What Drives Corruption and How Can Institutions Respond?

03.31.2015

UNCAC

What are the drivers of and institutional responses to corruption? Are current anti-corruption instruments used domestically and internationally effective? These were the key questions of a fascinating day-long event organized last week in Washington, DC by the George Washington School of Law and the International Bar Association, among others.

The event gathered a distinguished group of speakers from the government, academia, international organizations, law firms, and non-profits, as well as an engaged audience of anti-corruption scholars and practitioners.

While the discussion touched upon a multitude of corruption-related topics, the following aspects of corruption raised at event were the most valuable insights for me:

  • Corruption as a violation of public trust. Janine Wedel, a Berkeley-trained anthropologist and a professor at George Mason University, emphasized that corruption is more than just simple quid pro quo. Instead, it is a sophisticated network rooted in informal power, influence elites, and often aided by the post-Cold War global economic openness as the revolution of the digital age.
  • Corruption as a governance problem. Nikos Passas, professor at the Northeastern University, pointed out the roots of corruption in discrepancies between legitimacy and legality (lawful but awful conduct by government officials or businesses) and in unlawful but useful behavior (e.g., bribing a doctor to treat a patient in a failing healthcare system). International norms such as the United Nations Convention Against Corruption help by creating agreed-upon legal standards, but improving on-the-ground governance in countries around the world still has a long way to go. Read a Q&A with Nikos Passas here.
  • Private sector as a force for anti-corruption. Baker & McKenzie’s Tom Firestone stressed that a broad-based business community in a given country can be an effective force in anti-corruption efforts. He recounted his experience in Russia where local businesses resisted corrupt encroachments of the state. Local firms, after all, have a strong interest in the rule of law and a level playing field in the business environment. But they can’t do it alone.
  • Inter-governmental cooperation makes a difference. Kathryn Nickerson, Senior Counsel at the Department of Commerce highlighted the importance of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) Working Group on Bribery in International Business Transactions responsible for monitoring and implementation of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention.
  • Corruption as an attack on human dignity. Sarah Chayes, the conference’s keynote speaker, talked about her recently published book, Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security. She pointed out that there is a moral dimension to corruption – it leads to widespread moral decay and individual humiliation that goes beyond money. In extreme cases of corruption-ridden countries, it is not the weakness of the state that leads to corruption. Rather, the institutions of the state have evolved to make them a conduit for corruption that permeates entire societies.

Anna Nadgrodkiewicz is Director for Multiregional Programs at CIPE.