In a rare display of bipartisanship in the House on June 7, Republican Speaker Paul Ryan and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi will speak at an event on a topic that easily unites the world: preventing corruption. They will be honoring five corruption fighters from Afghanistan, Angola, Guatemala, Malaysia, and Ukraine. The message from the United States: Such activists are not alone in their brave struggle.
The five, who range from an investigative journalist to a whistle-blowing judge, are receiving awards from a leading promoter of democratic values worldwide, the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit set up by the federal government in 1983. The work of these anti-corruption activists often comes with death threats or other pressure to back off. And that’s the point of the event: The US as well as other countries must keep a close eye on countries with high levels of corruption, lest those places erupt in war or street violence. One example: Syria, which descended into war after its 2011 anti-corruption, pro-democracy protests.
The US has long given aid to countries, such as Mexico, to beef up their anti-corruption capabilities. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson supports such efforts, saying the US must “put obligations” on countries to reduce corruption. US aid not only advances America’s values, he says, but can help a country “continue its journey along better governance.”
More than half the world still lives in places where people must decide almost daily whether to pay a bribe to a government official for a basic service or to avoid a hefty fine. They need help in breaking a cultural acceptance of corruption as the norm. One way to do that is to change social expectations in favor of honesty, accountability, and transparency – starting with support for the courageous few who stand against corruption.
“For corruption to be tackled effectively, people who are opposed to it have to coordinate their efforts,” write two American scholars, Ray Fishman and Miriam Golden, in a new book, “Corruption: What Everyone Needs to Know.” People must “know that others are on board with making the same change.”
“We are tentatively hopeful that demands for – and expectations of – honest government are rising in the world today,” they write. In the 12 years since the United Nations adopted the Convention Against Corruption, many more countries, from India to Romania to Russia, have experienced anti-corruption protests.
The book cites one model: the unraveling of corruption networks in Italy during the 1990s “Clean Hands” investigation. Brazil is now in the midst of a similar cleansing of its corrupt political elite, led by prosecutors and judges who understand that equality before the law must apply to everyone. China is trying a top-down approach against its corrupt Communist Party members.
Many countries have broken the non-virtuous cycle of corruption by setting up special agencies to probe such wrongdoing and to help create a tipping point in public sentiments against graft. Often foreign pressure or the lure of aid and trade makes a big difference in setting up those bodies or blocking any backlash against them. At the very least, corruption fighters should be honored.