Romania’s lesson in public integrity

For weeks, protests against corruption have persisted in Romania because people now realize they hold the key to good governance.

AP Photo
People light the flashes of their mobile phones in the colors of Romania's flag during an anti-government protest in Bucharest, Romania, Feb. 12.

If a country were to put on display a popular desire for public integrity, it might look like this:

Since early February, tens of thousands of people in Romania have held almost daily protests against corruption in many cities. On weekends, the rallies are even larger. At night, masses of people held up their illuminated mobile phones, a signal of hope that has led the protests to be dubbed the “revolution of light.”

This persistent and peaceful outcry on Romania’s streets for honest governance began after the ruling party tried to roll back anti-corruption efforts that have already led to thousands of officials being put on trial since 2013. People were shocked at how easily their progress in suppressing corruption could be eroded by politicians. The protests did eventually force lawmakers to back down. But now demonstrators want the ruling party to resign.

It is difficult to see how Romania’s drama will play out. Yet for now it offers an important lesson: For many countries, it is not enough to merely constrain corruption, say, through aggressive prosecution, strict laws and ethics codes, or long jail time for officials who take bribes. Citizens must also be active in building up public integrity.

This requires them to insist on essential qualities in governance: independence for judges, transparency in budget spending, freedom of the press, openness in trade, and simplicity in government regulations. These standards are in fact part of a newly designed method of measuring corruption known as the Index of Public Integrity, an effort funded by the European Union.

Other attempts to measure corruption, such as those by the World Bank and the watchdog group Transparency International, have relied mainly on surveys of perceptions about such wrong-doing. Corrupt practices are often so secretive that they are difficult to detect. Thus researchers have relied on the estimates and experiences of those doing business in a country or on experts.

In 2012, the EU set up a research group called ANTICORRP to reconceptualize the struggle against corruption. The group aimed to uncover the fact-based resources and structures that give a country the capacity to “empower” public integrity. The project ended in February, offering insights on the top priorities for government reform as well as a new way to rank countries. The top countries on the Index of Public Integrity are the Scandinavian countries as well as New Zealand, the UK, Ireland, Luxembourg, and the United States.

The head of the effort, who happens to be a Romanian scholar, is Alina Mungiu-Pippidi of the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. In a recent article in the academic journal Nature, she wrote about this new anticorruption strategy, citing the success of Estonia after the liberation of that Baltic state from the Soviet Union:

“A smart strategy reduces opportunities and enables constraints, so that the monitoring of government by its own citizens takes effect. This is not just prospective theorizing: the world’s fastest evolving country on good governance, Estonia, did just that in the 1990s. Estonia opened up to honest competition, sold banks and newspapers to ‘clean’ countries..., introduced e-government as a single digital card to pay taxes, parking meters and vote, cut red tape, removed all judges with communist regime ties and created a steady income (from EU funds), independent from the government, for its civil society to grow.”

Examples abound of countries minimizing corruption. Yet there may not be one template for reform. Each country must work within its own culture, history, and politics. In Romania, for example, the list of reforms demanded by protesters includes the election of an ombudsman and a ban on holding public office for anyone convicted of corruption.

The common thread, however, is a widespread desire for public integrity. Reformers should not be discouraged by a persistent corruption in their country. “It would be wrong to believe that a country is entirely doomed by poor history,” states Dr. Mungiu-Pippidi. Sometimes it takes tens of thousands of people in the streets over many days to make that point.

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