Reflections on the Anticorruption Movement

By Rick Messick

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.

This post originally appeared on the Global Anticorruption Blog, where you can also read several insightful comments.