Ethics in the Swamp: The Rot of Corruption
December 9, 2016
Corruption is a live topic today. Since 2005, international anti-corruption day has been “celebrated” on December 9, in hopes that a visible day marking the topic can raise awareness about corruption and bolster a sense that something can be done to combat and prevent it. The large biannual International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC17) in Panama City ended on December 4, where some 1300 very diverse participants addressed a multitude of issues, from green eyeshade detail, lawyerly discourse, to lofty principles such as trust. The meeting concluded with a commitment that: “Together we will strengthen our web of anti-corruption activists. Together, the public sector, business and civil society will hold the corrupt to account. It is Time for Justice, Equity, Security, and Trust.” The activists, many part of Transparency International, come from all over the world, widely different in ideology and approach, but they share a gutsy determination to hold leaders to account.
More tellingly, corruption is a leading topic in political discourse, from Washington to Manila to Kabul to Nairobi to Abuja. The belief that corruption is pervasive drives much of the anger that we see reflected in extremist movements, secular and religious. It fuels the populist surge and the sense of rot that discredits governments and politicians in widely different countries and cultures. America’s political campaign featured narratives about a Washington swamp with bloated, rotten bureaucracies wasting or diverting public resources. The narratives can be misleading, undermining courageous political leaders and public servants, but many see little beyond stories about corrupt practices.
Why, many ask, are people, especially young people, are attracted by what seem cruel ideologies and unrealistic ideas? Studies of recruitment strategies of ISIL, Boko Haram, Al-Shabaab, and Al Quaeda find that both personal experience with injustice and perceptions of government corruption play central roles, far more than religious identities or narratives. The perceptions are dangerous and are surely a call to action.
The Panama IACC, scholarly analysis, and a wide range of experience suggest that corruption can indeed be addressed and that decent public service is quite feasible. It can justly be seen as a basic human right. Not long ago some believed that corruption was embedded in cultures, that it might even have benefits by “greasing the wheels”, but such hypotheses are debunked in the light of popular anger that links widely different societies. Corruption is rightly described as a cancer.
Part of the answer to corruption takes us into highly political realms: fighting corruption obviously takes political will, determination, and persistence. Leaders are needed. It is also tied to legal and judicial systems: laws, police, and enforcement. It demands detailed, technical work, on widely varied topics: some issues have long historical roots, like public procurement and accountability. Others, for example sextortion, have recently come into the light. Fighting corruption demands a wide participation of society, including business and religious institutions. Investigative journalism, use of new technologies, and creative films and other communication can make a difference.
Both in setting standards for leadership and in the grass roots campaigns ethics are vitally important. And this highlights the surprising, even bizarre fact that religious communities and leaders are not as prominent in the international anti-corruption and integrity coalitions as one might expect, given that the job of religious institutions is, in significant part, to help set values, and appeal to the better angels of human nature.
Anti-corruption activists have been somewhat leery about taking too moral a tone about corruption, tending towards economic justifications or practical arguments about lost revenues and benefits. An all-too-common unease about engaging with religious institutions contributes. And while the language of equity, social justice, trust, and accountability are vital principles in many religious traditions, other traditions look askance at the approaches of some anti-corruption activism. And there’s a disconnect, like oil and water, between exhorting against corruption and the practical work needed to “drain the swamp”.
The next International Anti-Corruption Conference will be in Denmark in 2018. It’s time to mix the oil and water. Fighting corruption is about more than exhortation: declaiming against those who steal and fail to honor their public responsibilities. Anti-corruption strategies and practices can work. But only when the passion of activists and moral leaders comes together with different parts of society, religious institutions included, to translate anger and a desire for good governance into reality. The fight against corruption, for decent governance and strong public service depends on public morality and a common commitment to ethical standards and priorities. Draining the swamp depends on linking the best of religious and civic teachings to the realities of political leadership and governance. That’s what it will take to achieve “Justice, Equity, Security, and Trust”.