Reflections on the Anticorruption Movement

The World Bank’s Integrity Vice-Presidency is celebrating its 15th anniversary.  It recently asked a number of individuals for their thoughts on the anticorruption movement over the past 15 years.  INT’s questions and my replies below. 

1) How has the anti-corruption movement changed in the past 15 years?

Fifteen years ago consensus about corruption was lacking.  Didn’t it foster development by providing a way around bureaucratic roadblocks to economic growth?  Wasn’t bribery a reflection of the gift-giving culture of many countries?  How could rich Western countries, many of which permitted their companies to take tax deductions for bribe payments, complain about corruption in poor countries? 

 The greatest change in the past 15 years is that those and other tired questions about corruption are no longer heard.  Instead an extraordinary consensus on the need to combat corruption now exists, the most visible sign being the overwhelming support the United Nations Convention Against Corruption enjoys. The 172 nations that have ratified it — representing every region of the globe, every cultural and religious tradition, and every stage of economic development — all agree that corruption is harmful and all are all committed to stamping it out.  The creation of global anti-corruption NGOs like Transparency International, Global Witness, and U4 and the hundreds, if not thousands, of national NGOs likewise dedicated to pressing the fight against corruption are further signs of this broad and deep consensus.

(2) Was there a defining moment when things changed for the better (or otherwise)?

Social movements of global scope like the anti-corruption movement arise from a confluence of many events.  But if there is any one moment that defines the anti-corruption movement, it is surely when the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the club of rich countries, decided to crack down on bribery by companies subject to their laws.  OECD Finance Ministers agreed to repeal all laws allowing companies to deduct bribe payments from their taxes, and the group’s governing body approved a measure requiring each member state to make the bribery of a foreign public official a crime under their domestic law.  The OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions entered into force on 15 February, 1999, when 12 countries  — ranging from the United Kingdom and the United States to Iceland and Norway to Japan and Korea to Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, and Germany — all pledged to outlaw the payment of bribes to officials of any other government. 

(3) What do you think is the single biggest challenge related to fighting corruption today?

In many nations, the consensus on the need to combat corruption remains to be translated into effective action.  The longer the gap between words and deed remains, the more likely disillusionment will set in.  If year after year citizens see efforts to persuade leaders to combat corruption fall short, the risk is that they will become disillusioned with government.  Disillusionment can produce passivity, abandoning the struggle and accepting corruption as a way of life.  Or it can lead to despair.  In democracies despair weakens democratic norms, tempting the public to support a “strong-man” promising to eradicate corruption “by any means” or to turn to violent means for bringing change. 

 The anti-corruption movement has been successfully launched, but like any movement for reform, a successful launch is no guarantee of arrival at the desired destination.  That will require ever greater dedication and effort by activists, enforcement personnel, policymakers, and citizens around the globe.

4 thoughts on “Reflections on the Anticorruption Movement

  1. Great overview, Rick! And in many ways your answers to the first two questions offer a partial response to the concern you raise in your answer to question #3: It’s very easy, in this area, to get discouraged, to assume that progress is impossible (or at least that it will take several generations to get anywhere, etc.). And indeed, there’s a long way to go: You may be right that the OECD Convention was a signal event in the history of the anticorruption movement, but TI’s report from just last week highlights all the ways in which most member countries are falling short of their obligations. All that said, as your answers to the first two questions point out, there’s been huge progress — and a sea-change in international public opinion and the overall public profile of this issue — in just 20 years. That’s cause for (cautious) optimism about the future.

    A couple of things I’d add to your first two answers:

    On the first question, about how the anticorruption movement has changed, I agree with everything you say, but I’d add that the emphasis on stolen asset recovery/repatriation, anti-money laundering (and its connection with corruption), and associated issues (like cracking down on shell companies and beneficial ownership, bank secrecy, etc.) is a big change, and one that may be quite important. The “follow (and seize) the money” approach has become much more prominent, whereas 15 years ago I think most of the focus was still on more direct anti-bribery enforcement, the creation of independent anticorruption commissions, etc.

    On the second question, in addition to the OECD Convention, I’d add three other developments that all took place around the same time: First, the founding of Transparency International in 1993. Second, then-President of the World Bank James Wolfensohn’s “cancer of corruption” speech in 1996. Third, the US government’s much more aggressive enforcement of the FCPA, which really got underway around 2000 (and surged over the next decade).

  2. As somebody relatively new to the anticorruption movement, I greatly appreciated this long perspective. I share Matthew’s (cautious) optimism about the future, but I would have to admit that I am not tied to any of the current top-down institutional responses to corruption — such as FCPA enforcement or the OECD’s antibribery convention. Perhaps this is the classic young person’s perspective — ungrateful for the work that has come before me — so I should clarify that I am indeed grateful… but Matthew’s reminder that TI was founded in 1993 struck me as an incredibly important moment. Civil society outrage over corruption moved the needle in this debate, and laid the groundwork for the amazing consensus that Rick talked about. And, to go further, I feel that civil society and grassroots activism is probably always going to have to play this vanguard role. TI’s efforts to light a fire under the OECD Convention are motivated by a rational fear — that such institutional responses will slowly degrade into a new status quo. Better than it was before I became passionate about anticorruption work, and certainly better than before I was born, but still depressingly far from the goal…

  3. I feel international anti-corruption movement is happening at two levels. At the first level, I see sea change taking place – this in terms of fighting corruption at the cross border level – money laundering, illicit financial flows, recovery of stolen assets, fighting bribery in international trade. Now, the debate is even getting focused at establishing an international court, something like ICC in Hague. Obviously, these are interesting developments. However, at the second level, that is, fighting corruption within a country, seems to be residing a bit. This may be my feeling, but see retardation of efforts taking place, especially in developing countries, things are still happening as “business as usual”. This may be because corruption within inside a country is much more politically linked and difficult to tackle within that at the international, cross border level. I suppose some experts in this field can better enlighten my bifurcated division of anti-corruption movement.

  4. Thanks for this quick but through glimpse on the anti-corruption campaign from its genesis till the present moment. I definitely agree that anti-corruption campaign has attained a major leap over the past 15 years. Although we still have a limited number legal scholars are still casting doubt over the anti-corruption campaign. However this critic doesn’t change the fact that there is a progressive advancement as you kindly illustrated.

    I also agree with your as well as Professor Stephenson’s answer to the third question. If I may build upon these answers , I would add Public perception of corruption in developing countries as one of the biggest challenges to fighting corruption. This problem seems very obvious and it might look like restating conventional wisdom . However, the absence of equitable salaries, highlighted in art 7 of UNCAC , most young officials cannot rely on their salaries to meet the minimum level of decent life. Using what so-called in psychology “cognitive dissonance” to ironically justify getting small but not big bribes . Therefore they keep receiving small bribes with cold blood relying on justification like there is no other way to meet family’s financial commitment and that small bribes are better than resorting to more serious crimes. Then the practice permeates in the society.Rarely someone reports that he had to pay a bribe, because bribes become sort of a customary rule like tipping. “opinion juris” exists in a way that people might feel obliged to pay officials even if they did not ask, if not for interest then as a matter of aid or courtesy to this poor official. Prosecution does not have room in this regard, as it has a bigger fish to fry other than this pretty corruption incidents. As a consequence, deterrence and stigmatization of these act disappear which foster the pervasiveness of corruption culture in the society that forestall many of the anti-corruption efforts.

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