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World: Corruption Seen As A Serious Social Issue

  • Robert Lyle

Washington,25 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Moldova's Deputy Prime Minister says corruption was endemic in the former Soviet Union and the daunting task now is to reform people's mind-set.

Mongolia's Justice Minister says he's worried that corruption may sink his country's emerging democracy.

Nicolae Andronic and L. Tsog, along with dozens of other officials from 90 nations around the globe, Wednesday began exploring their concerns about, and approaches to, corruption at a 2.5 day conference in Washington called by U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

Gore told the gathering that the global economy has made corruption of government officials felt across all borders:

Gore said corruption in one country can make its impact felt around the world. No country can seal itself off from the impact of corruption, he said, so every nation must help fight it.

The American vice president noted that tolerance for corruption is fading fast:

Gore said gone are the days when corruption was written off merely as a cost of doing business. Today, he said, more and more people are seeing corruption for what it is -- serious crime which has devastating consequences and is a cold vicious act by a crooked official.

World Bank President James Wolfensohn told the conference that when he took the helm of the bank in the early 1990s, he was told that the word "corruption" couldn't even be mentioned because the World Bank deals only with financial topics and corruption is a political matter. Wolfensohn said that knowing how corruption inhibits investment and development and hurts poor people most, he decided in 1996 -- against strong advice -- to redefine corruption as a social issue of great significance:

Wolfensohn said that after 50 years of not mentioning the word, the next year the central item on the bank's annual meetings was corruption, the central discussion of finance ministers was corruption and every single minister wanted to speak.

The head of the United Nations Crime Center, Pino Arlacchi, said there has to be strong concern both by individuals and by government officials:

Arlacchi said when a dictator puts a million dollars in a secret bank account, or drug money is laundered, or a business executive skims profits, it affects the lives and freedom of millions of people. Now, he said, governments, companies and organizations have stopped looking the other way.

Arlacchi said businesses in the countries of the former Soviet Union are especially feeling the direct effects of corruption. He said a U.N. survey found that 60 percent of all firms in those countries paid bribes to survive and succeed.

The head of the relatively new and rapidly growing international private organization dedicated to stamping out corruption, Transparency International, laughed that just two or three years ago his then-fledgling group couldn't even get into major conferences let alone be allowed to speak.

But now, said Transparency's Managing Director Jeremy Pope, there is being forged a "grand coalition" of governments, international agencies, and private citizens -- the like of which has seldom if ever been seen before, he said -- to create a climate of confidence that corruption can be tackled.

Still, he said, some forget just how badly corruption hurts people:

Villagers in Nigeria who died from outdated drugs, he said. Hemophiliacs in Japan infected with aids from tainted blood, a child beaten at school for failing to tip his teacher, the mother forced to watch her child die because she had no money to bribe the health provider. And where were their protectors? he asked. Too often, they too were among those taking bribes and extorting from people they were sworn to protect.

The U.S. conference on fighting corruption and safeguarding integrity among justice and security officials continues through Friday in Washington.