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World: Head Of Transparency International Discusses Solutions To Corruption Issues

  • Jeremy Bransten

Founded in 1993, German-based Transparency International is the only global non-governmental organization (NGO) dedicated to fighting corruption. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten talks to its chairman, Peter Eigen, who helped organize the 10th International Anticorruption Conference, which culminates today in Prague. The conference drew hundreds of law-enforcement officials, academics, bankers, and non-governmental representatives from Albania to Zimbabwe, to discuss the phenomenon of corruption and how to combat it.

Prague, 11 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Transparency International describes itself as a civil-society organization dedicated to curbing both international and national corruption. The organization does not investigate individual cases of corruption, but lobbies for legal reforms to strengthen clean governance and uses its local chapters to monitor the implementation of existing agreements by signatory countries.

Transparency International publishes regular reports on the state of corruption in the world's countries, the most famous of which are its "Corruption Perception Index," which measures how corrupt citizens feel their states to be, and the "Bribe Payers' Index," which gauges how business and government officials working in a particular country evaluate its corruption climate.

Peter Eigen was asked what he hoped to achieve at the Prague conference. When the first International Anticorruption Conference was convened 20 years ago, it included only a handful of law-enforcement officials. Under Transparency International's stewardship, it has grown to encompass representatives from nearly every sector of society.

Eigen had this to say: "One can perhaps divide what we expect from this conference into three categories. The first one -- as was the initial intent of the conference, already at the beginning, when a couple of detectives and police officers were meeting -- is an attempt to simply improve the tools for fighting corruption, to compare experiences in various parts of the world, various reforms, exchange ideas on success stories but also on mistakes which have been made."

In addition to comparing approaches, Eigen hopes participants will form durable bonds. Just as crime, terror, and corruption have gone global, so too must those trying to thwart them:

"The second point is the attempt to create networks -- again, this was part of the initial idea. It's very, very important for a prosecutor, say, in one country to be able to call a prosecutor across the world and know them and call them by their first name and say: 'How are you handling this [case]? Can you tell me about so-and-so?' It's the same thing between civil society and law enforcement, the research community, the media. You get to know each other and we create a community of anticorruption fighters who are able to interact in an informal way which is very important in this time of the Internet, when one can then very quickly resolve issues which otherwise might take a lot of correspondence, difficulties and formalities, embassies, consular offices and so on."

The third hope, says Eigen, is that participants will develop some solutions to address particular corruption issues. These may be outlined in a final document, to be released after the end of the conference. But Eigen emphasizes that he does not want to see the conference hamstrung by negotiations over the phrasing of a final declaration, as so often happens at international gatherings. The aim is to discuss approaches, hence the attention given to informal workshops, rather than eloquent statements.

The existence of a transnational organization such as Transparency International presupposes that corruption is a worldwide phenomenon. But is there an objective standard for measuring corruption? Or is the occurrence and perception of corruption conditioned by individual societies and the cultural influences which shape them?

Eigen says: "In the beginning of our work, we were very much involved in fighting this notion that some societies welcome corruption, that it's part of their value system and that therefore, if one wants to do business in one of these countries, one has to go there and bribe. In fact some people might have said this about Prague, you know. If you come from Dusseldorf to do business here, you might say: 'Well, down there in Prague, if you want to do business, you have to bribe.' This was in my opinion a totally false and hypocritical propaganda which has been destroyed."

Eigen points to the adoption in 1997, by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) states, of a Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions as a major victory in curbing this practice:

"One of the most striking success stories is the change of the legal system for exporters in the OECD countries. Until two years ago, it was legal for a German company to come here to Prague and bribe a minister or a mayor. They could even deduct this from their taxable income. Now, if a German is caught -- either in Germany or here -- doing this, he will be punished by a German court. He will be sent to jail for five years."

Eigen acknowledges that culture does play a part in encouraging certain practices in some countries that might be regarded as unethical in other societies. He says the approach to combating corruption must therefore be nuanced:

"It is indeed customary in some traditional societies to make gifts all the time. If you don't make gifts this is construed as a hostile and impolite act. In some societies, solidarity with a wider family or group is not seen as nepotism, as we would see it in some parts of the north here, but it is seen as something that is even more important than the code of ethics of a ministry. And in that sense, yes, the details of corruption -- in particular the tools which you need to put in place to protect society against corruption -- are different in different societies."

But Eigen says when major influence-peddling occurs, the bounds of propriety are usually quite clear:

"[There is] one thing one can say all the time, and that is: If you make major gifts secretly to some decision-maker in order to affect their judgment, this is not accepted anywhere. In Africa, if you visit a village chief, you do this openly. You give him something nice, which is not a luxury limousine but it is a beautiful piece of art or something like this and you do it totally openly, because you try to honor that person. You don't give him a slip and say: 'I just paid five million dollars into your bank account in Liechtenstein."

The postcommunist world's rapid transition to a market economy over the past decade has created opportunities for corruption on a mass scale in many countries, leading some to suggest that capitalism has served ordinary people little better than communism. Eigen says Western governments bear some blame for this in promoting market liberalization as a panacea, when in fact their own societies are a carefully calibrated mix of market and regulation:

"Many of the important international organizations, they felt that if only one could get the role of the state reduced, if only one could get all state enterprises privatized very quickly, if only one could eliminate state regulation and so on, then the market would basically take care of everything and corruption would disappear. This was absolutely wrong because if you suddenly, say, liberalize foreign-exchange transactions of the banks and you don't liberalize other things at the same time and you don't put in place safeguards against corruption or against private monopolies or other abuses of private power, then you invite corruption."

Eigen says too little emphasis was put on instituting those safeguards before privatization was started:

"Privatization is in itself a process which is extremely vulnerable to corruption. In Germany, we have now nearly a thousand cases of corruption pending after the privatization by the Treuhand [the state property holding company charged with privatizing East German enterprises]. So privatization may be eventually the right step to create a system where corruption is not necessary or not as profitable anymore because things are not so much hamstrung by government bureaucrats, but the process itself of transition is extremely vulnerable."

But Eigen notes with some optimism that the issue of corruption is finally being addressed in the region, and Transparency International will strive to keep it on local radar screens in years to come.