A step toward honest governments

During his 31-year tenure in Indonesia, President Suharto allegedly embezzled $15 billion to $35 billion. In his five years in Nigeria, dictator Sani Abacha took an estimated $2 billion to $5 billion.

The list of greedy corrupt leaders runs long. But some roadblocks have risen on the way to the government till. Public resistance to corruption has stiffened. While bribery still occurs, politicians and even dictators seem to find massive corruption harder to pull off.

Citizen anger with regime corruption was a key factor in the overthrow this year of the government in Ukraine and in Georgia last year.

Early this month, Titan Corp., headquartered in San Diego, pleaded guilty and agreed to pay $28.5 million to settle allegations that it covered up payments in six countries. It was the biggest foreign-bribery penalty yet under a 1977 American law.

This shift in attitudes began in the mid-1990s, spurred by such factors as the end of the cold war and new laws in many nations. One of the main goads for reform: the nonprofit organization Transparency International (TI), which began ranking countries by corruption and Wednesday released its latest survey.

Back in the '90s, United States officials usually knew when a developing country head was taking bribes for contracts and stowing money abroad in Switzerland, Britain, or other financial centers. At that time, though, the cold-war attitude of tolerating any anticommunist leader, crook or not, had not fully faded. Corruption in poor countries was accepted somewhat by Western nations and their foreign-aid agencies as a fact of life, and also seen as not necessarily a serious impediment to development.

Discussion of corruption was often sotto voce - spoken in an undertone so as not to be heard, notes Frank Vogl, a former London newsman and World Bank official who cofounded TI.

No longer. TI began publishing its Corruption Perceptions Index in 1995. It ranked nations by the level of their corruption, as perceived by business people and others assumed to be well-informed on "the misuse of public power for private benefit" in each country. That list not only damaged the prestige of nations at the bottom of the ranking, it discouraged foreign business and investment. The list became political dynamite.

The 2004 report, released Wednesday, lists 146 countries. Finland is seen as the least corrupt. The following six, in order, are New Zealand, Denmark, Iceland, Singapore, Sweden, and Switzerland.

The US ranks 17th.

At the bottom of the list, starting with the worst, are Haiti, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Burma (Myanmar), Chad, Paraguay, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan.

This annual report "was very effective in raising public awareness" of corruption around the world, says Mr. Vogl, now a Washington consultant. TI's chapters in 80 nations push for independent judiciaries and prosecutors, and a free press, all helpful in tackling corruption.

In a foreword to Wednesday's report, Francis Fukuyama, a political economist at Johns Hopkins University, notes that TI "was one of the first organizations to recognize the importance of governance to development, and to develop long-term strategies for combating [corruption]."

Awareness, of course, does not equal elimination of corruption.

"No question," says Vogl, "there is a huge amount of corruption today."

That was noted a week ago in a report of the British government's Africa Commission. It urges African leaders to root out corruption and promote good governance. It calls on wealthy nations to double aid to the continent. And it also cites a TI estimate that $4 trillion is spent on government procurement annually worldwide, and guesses $400 million of that goes to bribes.

By now, it is commonly accepted that poor countries can't afford government corruption. It robs their people of badly needed resources. The annual per capita gross domestic product (GDP) of Indonesians, for instance, is $695. The per capita annual GDP of Nigerians is $395. Though both of their nations are populous, corruption in effect stole a few dollars from each citizen. That hurts.

Recognizing such damage, the president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, in 1996 changed the bank's policies to take account of and fight corruption in nations. Further, commercial banks are more cooperative today in returning stolen money to poor nations.

In 1997, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Paris-based club of 30 mostly rich nations, completed an antibribery convention. Six nonmember nations also have joined the convention, making bribery in international business a crime. Estonia is the latest signer. Each nation reports regularly on law changes and other progress. But TI notes that no bribery conviction has been brought about as a result of the convention so far.

The United Nations in 2003 adopted an anticorruption convention.

Such vigilance is a step toward rolling back what has seemed to be an intractable problem. "It's a huge humanitarian imperative," says Vogl.

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