Facing the Elephant in the Room

Photo Credit: OECD Integrity Forum (via Flickr)

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)’s Global Anti-Corruption & Integrity Forum, held annually for five years now at the OECD headquarters in Paris, is the leading international event on integrity and anti-corruption. I had the opportunity to attend the 2017 edition, learn from the other participants, and share CIPE’s experience in working on anti-corruption. This year, the Forum brought together about 1,300 attendees, including policymakers as well as the private sector, civil society organizations, and academics. The Forum’s theme, “In the Public Interest: Taking Integrity to Higher Standards,” highlighted the importance of combating corruption for better public governance.

In his opening remarks, OECD Secretary General Angel Gurría emphasized that corruption scandals prevalent in both the private and public sectors – and the scale of impunity – have contributed to the global erosion of public trust in business, government, public institutions, and the media. This reinforces the perception that globalization is working for the few but leaving too many behind. Gurría noted, “The Edelman Trust Barometer for 2017 revealed that only 15% of people feel the system is working for them, with 69% of those surveyed expressing concerns about corruption and 62% about globalization.”

The problem for many public officials and companies alike comes down to this: despite increased attention to fighting corruption worldwide, the return on corruption all too often remains higher than return on integrity. On the public-sector side, changing this equation requires more effective detection and punishments of officials who perpetrate corruption, as well as legal and regulatory reforms that would make it harder to extract bribes or engage in graft. From the private sector’s perspective, there is the need to make a compelling business case for anti-corruption compliance that goes beyond the threat of punishment and focuses on benefits (carrots before sticks approach). This requires building a culture of integrity within companies that goes beyond box-checking compliance.

Another major topic of discussion at the forum involved the links between anti-corruption compliance and integrity efforts in other areas such as combatting wildlife trafficking. That point was emphasized by the creative exhibit during the Forum: a paper mache white elephant (named Indira) symbolizing the disastrous effects that corruption has on wildlife because it is an enabler of poaching and illegal trade. Companies are increasingly realizing that their compliance efforts cannot be stove-piped because risks in areas of anti-corruption, labor, and the environment are interrelated and must be addressed in a comprehensive manner.

Above all, the Forum emphasized that corruption is too big of a challenge to be tacked by any single country, organization, or sector. Governments, businesses, and civil society organizations must work together to build on accomplishments to-date and work on a systemic change.

Anna Kompanek is Director of Multiregional Programs at CIPE