Newly elected leaders of countries saddled with a reputation for corruption often loudly declare a war on corruption and set up a commission to implement reforms. Yet many of those efforts fail because they lack crucial political and institutional elements, and public officials soon revert to the seven deadly sins of bribery, extortion, cronyism, nepotism, patronage, graft and embezzlement.
Anti-corruption reforms have a good chance of success only when they are moved by a top leader and persistent enough to overcome bureaucratic resistance and inertia, according to experts. They also have to involve civil society and be free from political manipulation.
But even well-meant efforts are unlikely to meet their goals if basic democratic institutions — from judiciary systems to a civil society — are not in place, said Christiaan Poortman of Transparency International, an anti-corruption group.
“Institutions must not only exist on paper, but also have an actual power to monitor and hold the government accountable,” he said.
Reforms based on those principles have worked in Botswana, Tanzania, Singapore, Hong Kong, Slovenia, Latvia and Peru, all of which have made progress in the fight against corruption.
For example, in Tanzania, an anti-corruption campaign was directly related to concerted efforts to improve the country’s economy, living standards and business environment. Singapore’s leaders encouraged public officials’ integrity by setting personal examples and by building a well-paid civil service. And Peru created a special anti-corruption system to investigate and prosecute cases.
But anti-corruption programs that are nothing more than slogans or that are missing key elements will fail. Guido Bertucci of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs at the United Nations said an anti-corruption campaign is doomed to failure when the government launches it in reaction to a scandal or to external pressure from foreign donors. He said some leaders use an anti-corruption campaign as a cover to hurt their political opponents. Even governments truly committed to reforms see less success when they do not engage the private sector and civil society.
Nations with the highest risk of corruption are often desperately poor and plagued by civil wars or oppressive regimes, as confirmed by the low ranking of Somalia, Burma, Iraq, Haiti and Afghanistan in Transparency’s Corruption Perception Index. (Although experts caution against looking at the index as a reliable measure of corruption, they say it does provide a rough approximation of where countries stand in relation to each other.)
In addition, closed economies — isolated from the world market by trade and other barriers — are more likely to have higher levels of corruption than more open ones. In such countries, government revenues as well as foreign assistance can easily be transferred through back channels to bank accounts kept in offshore tax havens.
When corruption becomes ingrained in the culture or is seen as part of the daily struggle for survival, reforming governance becomes particularly difficult. For example, in some African countries, Richard Messick of the World Bank said, lower-level judges are paid so little that they resort to taking bribes to support their families. “When people get used to bribes, when they have financial obligations supported by bribes, it is very difficult to stop,” he said.
Globalization has made governance challenges even more difficult for young states as multinational companies interested in their natural resources often entered their markets with an intention to bribe, if necessary, their way to profitable contracts.
Therefore, Transparency’s Poortman said, it is only partly within developing countries’ power to break the cycle of corruption.
Member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) reached a milestone 10 years ago when they adopted an anti-bribery convention that prohibits the bribing of foreign public officials. However, only half of the OECD member countries, including the United States, enforce the prohibition, according to a Transparency report.
Companies based in emerging markets outside the OECD, such as China, India and Russia, are perceived to engage routinely in bribery when doing business abroad, according to Transparency’s 2008 Bribe Payers Index.
“We need far greater effort on the part of developed and emerging market countries to help developing nations overcome the obstacle of corruption,” Messick said.