When Carmela, a middle-aged woman in a makeshift homeless settlement in Venezuela, witnessed her grown son being beaten and dragged out of his apartment by the police, she knew that arranging for his freedom would be a difficult task.
Harassment from police officers there was an inherent part of life – with officers demanding bribes from residents – and in the case of Carmela, it would cost a hefty bribe to get her son back.
She spoke with a community leader who directed her to Transparency International – a Berlin-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) that had already been working with local authorities to grapple with issues of corruption.
The organization demanded action. Senior government officials set up a police operation, with authorities watching as Carmela paid the officers a bribe. The officers were immediately detained and charged, and Carmela’s son was released without payment.
This story, one of many included on Transparency International’s website, speaks to the magnitude of the issues the 22-year-old nonprofit organization confronts daily.
Miklos Marschall, the NGO's deputy managing director, says that it is a battle worth fighting.
"Corruption is one of the evils that really undermines the vision and practice of social justice because it distorts fairness [and] it undermines democracy," Mr. Marschall says. "Corruption is the means by which the ruling elites seek the maximum [benefit] they can get out of the system in many parts of the world."
He summed up the purpose of Transparency International with a single concept: social justice.
"It drives us every day," he says. "We believe in fair societies where people have more or less equal opportunities, [an] equal chance."
Originally from Hungary, Marschall joined Transparency in 1999 after serving as founding executive director of the global civil society alliance CIVICUS and as deputy mayor of Budapest, Hungary. He spent many of his early years at Transparency serving in Central and Eastern Europe. In 2011 he assumed his current role, which includes relations with the European Union.
When Transparency International was founded in 1993 corruption was considered inevitable in many societies. Businesses wrote off bribes as tax exemptions, political leaders were known for their crafty, self-serving maneuvers, and agencies across the globe approached development projects with the expectation that budgets could be drained by corruption.
What was missing was an effort to combat corruption at the global level.
It was then that retired World Bank official Peter Eigen set up what began as a small NGO with nine colleagues based in Berlin. The objective for Transparency International was to promote “a world in which government, business, civil society, and the daily lives of people are free of corruption.”
Today, the NGO continues to be based in Berlin but has a presence in more than 100 countries.
Striving to be independent and nonpartisan, Transparency and its chapters work globally and locally to advance accountability, transparency, and integrity in societies.
Marschall, in a recent interview with The Christian Science Monitor in Berlin, discussed some of the inherent challenges of its work.
"It is not so easy to come up with a good strategy," he explained, noting that corruption interferes with and contributes to issues of poverty, conflict, business, organized crime, and many more social ills.
In seeking to identify issues, on a regular basis Transparency International compiles a range of publications detailing research, advocacy campaigns, and success stories. One of the best-known is the Global Corruption Report, which showcases research, lessons learned, and tools that can be used in the fight against corruption and to increase transparency.
These publications often work toward "naming and shaming" those involved in corrupt activities. But that's not their only objective.
"We are not here just to shout and point fingers at problems," he says. "We are eager, if we can, to provide solutions."
It is this constructive approach, he says, that has made the organization so successful and respected – even by countries and businesses involved in some of the corruption it shines a light on.
In more than 60 countries, the NGO also manages citizen centers for advocacy and legal advice, which help receive, investigate, and notify authorities of complaints from citizens. Organizers also work to publish stories of corruption to help show how it impacts people's daily lives.
"In order to really make sustainable changes, we need broader coalitions," Marschall says. In addition to its efforts to raise awareness of corruption issues and work with policymakers and authorities Transparency seeks to better build awareness and participation among ordinary citizens.
• For more information on Transparency International, or to learn how to get involved in its work, visit www.transparency.org.