Curbing the Corrupt

Economic globalization has many vices, but one of its virtues lies in its ability to force nations to realize they cannot attract foreign investments without honesty in government.

How else to explain all the trials and investigations of former leaders in many countries, and the election of leaders promising to curb corruption, from the Philippines to Peru?

To be fair, let's start with the United States. The Supreme Court ruled this week that allowing political parties to spend whatever they please in support of candidates would open the door to corruption. And US Attorney Mary Jo White in New York appears close to an indictment in her probe of whether any pardons granted by former President Clinton were in exchange for money.

In Peru, the capture and prosecution of former spy chief Vladimiro Montesinos for high-level corruption came just after the election of Alejandro Toledo, a president who wants to rid the country of graft.

In the Philippines, former President Joseph Estrada was turned out of power in January after massive protests against his financial dealings. He now sits in jail awaiting trial, while his successor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, cleans up government and tries to stop a rush to the exits among investors.

In Nigeria, President Olusegun Obasanjo has brought integrity into government even as he tries to recover money looted by the late dictator Sani Abacha. Argentina plans to indict former President Carlos Menem over illegal arms sales, and in France, former foreign minister Roland Dumas was convicted last month of receiving illegal funds from an oil company. France, especially, has seen a sea change in attitudes toward official corruption.

Mexican voters elected a "clean" president, Vicente Fox, but the new official transparency even caught up with him after news leaked that his aides bought $400 monogrammed towels and $1,000 sheets for his home.

More globally, 30 industrialized nations agreed yesterday on ways to punish secretive low-tax jurisdictions, such as the Bahamas and Monaco, that are used by corrupt leaders to hide their money. Since 1999, the same group has set standards for nations to follow in preventing official bribery.

Still, there remains a worldwide corruption crisis, according to the anti-bribery group Transparency International, which ranks nations from 10 to 1 by the level of corruption perceived by business. Over half of the 91 countries in its survey scored under 5.

Corruption only erodes confidence in a free and fair market system, and hurts the poor the most. The cleanest countries, such as Singapore and Finland, are the most prosperous. Honesty remains the best foundation on which to build an economy and a nation.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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