Christian Caryl

The Corruption Pandemic

Why corruption is set to become one of the defining political issues of the 21st century.


Laurence Cockcroft is worried about global warming. Yes, like many of us, he’s concerned about the implications of rising temperatures. But he’s also aware of another danger that most people have probably overlooked — namely, the link between climate change and corruption.

So what could these two things possibly have to do with each other? A lot, it turns out. As Cockcroft points out, many forms of environmental destruction are against the law in the places where they happen, but the perpetrators — illegal loggers, say, in countries like Brazil, Indonesia, or the Congo — often resort to corruption to evade the law.

But there’s an even more interesting angle, too. Some of the mechanisms that the international community has put in place to tackle climate change, Cockcroft says, are potentially vulnerable to abuse. Carbon trading has proven notoriously susceptible to fraud. Rich countries are already committing hundreds of billions of dollars to funds that are supposed to compensate poorer nations for the cost of adapting to global warming.

The amounts involved, Cockcroft warns, are potentially bigger than all the money currently spent on development aid. So that makes them a tempting target for graft — especially when you consider how much of the money spent on aid projects in the past has been lost to corruption. "If corruption undermines those funds the way it has undermined a lot of aid programs," he says, "it could prove a big obstacle to restricting temperature rises to less than two degrees before 2050."

One could easily dismiss Cockcroft as just another single-issue advocate cultivating a pet obsession. But I think that would be a big mistake. I believe that he’s entirely right to argue that corruption has become a systemic disease that undermines governance around the world, and that it can cripple the ability of states to function if left unchecked.

He knows what he’s talking about. A development economist who spent decades working in Nigeria, Cockcroft is one of the founders of Transparency International, a global non-profit that offers remedies for stemming the tide of sleaze. Though the group recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, Cockcroft says that isn’t why he just decided to publish his new book, Global Corruption, which offers a handy guide to the biggest problems and possible solutions. The real reason, he says, is that the challenges posed by corruption are more urgent than ever.

The headlines this week would seem to prove him right. Chinese President Hu Jintao, speaking at the watershed Communist Party conference that’s under way in Beijing right now, has just told delegates that corruption could prove "fatal" to communist rule if the Party can’t get the problem under control.

This should probably come as little surprise in the wake of the huge scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, the once heavyweight official whose downfall this year has shone a spotlight on the apparently routine abuses of power and influence within the Party. (For some reason Hu didn’t mention other recent disclosures about the astonishing wealth of the people surrounding China’s most powerful men, including Premier Wen Jiabao and incoming Party leader Xi Jinping. Those unseemly reports, both produced by western news organizations, have been kept away from the prying eyes of Chinese citizens by government censors.)

In Russia, meanwhile, old-new President Vladimir Putin has just seen fit to fire his minister of defense, Anatoly Serdyukov, over allegations that the disgraced official used his privileged position to reap profits from the Russian arms trade. (Apparently Serdyukov was found cavorting with his mistress in a home crammed with ill-gotten luxuries when the police raided her place. They led her away in handcuffs.) The scandal now appears to be widening.

Here, too, though, the government’s account of its own actions has a distinctly selective feel to it. Serdyukov’s plans for reforming the military made him plenty of enemies within the army, so his foes may have used his lavish spending as an excuse for getting rid of him. It’s certainly true that equally ostentatious corruption by Russian officials — not to mention leading figures in the Russian Orthodox Church — has met with little or no reaction from the Kremlin. Indeed, the authorities seem to have spent most of their time lately rounding up anti-sleaze activists like Alexei Navalny, whose public criticisms of malfeasance don’t play to the government’s script.

It should be pointed out that corruption mega-scandals are not restricted to the authoritarian countries. Brazilians have been watching in astonishment as dozens of officials from the administration of still-popular ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have been tried and convicted for their involvement in a vast vote-buying scheme known as the mensalão (Portuguese for"big monthly payment"). In Indonesia, the national Anti-Corruption Commission has been embroiled in an epic battle with the notoriously rotten police force. And in India, activists are once again mounting a nationwide campaign against ubiquitous graft that many cite as a major drag on economic growth.

For that matter, even in the United States — whose citizens are now congratulating themselves on the end of a hard-fought presidential election — there are plenty of worries going around about the extent to which money and politics have become fused at the hip, from lobbying to the nefarious role of political finance. (I’m not sure we can console ourselves with the fact that some of the sleaziest practices don’t technically qualify as corruption because they’re allowed by law.)

It’s not a terribly inspiring picture, and Cockcroft, for his part, deserves points for his frankness in admitting that there are no easy fixes. He notes that some of the most dramatic successes in fighting corruption have come in small places like Singapore and Hong Kong, where enlightened but undemocratic leaders managed to put in place strong graft-fighting institutions as well as instilling a genuine anti-corruption ethos among the population. But those lessons don’t necessarily transplant well to big, messy places like Russia or Indonesia.

But he finds some hope in growing global awareness of the scale of the problem. During the Cold War, there was little willingness to address it as a global plague, since communist countries forbade its discussion and western governments feared that prying into the foibles of their authoritarian allies against the Soviet Union weren’t worth the ensuing complications. But the frenetic expansion of the global economy over the past two decades has made corruption too big to ignore — as well as far harder to track.

Cockcroft praises the G20 Anti-Corruption Working Group — "the best show around at the moment," he calls it — for its efforts to establish global standards to combat tricky issues like secrecy jurisdictions. (That the group even exists is a tribute to the work of international corruption fighters who have just opened their annual meeting in Rio de Janeiro this week. And yes, Cockcroft is in attendance.)

Ultimately, he says, anti-corruption campaigns will do best to focus on a few key areas. First of all, governments and aid donors need to realize that the size of the informal sector in many economies is a prime driver of corruption. Giving grassroots entrepreneurs incentives to come out into the light and legalize their operations can help.

Next, as the examples of both the U.S. and India demonstrate, distorted political finance regulations can have enormously destructive effects, since political parties tend to reward their donors by skewing legislation or awarding contracts — with hidden costs to everyone else. Cockcroft insists that it’s also vital to acknowledge the scale of the links between politicians and organized crime in many parts of the world.

The international community also needs to push for robust global regulations on multinational corporations. Cockcroft offers cautious praise for the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention (though he notes that the recent Wal-Mart scandal in Mexico, where the U.S. company is alleged to have bribed dozens of officials to speed up the process of obtaining approval to open stores, suggests that the challenge remains formidable).

Perhaps the most reliable remedy of all, though, is publicity. Reporters in many parts of the world now have more latitude to expose misdeeds. Social media are offering new avenues for smoking out bribe-takers. And the rise of multiparty systems and non-government organizations creates more space for activists to make their worries known.

Above all, it’s important to remember that solutions do exist, and that they can work when citizens and policymakers are capable of mustering the political will. Dismissing corruption as an unavoidable attribute of certain cultures is not only needlessly demoralizing — it’s also intellectually lazy. "Cultures are not fixed in time," Cockcroft points out. "Cultures are always dynamic." Moreover, he says, "In all of these countries where corruption is endemic, you always have people who are fighting it." He’s right on that point, too. Maybe it’s time for the rest of us figure out how to help.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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