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Fighting Corruption Can Be a Fatal Act


Indigenous Pacchanta in southeast Peru.
The Huilca family in Pacchanta in southeast Peru, not far from Ausangante peak in the Andes. The family's way of life as farmers and alpaca breeders has been affected by droughts related to climate change. The Huilcas have been farming the same land for generations but needed to carve a shallow canal from a spring to source more water. TRANSPARENCY INTERNATIONAL

WASHINGTON — In 2000, I had the privilege to present Lasantha Wickramatunga, from Sri Lanka, with the Transparency International annual Integrity Award. Wickramatunga was a prominent and tenacious newspaperman with the courage to ask tough questions, call for government accountability and expose corruption. On Jan. 8, 2009, he was driving to work when eight unidentified gunmen on motorcycles shot him in the head, the BBC reported. He died soon afterward. He was 52.

My friend J.C. Weliamuna is also a seemingly mild-mannered man with nerves of steel. As the head of Transparency International in Sri Lanka, he faces constant threats and confronts kidnappers while his office has been bombed, yet he keeps his superb sense of humor. He knows, as do so many of my friends in the Transparency International network from Russia to Pakistan, from Peru to Zimbabwe, that fighting corruption can be deadly. But thanks to remarkable civil society leaders, investigative journalists and courageous public prosecutors, campaigns to expose fraud in government and to build protest movements to promote justice are experiencing unprecedented momentum these days.

Transparency International, which I helped found, was the first international nongovernmental entity solely dedicated to curbing corruption. It was the brainchild of Peter Eigen, a career World Bank officer who became increasingly concerned about corruption in his work, especially in the late 1980s as the bank’s representative in Nairobi, where he recognized that aid money was being stolen and found a total unwillingness by the bank and other aid agencies to ever raise the issue. They all felt it was politically too sensitive, so Eigen and some friends decided to act.

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The organization was thus born by a few dreamers – and today it has a staff of more than 140 people at its base in Berlin, with national chapters operating in more than 100 countries. The total annual income raised by the group’s secretariat in Berlin is around 20 million euros or $26 million (much of which goes to national chapters), while the chapters themselves raise a similar amount each year. Most of the funds come from Western aid agencies, with additional support from some large international foundations and modest contributions from numerous multinational corporations.

My new book, “Waging War on Corruption: Inside the Movement Fighting the Abuse of Power,” documents how I became deeply involved in the worldwide anticorruption efforts.

I met Eigen in the mid-1980s, when I served as the World Bank’s chief spokesman and we started to discuss corruption, specifically creating TI, as it is called, in late 1990, soon after I left the bank and visited Kenya. Eigen formed a small group of founding members and we signed the articles of incorporation at a meeting in The Hague in February 1993 and elected a board, with Eigen as chairman. A former Bangladeshi foreign minister, Kamal Hossain, and I served as vice chairmen. Our meeting was hosted by Jan Pronk, a Dutch aid minister who with Robert McNamara, the former World Bank president, served as co-chairmen of the Global Coalition for Africa, which provided TI with its first grant of $50,000.

In the early years of Transparency International, from my office in Washington D.C., I ran the organization’s global efforts to raise public awareness of corruption in general and TI’s existence in particular. Eigen and I were always acutely aware of the need to build a strong staff, a board of directors drawn from across the world and powerful successors. We set maximum lifetime board term limits of 12 years. Eigen is now the chairman of the TI advisory council. I stepped down as vice chairman in 2002 and from the board in 2005 and then joined the council. Over the last few years, I have served as an adviser to TI’s managing director, Cobus de Swardt.

Transparency International Bangladesh
A protest organized by Transparency International Bangladesh.

Corruption – the abuse of public office for private gain – is a universal phenomenon. Its effect on civilians is greatest in developing and emerging countries, but it is all too prevalent in leading industrial economies as well.

Corruption is a major cause of poverty; it undermines freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and democracy; it distorts fair business and free enterprise; it makes a mockery of equal justice before the law; it adds to global insecurity; and it kills.

When corrupt public health officials allowed the use of counterfeit medicines in Nigeria, patients – including children – died. When security officers took small bribes from terrorists at a Moscow airport so that bombs could evade screening and be placed on planes, innocent people died. And who knows what the eventual toll may be as a result of bribing Pakistani officials and scientists who, in return, shared nuclear bomb-making secrets with governments in North Korea, Libya and Iran?

The United Nations came very late to the war on corruption. For many years, the General Assembly refused to discuss the topic and the Secretariat acted as if it did not exist. In the late 1990s, Kofi Annan, secretary-general at the time, announced at an annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that the UN aimed to play a leading international role in promoting good corporate citizenship, leading to the establishment of the UN Global Compact agency, which is based on nine principles covering human rights and strengthening environmental protection.

At the Davos meeting, I asked Georg Kell, a German who served on Annan’s staff and went on to start Global Compact, why corruption was missing among the principles. He confided that this absence was a matter of concern to the secretary-general, but without any General Assembly declaration against corruption it was not possible to include it in the Global Compact. Kell vowed to change that and told me that Annan was committed, too.

Not long afterward, Kell, who has since become executive director of the Global Compact, began working behind the UN scenes for the 10thprinciple, dealing with corruption. He was encouraged by Eigen, who at the same time was pressing for broader UN support for Annan’s anticorruption campaign. Annan was heeding the calls for such support as scandals in the UN system, notably related to oil-for-food schemes in Iraq, elevated the bribery topic in UN circles.

I vividly remember how in May 1993, at Transparency International’s  inaugural launch conference in Berlin, a participant said he would work to ensure that the UN fully addressed the issue of corruption. The person was Ahmedou Ould Abdullah, a Mauritanian ambassador who worked for the UN in some of the toughest diplomatic jobs, in Burundi and Somalia, and whose rallying calls to address corruption took a long time to be heard. Years later, as co-chairman of the Global Coalition for Africa, he also became a staunch supporter of Transparency International.

Frank Volgl book coverWhat we discovered in the early days of TI was that there were many people worldwide who were just waiting to join such a movement. We found energized reporters and investigators, volunteers and public officials willing to assist. One of our first targets was the World Bank, and by the mid-1990s it started to crack. In the post-cold-war era more and more Western politicians were asking why aid cash was being deposited in Zurich bank accounts and offshore money centers by so many government leaders – they wanted accountability.

Their pressure only strengthened the ardent campaign led by TI to change the World Bank. By the late 1990s, a host of official multilateral agencies had changed from a stance of refusing to discuss corruption to giving anticorruption a high priority – these included the World Bank itself, the Asian Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the International Monetary Fund.

Now, it was time for the UN to join the party.

Kofi Annan saw how the wind was blowing, and I believe  he was personally convinced that the UN had stayed aloof from the rising efforts  for greater governmental transparency for too long. In 2003, the General Assembly adopted the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, which was ratified in late 2005 and has been signed by more than 140 countries. (The United States Senate voted for ratification of the treaty in September 2006.) It obliges governments to enforce numerous anticorruption measures. It also provides the most comprehensive set of legal anticorruption requirements on governments that has ever existed. It starts by declaring:

“The purposes of the Convention are: (a) to promote and strengthen measures to prevent and combat corruption more efficiently and effectively; (b) to promote, facilitate and support international cooperation and technical assistance in the prevention of and the fight against corruption, including asset recovery; and (c) to promote integrity, accountability and proper management of public affairs and public property.

But will the treaty be carried out by governments around the world?

Skepticism is in order. Governments for decades have declared opposition to corruption while they steal from their people. Government hypocrisy on corruption prevails. I believe, however, that the Arab Spring was a seminal event in this arena: first, we saw tens of thousands of people in Tunisia and Egypt and later in other countries march into the streets to face the brutal security forces of their countries – doing so in the name of not only their own dignity and self-respect but also against illegitimate corrupt governments. Second, the demonstrators were influenced to act by the spread of information across the Internet, notably through social media that ensured that people were better informed about governmental corruption more than ever before.

Today, civil society groups fighting corruption are attracting mass public support. Yes, this will be a long journey, but thanks to the courage and skill of civil society leaders, plus the hard work of investigative reporters, prosecutors and many other individuals who share their concerns and values, progress is assured. People not only want honest government, but they are increasingly finding the means to fight for it.

Enforcing the UN treaty is a crucial objective. It will take time in many countries and it may not be achieved in others. But at least UN leadership and civil society sit on the same side: progress in itself. The tireless work of heroes like Lasantha Wickramatunga in Sri Lanka and many, many others will contribute to a more decent world.

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This is an opinion essay.

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Frank Vogl worked as a reporter for The Times of London and as chief spokesman for the World Bank before he helped found Transparency International and the Partnership for Transparency Fund. He is the author of “Waging War on Corruption – Inside the Movement Fighting the Abuse of Power,” published by Rowman and Littlefield.

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