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Domestic Pressure Is 'Only Sustainable Solution' To Fight Corruption

A leading corruption watchdog has published its annual report looking at how officials in various countries abuse their public office for private gain -- that is, by accepting bribes, demanding kickbacks, or simply embezzling funds. Of course, all of these activities are best done in secret, so it is hard for anyone to fully measure them. But the Berlin-based Transparency International, an independent agency, tries to do the next best thing. It asks people who know a country best -- analysts and businesspeople -- how much corruption they perceive to exist there.

RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel spoke with Robin Hodess, director of policy and research at Transparency International, about this year's Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI).

RFE/RL: One of the interesting aspects of your annual reports is that they offer insights into what motivates some governments to fight corruption and others to tolerate it. One of the biggest motivations to fight corruption in the Eastern European region in recent years has been the pull of the European Union, which requires would-be members to tackle the problem. But this year, we see evidence that this pull may not be enough by itself. The newest EU states, Romania and Bulgaria, again have a growing corruption problem and, according to your report, many Balkan states -- including Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia -- are "not perceived as significantly improving their anticorruption stance," despite the EU preaccession process. How should we interpret this?

What we argue at Transparency International is that really across the EU there need to be higher standards and enforcement of those standards, including for the old EU states, since corruption is a problem that plagues them as well.
Robin Hodess:
Accession to the EU has been a very important and powerful force for change in the countries that wanted to join the EU -- the EU being, of course, a very significant political and economic bloc. However, what we have seen is that the countries that have committed to certain steps in the preaccession period need to be supported in this work once accession takes place. And, in fact, what we argue at Transparency International is that really across the EU there need to be higher standards and enforcement of those standards, including for the old EU states, since corruption is a problem that plagues them as well.

So clearly, it can't be a one-off, one-shot instance where countries are expected to leap over a certain boundary, after which no one will pay attention anymore. It really has to be a sustainable effort. But the EU has been a positive force in terms of encouraging countries to improve overall anticorruption systems.

RFE/RL: That seems to suggest that outside pressure is not enough to change corrupt practices, and that the real pressure must somehow come from within a country itself. But what makes domestic pressure successful in some countries and less in others? For example, Kyrgyzstan, which made progress in earlier reports, slips back a bit this year. Yet Georgia continues to improve its rating.

Hodess: Two things come into play. One is "citizen voice," the voice of the people, demanding change, looking for change, looking for political leadership. That needs to be accompanied, of course, by real political will. So, if the two sides of those equations come together, where citizens inform their government via voting or via vibrant debate in civil society, it can be made clear that the situation is not equitable, that corruption is harming people, that it is hurting their livelihoods.

On the other hand, of course, governments can -- with or without international pressure -- commit to kinds of changes, to new systems being put into place, that can fight corruption. For example, a clean judiciary. That is one of the key institutions to fight corruption, a judiciary that works, that works for all.

RFE/RL: Some other countries, of course, talk about fighting corruption but really make no progress at all. Your report, for example, shows most of the Central Asian states in this category, showing no significant change in their rating from last year. Or, there are countries like Russia and Ukraine, which have low ratings that get worse. How should we understand what is happening in these societies, where lip service is paid to anticorruption goals but corruption remains high?

Hodess: We are looking in the CPI at corruption perceptions from the point of view of business experts and country experts. So here are people who are experienced in the way the public sector interacts with the private sector and seeing, for example, that public-sector commitment just isn't there. Sometimes, there can be a kind of short-term windfall effect when a government comes in, makes a lot of promises in terms of corruption but, over time, experts who watch a situation will be able to tell if that commitment has been translated into budgets and building national domestic systems to fight corruption because that is really the only sustainable solution for anticorruption in the long run.

Corruption can be seen to be a sideshow, but...without addressing it head on, corruption will come back and it will cause a degradation of what other kinds of change and policy reform are put into place.
Sometimes, for a country, it can make a very important step forward if, in the case of a robust judicial process, a large-scale case of corruption is seen to be resolved and then there can be some trust and confidence that the system is moving in the right direction. That can work as a short-term gain, but really the whole system has to work overall so that individual citizens' grievances can be addressed as well as larger cases, like the cases of the "big fish."

RFE/RL: Among the countries you look at are Iraq and Afghanistan, two states that are in the midst of conflict and where, one might think, anticorruption progress would be a secondary concern. But you monitor these countries, too. Why?

Hodess: The approach could be taken that corruption is just a distraction and we shouldn't talk about that because there are other problems of the day. But actually corruption will undermine all attempts to rectify the political situation, the economic situation in the country; it will get in the way both in the short and medium and long term. So really what needs to be thought about is how the aid money and assistance that are going into those countries can help build domestic capacity. There has to be internal domestic support and buy-in and capacity-building to set up the kind of system that can work. But above all, things need to be designed with attention to the very fragile situation that exists and with building the capacity of the people who live there.

Corruption can be seen to be a sideshow, but this is a very important message from Transparency International that, without addressing it head on, corruption will come back and it will cause a degradation of what other kinds of change and policy reform are put into place. It is very important to set up the capacity to fight corruption, to promote better governance while one, hopefully, participates in helping countries come out of devastating situations.

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