Good News on Corruption

Indian schoolchildren holding placards in support of Anna Hazare

Indian schoolchildren hold placards in support of Anna Hazare (Photo: AFP)

It’s unusual to hear good news when it comes to corruption, but 2011 was an unusual year. With citizens around the world rising up to protest against tyrants, dictators, fixed elections, and economic inequality, perhaps one of the most overlooked stories has been that average people are now beginning to fight back against corruption as well.

Corruption is endemic in many parts of the world, and for that reason it has often been accepted, if grudgingly, as just “how things are done.” That may be beginning to change. On April 5 of last year, anticorruption activist Anna Hazare began the first of what would become many hunger strikes that rocked India, leading to mass protests against the corruption and graft that pervades daily life in that country.

While the Indian anticorruption movement may have attracted the most attention — it was named one of the top 10 news stories of the year by Time magazine — there were important moves in other parts of the world as well. In Pakistan, the Supreme Court and the Federal Investigation Agency launched several investigations of public officials accused of corruption. At least one minister is now standing trial for overcharging religious pilgrims traveling to Mecca, who were left stranded in the desert until Saudi authorities intervened.

Meanwhile, in South Africa, President Jacob Zuma, whose African National Congress party has repeatedly been involved in corruption scandals, fired three top ministers accused of corrupt practices shortly before an election — showing that the ANC recognizes that South African voters will no longer tolerate even the perception of such behavior at the top.

Of course, punishing a few individuals, however publicly, does not heal the institutional decay that allows corruption to flourish: that requires sustained advocacy and, often, major policy changes. Anticorruption campaigners on the ground recognize this. For example, Hazare’s demand during his first hunger strike, which was eventually granted, was the drafting of new anticorruption legislation, not the punishment of a certain official or the end of a particular corrupt practice. More than just punishment will be needed to truly eliminate serious corruption.

What these events clearly show is that average citizens in many places no longer accept the inevitability of corruption, even in countries where it has a been a major problem for decades (or centuries). This change in attitudes is vital: without broad public support, anticorruption initiatives that look good on paper will never go anywhere in practice.

Thankfully, the problem of corruption is finally beginning to be addressed on the “supply side” as well, especially among multinational corporations, which increasingly recognize that paying bribes in developing countries is not worth it. As Doug Bannerman and David Roberts write in the Guardian’s Sustainable Business Blog: “Corruption, in all its forms, is always a business risk.”

To tackle a problem as deep and pervasive as corruption, it must be attacked from all sides. CIPE has long recognized that institutional weaknesses often create the incentives that allow corruption to fester and grow. Fixing those institutions and incentives requires a sea change in values, and in 2011, it seems, the tide began to go out on tolerating corruption.

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