Geo-Economics and Politics

5 lessons on fighting corruption

Venezuelan bolivar banknotes and a U.S. dollar banknote, folded as boats, are seen at a fruit and vegetable store in Caracas July 10, 2015.

Image: REUTERS/Marco Bello

Blair Glencorse
Founder and Executive Director, The Accountability Lab
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Corruption is a barrier to economic and social growth in much of Latin America. In many countries, robust legal frameworks for transparency, including far-reaching laws, criminal, administrative and audit regimes, and mechanisms for prevention, investigation and sanction already exist. But implementation and enforcement of laws can be weak and impunity for certain acts continues. Many countries in the region linger towards the bottom of indices that measure the Corruption Perceptions Index and the Rule of Law Index.

With this in mind, the recent Partnering Against Corruption (PACI) meeting brought together government officials, the private sector, academia and civil society in Mexico City to discuss ongoing anti-corruption reforms, efforts to build trust and integrity, and public-private cooperation on issues of accountability. The discussions focused on Mexico, but generated a number of useful strategies for Latin America as a whole. These included the following ideas:

i) Prevention beats prosecution

The conversation needs to be as much about preventing corruption as prosecuting it. This approach is cost-effective, builds confidence in the system and avoids some of the challenges for prosecution that may exist within legal structures. For example, Mexico’s new international airport is a project of the kind traditionally susceptible to bribery. But the government is putting in place an impressive list of safeguards for the construction industry with a view to modeling how to manage large-scale infrastructure development. In the construction industry more broadly, firms have come together to create an “observatory” to monitor projects; and the Construction Industry Transparency Initiative (CoST) is developing collective action agreements. Both are steps in the right direction.

ii) Co-create solutions

Public-private cooperation and robust civil participation provide the foundations for systemic change. The anti-corruption system recently put in place in Mexico is unique in that it was truly co-created by civil society with business and government. It mandated a five-person citizen-participation committee that oversees and administers government anti-corruption bodies; and was driven by a huge public campaign that mobilized over 600,000 people to push for new anti-corruption laws and prosecutors. These reforms have institutionalized anti-corruption efforts as a core function of the state and given their innovative people-centered designs, can truly change citizen understanding of these issues. The key now will be to avoid politicization and ensure implementation going forwards particularly at sub-national levels where corruption is often most prevalent.

iii) Develop technical spaces for good governance

It is important to ensure governance remains a technical rather than a political process. In Mexico, the Central Bank understands the critical role it plays in building trust with citizens. It takes ethics very seriously and has developed rigorous hiring processes. The organization is continually looking for staff with integrity; visiting potential employees years before they might be brought on-board; talking to neighbours, family and friends about their honesty; and putting in place programmes that ensure staff build bonds of trust. An innovation mindset underpins the Bank’s approach, allowing it to bring in the best people, adapt to changing realities and ensure financial accountability.

iv) Communicate the positives

Fighting corruption is a long process and efforts to communicate positive changes are important so they are recognized by citizens and bureaucracies. Corruption adds as much as 10% to the cost of doing business and 25% to the cost of public contracts, therefore communicating anti-corruption is not just about greater transparency and accountability but also about greater efficiency and income. It is clear that this also means moving beyond language around compliance and enforcement, and towards more positive conversations that highlight building trust and integrity. Governments and civil society can find creative ways to celebrate honesty like Integrity Idol or the Ibrahim Prize; while businesses can maintain ethical scoreboards or highlight compliance champions.

v) Start as soon as possible

The conversations in Mexico included more of a focus on formal anti-corruption and integrity education than I have ever heard in a meeting focused largely on private sector issues. Given that almost 50% of the population of Mexico is under the age of 25, this is an important development and a real affirmation that business and government sees anti-corruption as a generational issue. Mexico is now working to integrate courses on ethics and responsible citizenship into curricula from the primary school level upwards, creating a learning environment that fosters trust and understanding. Organizations like iCivics and Generation Citizen are pioneering new ways to do this elsewhere and their models could be adapted to the Mexican context.

Serious challenges to building trust and integrity remain across Latin America but Mexico is starting to take positive steps. Progress is being made as the government pushes through the implementation of reforms, the private sector comes together to collectively shift behaviors, and the country’s vocal civil society continues to monitor and evaluate progress. The PACI community is now developing a plan around key work areas and with concrete tools for delivery in support of Mexico’s ongoing anti-corruption agenda. The hope is that this will drive progress forward even further throughout the Latin American region.

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