Global Policy Forum

Corruption's Threat to Democracy


By Barbara Crossette

UN Wire
April 12, 2004

Last fall the General Assembly produced a new treaty that many would say was long overdue — the U.N. Convention Against Corruption. A few dozen countries have already signed on. But now what?

With the new convention as a weapon, and even before it is ratified by the 30 countries needed to bring it into force, a range of international and private organizations are demanding real action, not just promises from governments.

People who have spent long years looking for reasons why some countries never make it to the level of development their resources would indicate they should are now zeroing in on corruption more than ever — along with the failure to advance the rights of women — as central impediments to progress.

In the process, experts are throwing out some traditional excuses for corruption. Most no longer accept that ending corruption in the public services is as easy as paying civil servants more, so that they don't feel the need to demand bribes. Another disintegrating shibboleth is that the tiresome, time-consuming, day-to-day, small-change corruption faced by the citizens of so many countries is the acid that corrodes a whole society. Start at the top, experts say, and let the bottom take care of itself.

"Corruption is principally a governance issue — a failure of institutions and a lack of capacity to manage society by means of a framework of social, judicial, political and economic checks and balances," the U.N. Development Program says in a new guide for its representatives worldwide. The U.N. drug and crime office in Vienna also has an anti-corruption "tool kit."

The UNDP guide, called a "practice note," is full of suggestions and directions to a wealth of information accessible on the Internet. It also includes a few illustrations to indicate the scale of the problem. It points to an African country where for every dollar's worth of customs revenue actually collected, two-and-a-half times that was lost in unpaid duties, evaded through corruption; to a South Asian nation where only 15 percent of anti-poverty money actually gets to the poor; and an Arab state where corruption's share of government contracts can be as high as 70 percent.

Nine out of 10 developing countries urgently need practical support to dig out of this mess, according to the independent organization Transparency International. In March it released a list of 10 top corrupt leaders of the last quarter century. Except for former leaders of Ukraine and Yugoslavia, all were in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

It is getting easier to measure corruption, at least in general terms. Not only are international organizations building better data banks, but independent organizations are also amassing considerable evidence. Transparency International, founded by a couple of ex-World Bank officials in 1993, has over a decade steadily expanded its Corruption Perception Index, a scale based on the reports of numerous analysts covering 133 countries.

Recently, Freedom House, a New York-based organization that normally measures political and civil liberties, issued its first report on corruption, calling graft and the weak judicial systems that allow it to flourish "major impediments to the development of democracy in transitional societies."

The report, focusing on 30 "countries at the crossroads," diverges in some startling ways from the more practiced findings of Transparency International, which has chapters in more than 85 countries. In trying to factor democratic norms into the mix, Freedom House throws Malaysia into a category of "authoritarian regimes" with the likes of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Zimbabwe, and Vietnam is lumped with Uzbekistan among the world's "most politically repressive" countries. Many would disagree with these and other judgments and discount the report.

But, contentious rankings aside, what Freedom House aims to show is that corruption not only prevents development but also can undermine democracy and democratic institutions, sometimes reversing decades of gains.

Governments have proved amply that they can't be counted on to get the job of cleaning up corruption done, even with a new treaty. That is where the media, nongovernmental organizations, think tanks and even academic institutions are crucial to the campaign. Civil society, says the UNDP anti-corruption guide, plays a vital role in reshaping attitudes and reversing public apathy or tolerance for corruption. NGOs can also monitor the performance of public officials.

In Peru, for example, the Institute of Legal Defense has been watching government practices in general and in particular reports of corruption within the government of President Alejandro Toledo. (Alberto Fujimori, a former Peruvian president now in exile in Japan, is one of the 10 most corrupt officials on Transparency International's list.)

In Africa and Asia there are many corruption watchdog groups, but they often operate on very slim budgets and sometimes under harassment. In India, the Consumer Unity and Trust Society, which started out small as a consumer protection organization in a country where the adulteration of many goods by corrupt manufacturers and retailers caused untold harm, has under the leadership of its founder, Pradeep Mehta, grown in 20 years into a multi-branch movement that more broadly looks after the rights of Indians, especially the most vulnerable.

It has also moved into research and advocacy on free trade, monitoring globalization in practical ways. International trade and investment are rich new sources of corruption in many places. Often when a vague "globalization" originating somewhere else is blamed, the criticism might be better directed locally.

Significantly, CUTS has opened an Africa Resource Center in Zambia to share its experience in a pioneering example of South-South cooperation on issues of governance and economic development. This pattern of sharing experiences and tactics has also helped make Transparency International effective on every continent, allowing citizens' anti-corruption campaigns to grow in national capitals.

"Corruption is an insidious plague that has a wide range of effects on societies," Secretary General Kofi Annan said in October, welcoming the adoption of the convention against corruption. "It undermines democracy and the rule of law, leads to violations of human rights, distorts markets, erodes the quality of life and allows organized crime, terrorism and other threats to human security to flourish."

He added that while every country may have corruption at some level, "it is in the developing world that its effects are most destructive."

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