Clean sheet: Transparency International’s new chapter

Interview with Transparency International’s Peter Eigen
OECD Observer

Peter Eigen waves goodbye. ©OECD/Jacques Brinon

Critics say that power corrupts and attracts the corruptible, while some businesses argue that paying bribes to public officials, for instance, is simply the way affairs are run in some countries. Little wonder that corruption is one area where government performance is closely watched–and harshly assessed–by the public.

Even sceptics would agree that corruption, quite apart from being anti-democratic, distorts markets and chokes development. That is why the OECD leads the fight against corruption in international business, notably through its renowned Anti-Bribery Convention.

Stepping up vigilance is all the more important nowadays as more governments begin to outsource or adopt commercial like approaches to provide public services.

Non-government organisations have played a vital role in casting a light on corrupt behaviour and building public as well as political awareness of the problem. Chief among them is Transparency International, whose Corruption Perceptions Index is now a reference. The 2005 version released in October shows that while OECD countries generally perform well, there is much work to do. We caught up with Transparency International’s founder, Peter Eigen, just before the organisation’s elections in November, at which he would be stepping down as chair.

OECD Observer: As founder of Transparency International, how would you judge progress towards cleaner government since TI began in 1993?

Peter Eigen: Thankfully, there has been progress, and this can be seen primarily in the way that people have become less patient with corruption. Consumers, civil society, but also the media: all have become much more critical and intolerant towards it. The fact that one reads much more about corruption, whether in government or business, than 13 years ago by no means indicates that there is more corruption than before. Rather, it shows the enormous anger that corruption elicits. It can no longer be brushed under the carpet!

It is discouraging, though, to see the list of hundreds of companies implicated in the oilfor- food scandal, for instance. It’s a clear sign that too many people still find it hard to kick old habits. And it serves as a reminder that corrupt behaviour is still prevalent in OECD countries, particularly in business. Accepting this fact opens the door to tackling corruption through joint efforts, instead of pointing the finger solely at poorer countries.

Yet OECD governments, including the Dutch who are hosting a major ministerial meeting on ethics and trust in government in November, would probably consider themselves as leaders in transparency and accountability, generally setting the high standards in government for others to follow (see table). But TI’s latest widely respected corruption index also points out that wealth is not a prerequisite for controlling corruption. How do you explain this?

This message is so important because it challenges the wisdom that countries need to grow richer before they can really deal with governance issues. TI has always said that corruption is a major cause of poverty, more so than the other way around. Improve governance and the quality of life will improve as well.

The long-term data provided by a decade of annual Corruption Perceptions Indices show that some wealthy countries’ scores have in fact worsened in 2005. That is the flip-side. Poverty is no excuse for tolerating corruption, but neither can wealth protect a country against suffering from it in the future. Constant vigilance is essential everywhere.

Beyond this, it is most important for wealthy countries, with or without a colonial legacy, whose companies have been active in poorer countries, to recognise their role in driving the phenomenon of corruption there. They may score well on our index, but a double standard where you behave yourself at home and bribe ruthlessly abroad is no cause for self-congratulation. Having said that, OECD countries, as reflected in their implementation of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, and their companies, reflected by the growth of voluntary transparency initiatives, are now taking this issue seriously. But much damage has been done.

Some people argue that times are harder now, that new challenges–globalisation, security issues, social conflict, etc– demand a new kind of tougher government, and that people are prepared to accept changes in exchange for greater security, for instance. What is your view on this?

To be able to fight corruption we need modern, open, visible institutions. Transparency is a key factor in this. Even though times may be harder, we must keep strengthening democratic institutions and developing an independent civil society. Therefore, Transparency International works with the National Integrity System model, which dictates that open co-operation between governments, institutions and the private sector promises more success than a return to a closed society.

True democracy, particularly in its early stages, is like a delicate flower. And only in an open and democratic society is it possible to detect and root out corruption. Nondemocratic systems don’t allow this. We need to keep moving towards greater democracy and a system that allows for the full involvement of civil society. The role of NGOs in controlling public officials cannot be overestimated. Active organisations like Transparency International have made a real contribution to highlighting and stopping corruption.

We should never sacrifice transparency, liberty and accountability for so-called greater security. That would be a slippery slope. It certainly runs counter to what TI stands for.

Can there be such a thing as a perfectly clean government?

Perfection is not of this world, so we do not expect governments to be perfect, or to be trusted blindly. But this does not mean perfection is the wrong direction to move in. In our work at Transparency International we certainly try to make it harder for government officials to be imperfect, or to abuse their positions. We try to raise the costs of being corrupt and increase the incentives for resisting temptation. We encourage systems that reduce the scope for corruption through targeted, practical legislation and we call for an independent monitoring function of every regime.

You are now stepping down as chair of the organisation you founded over a decade ago. Where can TI go from here?

Let me say first of all that I will stay connected with TI after stepping down as chairman and I will continue to do my bit. Fortunately, TI shows many signs of a maturing institution and a new generation of leaders was elected during this year’s annual membership meeting on 12-14 November in Berlin.* With its strong management and staff, and a very dynamic group of national chapters, I feel confident that TI will continue successfully along its current track.

I have always seen it as my most important task to build awareness within the global community of how damaging corruption is to society and economic development, and to persuade people that there actually are ways to solve the problem. Recently, civil society groups and influential organisations have woken up to their responsibilities. I’m thinking, for example, of the World Bank, which just a few days ago cancelled three development projects in Bangladesh worth US$1 million after discovering that corrupt procurement practices had been used. -RJC

References

*Huguette Labelle, a prominent public servant from Canada, was elected chair of Transparency International at that meeting. Akere Muna, from Cameroon, was elected vice-chair. For more information, visit www.transparency.org.

©OECD Observer No 252, November 2005




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