The various crises currently dominating international headlines – Ukraine, ISIS, Ebola – don’t appear to have much in common. But while the dynamics certainly differ, each of these challenges is underpinned by a common theme: rampant corruption. From the collapse of government in Ukraine and the revolution in Syria to the graft that has undermined health systems in West Africa, corruption has proven to be a driver of recent instability.
Corruption impedes fair decision-making, diverts resources meant for the public good and erodes our trust of those in power. Around the world, this lack of integrity has become entrenched, to the tune of $30 trillion over the past 15 years: half of global GDP.
Since the end of the Cold War, when the international community began to get serious about fighting corruption at a global level, significant progress has been made. Laws, regulations and commitments are now in place, from the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention to the UN Convention Against Corruption. Those responsible for some of the most egregious practices are now behind bars. Organizations such as Transparency International and Global Witness have empowered civil society to hold governments more accountable around the world.
The difficulty with corruption, however, is that it is an adaptive challenge which evolves quickly and seeps into gaps in systems and organizations as quickly as we are able to fill them. Rules and legal frameworks do not work when they are at odds with societies that are predicated on patronage; often, the arrest of some wrong-doers does not deter others, and civil-society efforts are often underfunded and uncoordinated.
To get to grips with bribery and avoid global crises that are driven by corruption, we need to mobilize new constituencies in creative ways, and provide them with the tools they need for success. Here are five ideas for how to do it:
- Embrace accountability. Corruption is a symptom, not a cause, of systems that lack integrity. To beat it, we have to look at sustainable ways to build the accountability of those in power. This means giving everyone a say in how they are governed and making sure their voices are heard and responded to. There are lots of ways to do this, ranging from participatory budgeting to citizen report cards. These approaches put social pressure on decision-makers, which is a strong incentive to behave honestly.
- Bring in business. Forward-thinking, globally minded corporations understand that fighting corruption is good for ordinary people, good for the stability of societies and good for the bottom line. Companies are finding ways to not only adhere to the letter of laws, such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, but also build a culture of integrity among staff and management. Moreover, projects such as the World Economic Forum’s Partnering Against Corruption Initiative and the B20 (which leads business engagement with the G20 group of governments) can provide valuable spaces for honest discussion.
- Learn from the BRICS. It is easy to become disheartened when reports from Russia indicate that 80% of citizens believe corruption is much worse than it was 10 years ago. It is in the developing world, however, where some of the most effective anti-corruption initiatives are beginning to demonstrate real impact. In India, for example, the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (RTI) has transformed citizens’ ability to hold governments accountable. The RTI law has been used to gather information and has identified large-scale corruption in everything from the organization of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi to the 2G spectrum licensing process. The value of these kinds of initiatives is that they are locally owned, contextualized and sustainable. They also move away from the “one size fits all” approach that has hamstrung many Western anti-corruption efforts.
- Engage millennials. It is well known that young people now constitute over 50% of the global population. But our experience tells us that this generation tends to be more energetic about these issues, less engaged in patronage networks and far more attuned to the use of technology than older generations. This makes them a critical constituency in efforts to fight corruption. The key is to meet these young people where they are – online, in the media and via cultural tools such as music– rather than with reports and seminars. If we can build communities of young people who understand accountability, it will be easier to fight corruption when they move into positions of power.
- Support innovation. Just as corruption is constantly evolving, we must also work to continually adapt our responses, to ensure that citizens are engaged, to build accountability and keep graft in check. This means finding new ways to nudge forward reforms, such as the Open Government Partnership. We also need to develop creative collaborations to fund and support good ideas, like the Making All Voices Count initiative; and engage in debate around new ideas, such as that of an international anti-corruption force. It is only by rethinking the anti-corruption approaches of the past that we have a chance of beating this scourge in the future.
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Author: Blair Glencorse is executive director of Accountability Lab.
Image: Villagers hold empty plates as they stand in front of the office of a block development officer (BDO) during a protest against the improper supply of food in Galsi village, about 130 km (80 miles) northwest of the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, October 11, 2007. REUTERS/Parth Sanyal