity to find the news and spread the word. Two weeks ago TI held an international “Hackathon” that saw tremendous energy and enthusiasm as dozens of people from many countries worked to develop new technologies to strengthen the anti-bribery effort – there is a momentum and energy here that I think is noteworthy.
In sum, I suggest that the anti-corruption movement has reached base camp – which is pretty impressive, but we have a whole Everest of corruption to climb.
Now, I am delighted to report that the United Nations has sought to be a constructive force to promote the anti-corruption cause. To be sure it came rather late to the party. After some regional anti-corruption conventions, the leadership in 1997 of the World Bank to make anti-corruption a real priority, the OECD anti-bribery pact in 1998, the pressure was building on the UN.
In January 1999, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, announced the launch of the UN Global Compact to stimulate “best practices” in global corporate citizenship. He proposed nine principles concerned with the environment, human rights and labor rights. Missing was any mention of bribery. He was asked about this and he sheepishly evaded the question. One of his staff members, Georg Kell, who was to become the Compact’s Executive Director, said that Annan wanted an anti-corruption principle, but the problem was that there was no UN General Assembly declaration or agreement on the topic.
Kell and Annan did not forget and within a couple of years anti-corruption became the 10th principle, based on a pledge that all corporations that signed-up to the Global Compact would not pay bribes.
At about the same time in the late 1990s, under pressure from the Clinton Administration, the UN reluctantly agreed to establish an investigative commission headed by Paul Volcker to review the UN food-for-oil program for Iraq. The commission found huge abuse and corruption. The findings, taken together with the rising tide of official actions against corruption, finally led to action by the UN General Assembly.
After holding-out for over 60 years from discussing corruption, the General Assembly in 2003 adopted the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC). It was formally ratified in late 2005 and today by the end of 2009 more than 163 countries have signed it. It obliges governments to enforce a host of anti-corruption measures. It provides the most comprehensive set of detailed legal anti-corruption requirements on governments that has ever existed. It starts by noting:
“The purposes of this Convention are: (a) To promote and strengthen measures to prevent and combat corruption more efficiently and effectively; (b) To promote, facilitate and support international cooperation and technical assistance in the prevention of and fight against corruption, including in asset recovery; and, (c) To promote integrity, accountability and proper management of public affairs and public property.”
The development of UNCAC is the responsibility of the United Nations office on Drugs and Crimes. A host of review processes and meetings have taken place. At best we can say that the journey from ratification to implementation is slow and pondering. The UNCAC as of right now is more of symbolic than of pragmatic importance. Major efforts are being made by civil society to influence meaningful review processes. So far, very few countries have even started to report on the progress they are making to implement their commitments. Skepticism is in order about the enforcement of UNCAC with many governments quite evidently reluctant to introduce anti-corruption measures in their countries.
However, the UNCAC is the formal acceptance by the governments of the world, via the UN General Assembly, that not only is corruption wrong, but that it should be actively confronted. This is a milestone in the long fight to build a more honest system of governance across much of the world.
Meanwhile, the Global Compactis thriving. It states that it has over 10,000 business participants and other stakeholders from more than 145 countries. In its 2011 implementing review it surveyed 1,325 companies from 100 countries. It concluded on the 10th principle that: anti-corruption actions remain challenging for companies, although some improvement in performance appears to be evident. There is a particularly large gap between actions to ensure compliance in very large companies compared to ones at small- and medium- sized enterprises. Corporations are moving all too slowly in this area, but the UN Global Compact deserves praise for its leading role in striving to encourage better corporate behaviour.
Ladies and gentlemen, we live in a very complicated world, where divisions between countries are all too pronounced and where cooperation, even in fighting the common enemy of corruption, is far from ideal. The Group of 20 has moved ahead in the last two years to develop anti-corruption action plans and many multilateral for a, including the UN, are recognizing that we live in a world of instant Internet information technology, where abuses of public office and corporate bribe-paying are more widely reported than ever before.
The bribe takers and the bribe payers have ever fewer places to hide. Public demonstrations against illegitimate governments are now being seen in more countries than ever. The pressures, unleashed by massive public engagement, against corruption are rising. This gives me hope.
On December 10, 2011, three African women received the Nobel Peace Prize: Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, from Liberia, and Tawakkol Karman, from Yemen. Thorbjørn Jagland, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, concluded his Oslo speech by quoting American author and civil rights advocate James Baldwin, who wrote, “The people that once walked in darkness are no longer prepared to do so.”
Mr. Jagland added, “Make a note of that!—all those who wish to be on the right side of history.”