The landscape of corruption is a dismal one and so it may surprise you that my new book asserts that there are now grounds for cautious optimism that improvements are possible in many countries. I believe there are solid reasons to expect major improvements in transparency and accountability in government. Too often we see politicians, civil servants and members of the military serving themselves first, rather than the public. This is about to change. Corrupt officials have ever fewer places to hide.
At long last, we may be at a tipping point where the sheer force of mass public pressure in many nations forces profound governance changes. Above all this is because of the skills and the courage of remarkable people who are leading an international anti-corruption movement of unprecedented scale and force. They deserve to be honored. Their work deserves far greater recognition.
When I had completed the draft of my book I e-mailed my friend José Ugaz in Peru to ask him to review the section on Peru and, if he liked the book to endorse it. José, who had been one of the chief prosecutors of former – and now jailed - President Fujimori, responded immediately that he would be delighted to help, but first he was distracted right then and there - a bomb had just been found under his car.
I asked my friend Elena Panfilova in Moscow, who runs Transparency International there, to review key parts of the book and endorse it if she liked. She immediately said she would, but Elena is constantly battling crises in a nation where people like here are facing mounting threats and restrictions.
I sat down with Elena once to talk about her life and her work and she recalled that she had been to the shopping mall to buy jeans for her sons and had confronted the government’s thugs who had been following her all day and told them to leave her alone. She had gone to her office and furiously typed a letter of protest on her computer to the Minister of the Interior, but she did not send it. Two days later an official from the ministry called her and said he had heard that she had sent a letter of complained. Elena never hits the send button when she writes to the government – she knows they are permanently hacking into her computer.
Across the world there are people like José and Elena who are leading the charge against corruption – against politicians and public officials who break the public’s trust and abuse their offices for their personal gain.
Why do so many brilliant and dynamic people risk their lives for this cause?
They are driven by a sense of what is right, by a patriotic conviction to improve life and civilization in their countries, and by the haunting awareness that corruption is never a victimless crime.
Too often it is the very poor who suffer the most. Corruption is a major cause of poverty across the world and a major cause of human rights abuse. In many instances corruption is a fundamental crime against humanity – it is inextricably linked to core issues of human rights.
Nigerian Finance Minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, who served with distinction at the World Bank, once told the story of Rose, a twenty-one 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.”
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 young people like Rose. There can be no higher calling than to strive to assist people like Rose.
In this regard I am delighted that in our audience this evening is Anabel Cruz from Uruguay, the Chair of the Board of Directors of The Partnership for Transparency Fund (www.PTFund.org), which is working every day to promote citizen action against corruption and help people like Rose. Thanks to Anabel and her and my colleagues inn PTF, scores of civil society groups in the world’s poorest countries have obtained small grants to pursue specific projects that have improved prospects precisely for people like Rose. PTF demonstrates that fighting corruption can yield humanitarian gains.
Corruption is a constant threat to the vitality of democracy, to the effective workings of the free enterprise system and to our security. Corruption is universal.
Many Americans felt that the $6 billion dollars spent on last year’s elections contained within it the smell of something decidedly wrong. Senior politicians, from New York State, Illinois and many other parts of our country have been investigated and found guilty of corruption. When we look across the world, therefore, we must be humble.
Tonight, I want to first of all provide you with a sense of just how much progress has been made in waging war on corruption and then I want to highlight just a few of the crucial challenges that demand greater attention by all who seek to build a better world.
My book is dedicated to the remarkable people who created and who work today for Transparency International (www.transparency.org) and for the Partnership for Transparency Fund. Their achievements and their determination is worthy of your support.
In 1990, I met with an old friend from the World Bank, Peter Eigen, who was at the time the Bank’s Kenya-based director for eastern Africa. He was distraught that so much foreign aid funding that should alleviate poverty, was just enriching corrupt elites – funds that should be used to building sanitation systems, hospitals and schools, was building personal bank accounts in Switzerland for crooked government leaders.
Peter spoke to a range of friends and in early 1993 – yes exactly 20 years ago – a few of us established Transparency International with headquarters in Berlin, Germany. We elected Peter the chairman and my friend Kamal Hosain of Bangladesh and I were the first vice chairmen. We had no cash, no staff and no offices.
The Economist magazine ran a cartoon of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza tilting at windmills. We would tell people about our idea and they would politely say how nice and implied that we were idealistic, hopeless dreamers. I have been a volunteer for TI ever since – it has been my night job, my weekend job and often much more.
TI’s focus has been on every aspect of advocacy, but we soon realized that we needed an organization to explicitly assist civil society organizations in poor countries with specific anti-corruption projects they may have to relieve the huge burden of corrupt practices from the backs of the poor. So in the late 1990s, a few of us established the Partnership for Transparency Fund as a U.S. 501c3 organization, based in Washington DC and since then it has funded more than 200 projects that have improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
 Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, lecture in June 2007 in Washington DC.
Foreign Policy Association – New York City – March 7, 2013
“Democracy, Security, Human Rights & Poverty – The Challenges of Global Corruption