Escaping corruption's global grip

Each year, the world pays $1 trillion for something millions of people don't want. And, when they think about it, governments don't really want it either. The big pay up is for payouts – bribes for police, for services, for business contracts.

Bribes are just one aspect of corruption, a condition that many assume to be so embedded in cultures that it's impossible to change.

But millions of ordinary citizens around the world are unhappy with corruption and want their governments to stop it, according to a recent survey by Transparency International (TI), a Berlin-based group that tracks global corruption.

It's a constant complaint of Russians, and Chinese farmers are protesting it. Anger at monied influence-peddling helped turn over control of the US Congress. And in Britain, the public is aghast at a shelved investigation of alleged foreign bribes in the country's biggest defense contract.

Such grass-roots dissatisfaction bodes well for change. It shows that corruption is not "normal" at all, but resented by populations in TI's 163 survey countries, three-quarters of which are ranked as "serious" on the corruption index.

The bribes paid most often, according to the survey, are to police – an indication that people are being denied protection, one of the most basic services that governments should provide. In Africa, the most common bribe is for government services such as registrations and permits, and sometimes even electricity.

But it's not just the people who have to pay who want change. Increasingly governments want it, or say they do. That's because corruption comes at such a cost to their countries. Money that goes into the pockets of corrupt individuals could have been spent on roads, schools, and healthcare. Because corruption stifles competition, it suppresses economic growth. Research shows a link between poverty and corruption.

As a result, more governments are setting up anticorruption programs. And nearly 150 countries have signed the new United Nations Convention Against Corruption (80 have ratified it). The treaty came into force a year ago.

The treaty is the only global effort to bring corruption under control. It makes demands of its signatories, requiring them to criminalize basic acts such as bribery, embezzlement, and money laundering. The nations must also work to prevent corruption, for instance, by making public procurement transparent and instituting codes of conduct for civil servants.

Earlier this month, the UN treaty members started down the road to actually implementing provisions. At their first meeting since the treaty went into effect, they agreed to set up a system to monitor each country's compliance, without which the treaty is meaningless. And, in another global first, they agreed to figure out a way to help return stolen assets to countries. Because money can cross borders so easily, that particular challenge requires a global strategy.

No one maintains that stamping out corruption can be done easily or quickly. But it's encouraging that populations recognize it for the injustice and public immorality it creates, and that many governments are waking up to its economic costs and finally promising to take action.

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