Anti-corruption Crusaders Put Bribers in the Spotlight
The world's most corrupt countries have found themselves listed in a rogue's gallery in recent years. Now, reports Gemini News Service, the compilers of the list have turned their attention to those deemed responsible for fuelling the problem by paying the bribes.
Masupha Sle once oversaw Africa's largest infrastructure project - Lesotho's $8 billion scheme to build five dams, 200 kilometres of tunnels and a hydroelectric station to provide power to Lesotho and water to South Africa.
Today, the former head of the Lesotho Highlands Water Project faces charges that he accepted $2 million in bribes from foreign contractors during his 10-year tenure with the public project.
More than a dozen international companies are accused of involvement in the alleged scandal. Along with Sole, they face legal action in the small mountain kingdom in May.
Whatever the outcome of the case, it highlights a worldwide problem, says Transparency International, a Berlin-based non-government organisation that seeks to combat corruption and improve government accountability.
The World Bank estimates that $80 billion is distributed in bribes each year. Bribes can be used to allocate legal, but scarce, benefits such as foreign exchange, import licences, credit or public contracts. They may provide something the briber does not deserve such as exemption from regulations, tax breaks or permission to continue an illegal business. Or they may be used to win contracts against more efficient or cheaper operators.
Transparency International, which has for many years published a 'league table' of countries perceived by business people to be corrupt, is now focusing on those people who fuel the corruption by paying off public officials.
"This is a major problem in economic terms. It disturbs the economic future of many countries," said Hansjorg Elshorst, Transparency's managing director. "And it obviously destroys the trust in democracy in countries, even where instances of corruption are not so grave."
His organisation is about to publish a report on its first comprehensive Bribe-Payers' Survey, due to be unveiled today, 20 January. This follows publication in October of a new Transparency index ranking 19 leading exporting nations in terms of the degree to which their corporations are perceived to be paying bribes abroad.
Sweden, Australia and Canada were shown to have the best record, and Taiwan, South Korea and China the worst. Countries such as Britain, Germany and the United States fell somewhere in between.
Despite the West's good reputation, prosecutors in the Lesotho Highland Water Project case allege bribery by firms from Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Sweden and Switzerland.
Transparency's latest work is based on interviews with 770 leading business executives in 14 emerging market economies to determine perceptions of bribery within their countries.
"We're now talking about shedding more light on why, where and how bribery takes place," Elshorst said. "We do think bribery is a prevalent part of business for most exporting countries, but not all."
Transparency hopes that its new survey will help to bolster international efforts to counter bribery.
Thirty-four countries have so far adopted a convention drawn up by the industrialised nations' group, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), aimed at making bribery of foreign officials illegal. Of these nations, 18 have changed their domestic laws to make the measures effective.
Other international institutions, such as the World Bank, World Trade Organisation and Organisation of American States have pursued their own corruption-busting initiatives.
Transparency's chairman, Peter Eigen, said: "We want to keep track of enforcement and change in global bribery as a result of these new laws." Their bribery index could be used as a benchmark "against which we can seek to measure progress in coming years."
Frederick Wehrle of the OECD's anti-corruption unit says Transparency's indexes can be misleading because they are based on perceptions rather than reality. But he recognises that bribery and corruption pose a serious worldwide problem.
In Russia, for example, corruption between an oligarchy of financial-industrial groups and government officials has distorted privatisation, undermined economic reform, deterred trade and investment and eroded public confidence in state institutions and democracy.
Mark Lynus of Corporate Watch, an international watchdog on the business world, remains sceptical.
"I wouldn't see bribery and corruption as a major problem compared with the legal ways in which corporations abuse people and the environment to get what they want," he said.
Lynus sees only limited success in initiatives such as the OECD's.
"I wouldn't say that these rules are a bad thing," he said. "But I think it's more important that international legislation is brought in to enforce corporations to behave ethically and to take human and ethical concerns into account."
Transparency, meanwhile, claims a fair amount of success in putting the problem of corruption on the global agenda.
"Just seven or eight years ago nobody would use the word 'corruption'," Elshorst said. "Everybody knew it existed, but nobody would talk about it.
"We started to address the issues so this would get in the public domain and people would talk about it in corporate terms... and it has worked. The issue is very much in the public domain."
The author is a Canadian journalist currently working with Gemini News Service through a fellowship from the International Development Research Centre.