I have never seen a politician who doesn’t claim to fight corruption and organized crime. And it is not only lip service, as they can back their claims by regurgitating a long list of actions undertaken to address corruption; a list of actions, which seem well thought of, logical and which should yield reductions in corruption rates.

And yet, the world as a whole has not dealt with corruption. According to Transparency International, in 2011, the global average for perception of corruption in public institutions was 3.3 out of 5 (1 = not at all corrupt; 5 = extremely corrupt); 24% of people around the world reported to have paid a bribe in the past 12 months, and at least 50% of the people around the world think that the government is ineffective in the fight against corruption.

The problem lies in “Isomorphic Mimicry” – the adoption of the forms of other functional states and organizations, which camouflages a persistent lack of function. Isomorphic mimicry means that organizations gain the legitimacy they need to survive by adopting the forms of other legitimate organizations without actually attaining their functionality. Governments and politicians are doing all the “right” things and yet they seem to expending huge amounts of energy without moving a single inch closer to the stated goal.

The typical story, especially in the developing world, goes like this: An ambitious investigative reporter will blow the lid off of a corruption scheme. The Public Controller’s office will diligently stuff boxes with every paper that might be even remotely related to the case. The Public Controller then ships a truckload of boxes to the Attorney-General’s office and announces to the media that the case has been presented. The Attorney-General’s office, facing pressure to prosecute the offenders, forwards the sealed boxes to the courts. However, the courts are not capable, nor should they be, to make heads or tails of the unstructured “case” that they have received. The ensuing game of ping pong between the courts and the Attorney-General’s office continues until the next scandal arises, attention shifts and the process is re-started.

In Guatemala, there are roughly 480 cases trapped in paper shuffling. In addition to a long absence of political will to do something about it, the cloud grows due to lack of capacity and specialized skills to process the large volumes of information. We can be sure that powerbrokers make a couple of strategically placed payments to further assure the permanence of their cases within the mimicry cloud.

A potential solution would be to bring in subject matter experts to process the backlog of cases. Businesses and civil society could work in tandem to recruit forensic accountants, lawyers, procurement experts and industry-specific experts to digest the data and present the court systems with proper cases. In the process, the judicial institutions would also learn from these experts and build their capacity to prepare future cases.

The resource-constrained governments of the world need our help today more than ever before. By tapping the power of global citizenship, we could get past mimicry and into actually reducing corruption.

Find out about the World Economic Forum on Latin America 2013

Author: President of FunSEPA, Vice-President of FUNDESA and a member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Conflict Prevention

Image: Businessmen are seen walking inside a business complex REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao