Corruption Harms Us All: Here’s What We Can Do About It

By the U.S. Department of State’s Luis E. Arreaga, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs

As many who read this are no doubt aware, business leaders often confront difficult and seemingly impossible challenges not only to thrive, but just to survive.  As a diplomat, many have told me that ending corruption is an impossible challenge.  While completely eradicating a practice that has plagued civilization since its beginning may be impossible, I do believe the extent to which corruption harms people, reduces government credibility, and thwarts business can be significantly reduced.

Those in business know the burdens of corruption firsthand.  It leads to infrastructure and products that compromise not just quality, but safety.  It undermines the credibility of courts, both criminal and civil.  It allows bad actors to gain influence, from dishonest bureaucrats to violent organized criminal enterprises and even terrorists.

Countries where corruption flourishes have economies that grow more slowly and face severe crime problems.  Their citizens become disenchanted with government and their international reputations sullied.  Corruption hobbles innovation, and makes the business environment less competitive and efficient.

No doubt, success against corruption will require major action domestically and internationally to unleash the progress that businesses, countries, and the people within them deserve and should expect.  In November, I represented the United States at the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) in St. Petersburg.  There, we worked with Russia and more than 160 countries to propose, discuss, and adopt common sense approaches to fighting corruption.

For these nations to fully thrive, they must not only fully implement the anticorruption and transparency standards contained within the UNCAC treaty, but must also allow civil society organizations to play their important and appropriate role of keeping the authorities honest and enhancing transparency for the benefit of the people.  Taking such steps will not only ensure that proper laws are on the books, but that police and courts enforce and follow them, and that civil society will be permitted to call out those who do not live up to these standards.

And we have seen progress in the anticorruption campaign amongst quite a few of our partner nations.

The Estonian government leverages its expertise in e-governance and cyber security in development assistance projects to combat corruption and increase transparency in Ukraine, Moldova, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Belarus, Palestine, Tunisia, and Afghanistan.  Estonia has been an effective U.S. partner on several initiatives, including an e-governance capacity building project in Ukraine that targets corruption which was co-funded through U.S. government’s Emerging Donor Challenge Fund.  As Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves often says, “you cannot bribe a computer.”

Ukraine’s Interior Ministry started to build a new police force in January as a first step toward countrywide reform.  Two thousand recruits were selected from more than 33,000 applicants. The recruits were trained to address human trafficking and domestic violence — more pressing problems now because of the current situation in Ukraine.  U.S. police trainers from Ohio, Nevada and California held month long, hands-on sessions with the new recruits, covering patrol tactics, communication and ways of being more responsive to citizens.  The young officers pledged to refuse bribes, which in the past had contributed to the police’s reputation as one of Ukraine’s most corrupt public-sector services.

And we applaud steps Hungary has taken to reduce tax fraud and increase transparency.  But much more needs to be done.  A recent Transparency International study found that corruption  plagues a high percentage of EU-funded development projects in Hungary, greatly reducing the positive impact these investments could have on the economy and society.  Despite many reports of official corruption, no high-level government officials have yet been prosecuted or held accountable for these crimes.

But it’s not only governments that must act. We realize those most harmed by corruption are private business and everyday people. They are the ones using defective products, paying bribes for basic services, and being denied justice when they seek it.  As a result, we believe civil society, including but not limited to non-governmental organizations, has a key role to play.  We believe they should be observers within the UNCAC and its working groups, as well as active participants in anti-corruption efforts as we develop, implement, and monitor progress on setting global rules of the road for curtailing corruption.

In addition to meaningful oversight in the implementation of these rules and standards, there is a need for a robust capability to pursue and prosecute those responsible for corruption, and that ill-gotten gains are returned, to the greatest degree possible, to victims of corruption.

To root out corruption we need a two-pronged approach: authorities must prosecute the corrupt from the top-down, and civil society must operate freely to change attitudes from the bottom-up.

This is common sense, and today, on International Anti-Corruption day, we are reminded that now is the time to act.

Corruption is a tremendously large problem; and the benefits of reducing its ill effects are equally enormous.  It is in our power to do so, and we owe it to our businesses, our countries, our governments, and most of all – to our people – to try.

Luis Arreaga is the United States Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, and former United States Ambassador to Iceland.