Corruption is a common fact of life in many places, but it can be fought and conquered by the right combination of political will and a full dose of understanding about how corruption inevitably pays off for the few, not the many. That was a central message of Prof. Robert Klitgaard, a leading expert on corruption and institutional reform, who spoke at the East-West Center recently during an international conference on cutting-edge approaches to dealing with government and political corruption.
“There is corruption everywhere. Just like disease, it is inevitable,” Klitgaard said. “Where it kills you is when it becomes systemic.”
Klitgaard, a professor at Claremont Graduate University in California, was the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the International Public Management Network, hosted this year by the East-West Center and organized by G. Shabbir Cheema, director of the Center’s Asia Pacific governance and democracy initiatives.
Corruption has many definitions, but many at this conference used the standard definition of “the use of public office for private gain.” And it has become clear, conference participants agreed, that lessening corruption is central to efforts to improve governance, reduce poverty and stimulate economic growth.
The battle to end corruption, whether in the United States or abroad, faces the force of both apathy and cynicism, Klitgaard noted. People take the attitude: “There’s nothing we can do about it” or “all politicians are corrupt.” But, he said, there are plenty of real-world examples – from the Eastern European nation of Georgia to Singapore and Peru – where the cycle of apathy and cynicism has been broken and where corruption has given way to improved governance and a better quality of life.
What it takes, he said is demonstrating to people that they have the ability to change things if they would only recognize it. “People are sick of this,” he said. “If you can give them hope – once you show a leader or a people how they can change this, they can do it.”
When reformers emerge, he said, they tend to succeed when they put themselves in tune with what the general public wants – when they sense the underlying political will: “The key is for them to ask ‘What does the public really want? And how do we go after it?’”
One fruitful way of igniting the political will for change is to show by example, Klitgaard said. He cited, for example, the Republic of Georgia, once “one of the most corrupt places on the planet.” Corruption tainted everything from the top levels of government to the local traffic police, Klitgaard said. But in 2003, an inflamed citizenry exercised its political will through the “Rose Revolution.” An entrenched system was first shocked, then overturned. Corruption was not ended overnight, but a different set of expectations emerged.
There are several practical steps that usually occur in any successful battle against corruption, Klitgaard suggested. These include a decision to “fry big fish,” – that is, get rid of or make an example of those highly associated with corruption in the public mind. In Georgia, that included the forced resignation of president Eduard Shevardnadze.
Another step, Klitgaard said, involves legal reforms to open up opportunities to more than just the well-connected elites. And quite often, it requires the pragmatic decision to pay more, in salary or incentives, for those at the top or in positions of influence – including the local traffic cops – so the financial incentive for corruption is diminished.
The results in Georgia were impressive, he said: a quadrupling of the national GDP, high ranking internationally by Transparency International on ease of doing business and a surge in its position among the rankings of corrupt nations from one of the worst to one of the best.
Klitgaard cautioned that while the basic elements of combating corruption are universal, particular techniques vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.
For instance, the government of Peru launched a program of public surveys asking people, in effect, “how are we doing?” This led to a checklist of best practices and success stories which were highlighted in popular live TV broadcasts where cash prizes were awarded to popular and successful government services or agencies.
“It was a lot like American Idol,” he said.
In India, a clever use of social media led to a website called “Ipaidabribe.com,” on which people forced to pay for government services could share their experiences with each other and thus shame officials into changing their practices.
While many believe that a free and open democracy is the best means to end corruption, that is not always the case, Klitgaard said. Achieving democracy and ending corruption are parallel, but not identical goals.
He mentioned the case of Singapore, which he said was a “cesspool of corruption” in the early 1960s that has moved into the very top ranks of uncorrupt states through a hardheaded leadership style that is autocratic, if not openly dictatorial. Traditional civil liberties took a back seat to nation-building and institutional and economic stability, he noted. Today, Transparency International ranks Singapore No. 5 out of 183 countries in a list of how corrupt their country is perceived to be. (The United States is ranked at 24th.)
In the end, Klitgaard said, it is important to remember that “corruption is a system, not a moral transgression.” Once the system is shocked and begins to change, corruption diminishes and lives improve.