Robert Rotberg: What’s the cure for corruption?

RotbergCorruption corrodes all facets of the world’s political and corporate life, yet until now there was no one book that explained how best to battle it. The Corruption Cure provides many of the required solutions and ranges widely across continents and diverse cultures—putting some thirty-five countries under an anticorruption microscope—to show exactly how to beat back the forces of sleaze and graft. Recently, Robert Rotberg took the time to answer a few questions about his new book:

Can corruption be cured?

RR: This book says that corruption can be reduced sharply if not eliminated entirely. It shows that once wildly corrupt places like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Rwanda have suppressed corruption effectively thanks to determined leadership, that Botswana did so as well, that China may be shifting a huge country away from graft (again because of leadership actions), and that Nigeria and Brazil could follow.

The “cure” sometimes takes decades and centuries, as in Scandinavia, New Zealand, and Canada (a subject of a chapter in this book), or much shorter periods of time as in Singapore and Hong Kong (and perhaps India’s Delhi State).

But there are real remedies, and opportunities for civic as well as political and bureaucratic leadership in the battle against corruption. This book is the anti-corruption primer, with a “how to” approach.

What is corruption?

RR: Strictly speaking, corruption is the taking advantage of a public elected or appointed position for private gain. But corruption also is the abuse of any position of trust for personal profit, or to benefit one’s own family, lineage, or cohort. To be non-corrupt is to be impartial—to be fair and even-handed in all dealings between persons with power and those who are essentially powerless.

What are the three types of corruption you identify?

RR:

1) Petty, or lubricating: These are the relatively small bribes that people routinely pay to avoid standing in long queues at licensing offices, to avoid being penalized by traffic policemen, and to avoid being held up at road barricades. People also routinely pass bribes along to influence minor decisions favorably, perhaps to obtain a passport, a marriage certificate, or the like—to pay extra to obtain what is rightfully theirs.

2) Venal, or Grand: When a construction company pads its bid to build a bridge or a road (or a refinery) so that it can split the extra proceeds with a person or persons responsible for granting a contract, that is venal corruption. Likewise, when the leaders of FIFA demand large personal payments from cities and countries anxious to hold World Cup tournaments, that is also venal corruption.

3) Corporate to Corporate corruption: To influence a strategic business decision or to gain market share versus a rival, a firm often pays its competitors to turn away. Or a corporate leader might undercut decisions of the company in order to enhance his own firm or to harm the other.

What does corruption cost?

RR: Large-scale customary corruption costs most developing countries at least 1 percent of their GDP growth each year. Overall, the World Bank estimates that the world’s citizens lose $1 trillion in potential growth each year because of corruption. Of equal concern, the more corrupt a country is, the poorer its people tend to be. Corruption is a component of bad governance and the poorer a country’s governance, the worse its economic performance usually is. Corruption undermines a country’s moral fabric. It distorts or destroys national priorities. When politicians live for the rents that they can seek from national incomes, citizens lose vital services like educational opportunity and medical care.

How is corruption measured?

RR: Many indexes measure corruption, but Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index and the World Bank’s Governance Institute’s Corruption Indicator are the leading ones. On both of those indexes and most others, the least corrupt countries in the world are the Nordic nations, Australia and New Zealand, the Netherlands, Canada, and Singapore. The most corrupt places are in Africa (the two Congos, Nigeria, Zimbabwe) and in South America (Venezuela). These last states are all very badly governed, poor, and unstable.

What explains Nordic and Antipodean exceptionalism?

RR: The Nordics and Australia/New Zealand were all outrageously corrupt before the early years of the twentieth century. But the rise of what we call ethical universalism gradually replaced the particularism of early corruption. A new civic consciousness, educational attainments, and the widespread embrace of new aspirations and the appropriate methods for achieving such goals led to a shunning of corrupt dealings. A special chapter of the book examines how these nations and others discarded corrupt pursuits.

What works best to reduce corruption?

RR: The key shift is to alter the mindset of citizens from accepting the inevitability of corruption to refusing to countenance corrupt dealings. Political leadership is essential. In every modern case where a country has abandoned (or greatly reduced) corruption, a political leader – a president or a prime-minister – has understood the dangers of corruption within the body politic and has punished politicians and bureaucrats who thus stole from the people or abused their trust. Where corruption has been reduced sustainably, a political leader has led the way. Other initiatives include limiting opportunities for discretion, putting all interactions between a citizen and a permit-granting official, or a law maker, online, strengthening the operations of auditors general and ombudsmen, strengthening the ability of judges to refuse bribes, encouraging judges to penalize corrupt persons severely, welcoming and supporting a free media, thus adding to the increased transparency and investigative accountability which is foundational in any successful battles against graft and sleaze, and creating a world wide, U.N. sponsored, International Anti-Corruption Court to assume jurisdiction when national courts are either powerless or compromised. This book examines each of these (and other) anti-corruption options at length.

What can corporations do to reduce corruption?

RR: Venal corruption is often stimulated by a multinational enterprise seeking a mining or petroleum-exploitation concession from a national government. The best corporate citizens abide strictly by the letter and the spirit of the American Foreign Corruption Practices Act or its Canadian or European analogues. The best corporate citizens police their compliance policies strictly, and do more than simply pay lip service to anti-corruption legislation. The best corporate leaders refuse to condone any attempts to buy influence from politicians and officials, or to facilitate decisions in their favor that are supposed otherwise to be decided impartially.

Robert I. Rotberg is founding director of the Program on Intrastate Conflict at the Harvard Kennedy School and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation. His many books include When States Fail and The Corruption Cure: How Citizens & Leaders can Combat Graft. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and former president of Lafayette College.