The Past and Future of the Corruption Conversation

ImageBy: Anne Sophie Lambert, Associate Director

In 2010, a BBC poll found corruption to be the “world’s most talked about problem.” Recent events, from the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines to the Greek debt crisis to the Arab Spring, have all been linked to graft.

The practice of corruption certainly is not a new phenomenon, but it has not always been an accepted topic in political debate and international development discourse. Last week at The New School’s Social Research Conference on Corruption, I had the opportunity to hear Peter Eigen describe the environment in which he founded Transparency International 20 years ago.  At that time in the early 1990’s, companies were still able to deduct foreign bribes from their tax filings, and the idea of global anti-corruption initiatives was seen as an unrealistic, romantic pursuit. Some corruption was even framed in a positive light, for its ability to help businesses overcome burdensome regulations, speed up their processes, and even create jobs.

At that time, political reform was centered on democratization. However, Bo Rothstein, Head of the Quality of Government Institute, explained that democracy simply was not enough – corruption often continues to prevail under these “democratic” structures and poor governance destroys social trust. Michael Johnston, author of the award-winning book Syndromes of Corruption, added: “We cannot depend on voters to vote corrupt people out at the polls. Transparency and accountability are all too often ritual, a mechanism for control. We need deep democratization.”

When Peter Eigen established Transparency International, he laid the foundation for today’s global anti-corruption movement.  At the conference, he shared how his own perspective towards anti-corruption has also changed over the years. He explained that he first focused on corruption involving foreign aid donors, as he thought that that was the only avenue that developing countries would accept, but through his work he found that citizens in these countries were much more interested in addressing instances of petty corruption on a domestic level than monitoring payments to far-away bank accounts. Citizens are frustrated that they have to pay bribes to access basic services for their children, like education and healthcare, yet it is often dangerous and counterproductive for them to stand up against this alone. What they need, Eigen said, is “tools to empower and motivate them to fight for their rights.”

That is exactly what we’re trying to do at the Accountability Lab! We too believe that citizens must be the driving force behind effective and sustainable anti-corruption efforts. We seek out local individuals and organizations with creative ideas for change (“Accountapreneurs”) and provide them with the seed funding, training, mentoring, networking, and management support needed to make their ideas a reality. Through this approach, citizens in Liberia and Nepal have created a range of innovative tools, such as the Daily Talk, the Accountability Film School, the RTI Toolkit, Nalibeli, and Bolaun.

At the conference’s closing session on “Possibilities for Reform,” the general consensus seemed to be that civil society must be the driving force behind reform – but that civil society alone isn’t good enough. Civil society needs to become more organized and more transparent, it needs more competent leaders, and it needs to learn to interact and collaborate with other actors without losing its own capacity. Most of all, all actors involved in the anti-corruption movement must be open to continually critique what they are doing and find ways to improve.

What do you want to see in the future of anti-corruption work?

About Accountability Lab

Making power-holders accountable in the developing world

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