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October 8, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 127




Dennis Coday Fighting corruption

Dennis Coday, NCR staff writer

Earlier this week, Transparency International released its Corruption Perceptions Index 2003, ranking 133 countries on a scale of 1 to 10 for perceived corruption in their societies. Finland (again) ranked number one with a score of 9.7. Bangladesh (again) ranked at the bottom with a score of 1.3. The United States* slipped a couple slots, landing at 18th, just below Belgium, tied with Ireland and just above Chile.

The report didn't get much play here in the United States, but the index is widely watched in other countries, especially, I believe, in the developing world. The annual report was always front-page news in the English-language and Thai-language press while I lived in Thailand. Local advocacy groups and foreign business leaders watched the report closely. (Thailand this year tied for 70th place along with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dominican Republic, Egypt, Ghana and Morocco.)

Transparency International is a Berlin-based watchdog formed 10 years ago by development specialists to monitor corruption in governments. The group's primus is straightforward: corruption impoverishes people all over the world. Transparency aims to stamp out corruption.

The Thai advocacy groups that I knew followed the report because corruption helped keep people oppressed. To access public services, poor people had to pay "tea money," so called because public servants would say they needed a little cash for their afternoon tea. It might take just 30 or 40 baht (less than a dollar) to get a document notarized at the local government or to take care of a minor driving violation, but for the working poor that could mean a quarter to a half a day's wages.

Business groups followed the report because corruption was an expense that had to be figured into project expenses. Most businesspeople didn't talk about these things openly and on the record, but one time a businessman whose company bid on large construction projects in Thailand did tell me for the record that he always figured 3% of his multi-million dollar projects went to "tea money."

It takes little effort to reach consensus among diverse groups that corruption keeps poor people and poor nations poor. Transparency International's task is to build a consensus on how to address the issue. That group's main theme, as its name suggests, is that any solution must have international support.

For developed nations, "support" does not mean lecturing developing nations to keep their systems clean. Transparency International says, "donor countries and international financial institutions should take a firmer line, stopping financial support to corrupt governments and blacklisting international companies caught paying bribes abroad."

In this era of globalization, the big money is in private multination corporations. "Western governments must also show they are serious about tackling their own companies that bribe abroad," Transparency International says. The watchdog offers some suggestions:

1) Rich countries should follow the rules they write.

The 35 industrialized member nations of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) agreed to a convention four years ago outlawing bribery of foreign officials, but it is still not fully operational, according to Transparency's chair, Peter Eigen.

Eigen says that no OECD member, except the United States, has undertaken any serious investigations. Interestingly, the businessman who went on the record with me about setting aside "tea money" in project budgets was a European.

The Transparency report also points out significant public sector corruption in many rich countries. This, too, obviously must be addressed.

2) U.N. Convention Against Corruption

The United Nations just passed an anti-corruption convention. This is important, because it becomes another hammer in the tool chest of groups like Transparency International and their local partner organizations to build structures from where they can monitor governments and corporations and call them to task for violations.

The U.N. convention is to be signed in Mexico Dec. 9. The speedy ratification by member nations will help Transparency on its mission.

At a London press conference, Eigen said, "If corruption is allowed to flourish unchecked, more children will suffer from lack of clean water and lack of medicines, and will go to schools with no books. The time for excuses is long past. It is time for decisive action by governments and business alike."

*For a humorous but insightful take on corruption in the United States, listen to David Callahan's commentary, U.S. not squeaky clean in corruption index. It was featured on the public radio program "Marketplace" Oct. 7.

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer and coordinates NCR's Web site. His e-mail address is

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