Fighting corruption requires a new understanding of how the global problem has evolved, for it is bigger and broader than petty bribery or crooked deals in developing countries. Merely adopting a new anti-corruption law, creating another commission, or launching another ‘campaign’ will not get the job done. We can no longer fight corruption by simply fighting corruption alone.
Corruption is a symptom of a larger disease — the failure of institutions and governance, resulting in poor management of revenues and resources and an absence of delivery of public goods and services. We must think beyond anti-corruption rhetoric and traditional tactics. We need to be more strategic and rigorous, identifying and addressing corruption’s underlying causes and examining the weaknesses in key institutions and government policies and practices. We have to focus our efforts on the broader context of governance and accountability. Only then can we see the many other shapes and forms corruption can take and address this epidemic.
Of its many guises, legal corruption is a particularly pernicious one that gets insufficient attention. Legal corruption refers to efforts by companies and individuals to shape law or policies to their advantage, often done quasi-legally, via campaign finance, lobbying or exchange of favors to politicians, regulators and other government officials. It is dealings between venal politicians and powerful financial and industrial executives. In its more extreme form, legal corruption can lead to control of entire states, through the phenomenon dubbed ‘state capture,’ and result in enormous losses for societies.
In many developing countries, legal and illegal corruption coexists, and it has become commonplace for multinational oil and mining companies to collude with elite politicians to deprive citizens of the benefits of their natural resources. Nigeria lost $35 billion over the last 10 years through corruption and mismanagement of its oil industry. The evidence suggests — and the people of these developing countries attest — growth cannot sustain where corruption thrives.
The reach of legal corruption, however, is not limited to countries with weak governments. It has also enabled Wall Street investment banks to unduly influence financial oversight institutions, bringing the U.S. and the global economy to the brink four years ago, and in recent months allowed collusion between U.K. and possibly U.S. banks to fix the global interest rate for their benefit.
This kind of corruption is a complex, multidimensional problem that needs to be confronted at every level. If we, as an international community, are going to get at its core, we need to recognize that improving governmental institutions is key. Good governance only starts with elections and higher levels of transparency. Elections cannot be effective unless they are free, fair and clean, and complemented by real freedom of expression. Transparency with impunity will not bring forth justice or make governments accountable. Broader governance reforms require serious progress in rule of law to make any real, lasting impact. Equally important is a free press. While we have seen progress towards democracy in many parts of the world, roughly two-thirds does not have a fully free media and, in some countries, the movement is backwards.
As crucial is the management of the world’s natural resources. Today, 700 million people, in about 60 countries, live in poverty though they sit atop billions of dollars in oil, gas and minerals. Such abject poverty in the midst of abundance is a call for action. The overwhelming majority of these citizens live in poorly governed countries — those that rate low in corruption control, transparency and accountability. The governance of these resources and the wealth they generate will make or break the development of these nations, and the social, economic, political and security implications will be far and wide.
The future of these resource-rich countries no longer rests mainly on foreign aid but on the extent and effective use of the country’s own resources and how they use them. For that to occur, a focused and concrete approach to improve governance and accountability is critical. Reshaping the fight against corruption into a smarter strategy that integrates the challenge of improving governance and institutions in both the public and private sphere is the way forward.