Every three years heads of state and government from the Western Hemisphere gather to discuss common policy issues, “affirm shared values and commit to concerted actions at the national and regional level,” and address continuing and new challenges. The eighth such summit meets in Lima, Peru on April 13 and 14, focused on the topics of governance and corruption (hot issues across the hemisphere today). Georgetown University and the Berkley Center supported a meeting on the eve of the summit to explore the roles of religious actors in fighting corruption.
The meeting was organized by the Jesuit University Antonio Ruiz de Montoya and Religions for Peace, Latin America, with Transparency International and its Peruvian arm, Proética, and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. My presentation built on the work that the Berkley Center and the World Faiths Development Dialogue are undertaking to identify meaningful ways to bring religious and secular actors closer together in fighting corruption. An excerpt from my remarks is below (with the full presentation available in PDF form). Ideas on where to take the suggestions are most welcome.
My task and objective today is to situate the fight against corruption in a global context, to explore, globally, how religious institutions are engaged in movements to promote integrity (including pointing to some hesitations and possible barriers), and to suggest some ideas on possible avenues looking ahead.
What can we see as new elements in the global fight against corruption?
Corruption is obviously a very ancient problem, perhaps as old as human societies. Expectations that rule of law and notions of justice and fairness will govern societies speak to the long-standing and shared aspirations for honest government. There are, however, dimensions that are quite modern. Some are quite obvious: the expectation that leaders will serve as stewards of the people in societies inspired and guided by notions of human rights and democratic principles, for example. We speak often of the new power of mass communications, including social media, for good and evil: it can interrupt patterns where small elites capture power or those that sow misunderstanding and strife.
Other modern features are less apparent, or still in formation. Let me highlight four elements that drive global and national drives towards accountability and integrity. They are apparent in global movements, for example the remarkable success of the Transparency International movement and the ambitious International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) that will meet in October in Copenhagen. They are also relevant at the community and municipal levels.
First, corruption is today a widespread, shared concern across the world. A 2011 survey covering 23 countries, carried out for the BBC, found that corruption was the topic most frequently discussed by the public, ahead of poverty, unemployment, and rising costs. Stories about corruption dominate political and symbolic discourse in country after country. When people speak of ethics, corruption is often the leading edge. Nearly a quarter of those surveyed say they have discussed corruption recently. In Peru, 69 percent said corruption was the most serious problem facing the society. There is a myth that many societies accept corruption as a norm. Evidence shows the myth is false: people everywhere hate corruption.
Second, it is relatively new to see fighting corruption as a desired, indeed demanded, national strategy. Managing public procurement and finance and punishing theft are obviously far from new. However, to seek a national approach that looks professionally and systematically at how to change both public management systems and the culture that permits corruption is quite new. Not long ago mainstream economists and politicians might argue that corruption serves as “grease for the motor,” acceptable within a culture. Now such arguments are rarely heard. Corruption is a cancer that eats away social cohesion: it is “sand in the engine.” Governments and nations are judged by their levels of integrity and quality of administration.
Third, we understand much better that meaningful efforts to fight poverty and assure prosperous and equitable societies depend on public integrity. Most obviously efficient use of resources is vital for delivering services like education and health. But the damage to pension programs, quality education, and decent healthcare from corrupt systems go far beyond the direct damage inflicted because they erode trust. Businesses increasingly avoid investments in corrupt environments where governance is poor.
And fourth, democratic systems are threatened at their core by corrupt practices. When young people see their societies as irremediably corrupt, the temptations of extremist promises have wide appeal. Likewise, a negative populism and autocratic leaders often feed on anger against corruption and the promise of strong measures to right the society. Corruption, in short, is the enemy of democratic values and systems.