WASHINGTON (TrustLaw) – One good woman can make a huge difference in tackling corruption. Sri Mulyani Indrawati is proof.
She earned a reputation as a tough reformer when she cleaned up tax collection in Indonesia and raised government revenues as the first woman finance minister of her country, a post with 60,000 people reporting to her that she held from 2005 to 2010. Today she is a managing director of the World Bank.
Her work has pushed Indrawati into the Forbes magazine's list of the most powerful women in the world, ranking 65th last year. But her tough stance also earned her many enemies among Indonesia's business elite, particularly after the tax office published a list of the 100 top tax dodgers which included a coal firm controlled by tycoon and politician Aburizal Bakrie. Indrawati resigned her post in 2010, some say under political pressure.
Under her leadership, though, economic growth in Indonesia prospered ahead of the global financial crisis, tax receipts rose, public debt fell and foreign direct investment climbed. Indrawati believes that quality of leadership and having the courage to confront corruption is more important than the number of women holding high government positions.
“If you have highly qualified and strong women, even one woman can make a lot of change," she said in an interview. "It is not about the number; it is that these women are very good at articulating their position and pushing their policies.”
Following is the interview with Indrawati, conducted for a story on women's leadership as part of the coverage for the Trust Women Conference on Dec 4 and 5 in London:
WHAT IMPACT HAS BRINGING MORE WOMEN INTO PUBLIC POSITIONS HAD ON CORRUPTION?
“From my own experience, when we design development programmes at the grassroots level that involve women and particularly mothers, the quality of public services improves … At the grassroots level I have more confidence in saying that women focus more on delivering public goods that are good for her family rather than for herself.
“At the public level it is a bit different. The commitment of high-ranking women in public office, in my experience, depends more on their personal values and the ways they got into their position. It cannot be generalized. “
A more open, democratic system where the values and understanding of corruption are more advanced, is different from a more closed system where public officials often don’t see corruption as a serious offence. Having more women in a closed system has less impact on fighting corruption, she said.
But the broader reason to bring women into government leadership and to promote general equality is that it will create “a more balanced view in the choices of public policy,” she said. Tackling corruption depends more on the political system and whether the legal institutions are developed and anti-corruption rules enforced, she said.
WHAT WAS YOUR EXPERIENCE IN INDONESIA?
When Indonesia was less democratic and transparent, corruption was considered normal behaviour, Indrawati said. For example, when salaries were low, taking a bribe was seen as standard to supplement your salary, a matter necessary for survival, and not a conflict of interest, she said. “Then if you were not getting rich in (holding) a public position, you were seen as stupid.”
In this environment, there were few women in power to introduce any different values. Moreover, the few women that held positions had no budget authority so they had less opportunity for corruption.
The first step to conquering corruption in Indonesia was to introduce the concept that corruption is an abuse of power, she said. Initially there was very little understanding of this, so even when the legal structures were in place – an anti-corruption bureau and legislation outlawing corruption – practice lagged behind. The legal framework is a necessary condition, “but it is not sufficient because for political parties and for people in general it was not clear what anti-corruption measures mean in practice,” she said.
“In my case, I had to change first the source of corruption, which is adequacy of salaries.” When salaries were low, the whole system is willing to accept bribes. Then she had to work with the public and the media in changing the social perception of the acceptability of corruption.
DID THE VIEW THAT WOMEN ARE THE FAIRER SEX HELP YOU AS AN ANTI-GRAFT CAMPAIGNER?
“Firstly I grew up in a family with strong values. My parents were school teachers,” she said. Those values provided a very important foundation, which was combined with the historic nature of her position.
“Knowing that I was the first woman minister of finance in the history of Indonesia, that gave quite a significant amount of pressure, and it gives you the motivation to do something significant for your country ... Yes, there is real pressure or self awareness being the first female finance minister in a country seen as having corruption. You have always to do the right thing,” Indrawati said.
ONE LINE OF RESEARCH SUGGESTS THAT IF WOMEN HOLD AT LEAST 30 PERCENT OF PUBLIC POSITIONS, GOVERNANCE IMPROVES AND CORRUPTION LESSENS. WHAT IS YOUR VIEW?
“I would be very ambivalent about that.” It is more about the quality than the number of women in public office, she said. “If you have highly qualified and strong women, even one woman can make a lot of change… It is not about the number; it is that these women are very good at articulating their position and pushing their policies.”
However, she agrees that all-male policymaking does not produce the best results
“In a male-dominated environment, I must say it sometimes creates a lot of, well, they can be less sensitive to public perception … In a male dominated politics, men tend to be comfortable among themselves and are not seeking other views.”
HAVE WE MADE PROGRESS IN COMBATING CORRUPTION?
“For sure we are making progress in poverty alleviation…. In public policy, when more women are holding political positions and have more control over assets and income, we see a higher impact on ending poverty,” she said.
“The results are already more reliable when women are taking decisions for their families. Women are always thinking about children first, they will spend more on food and health. The evidence here is very strong.”
“And our research shows that gender equality is not only the right thing to do, it is also smart economics. Countries develop faster and better when women are part of the decision-making process.”
In the political arena it is taking longer, she said. “In the realm of public policy, there needs to be recognition of different perspectives….It is not just about combating corruption, it is the whole quality of public policy that will be improved when women have a say….. Women have to be responsible and think beyond a very narrow benefit of self, they think about ‘will it be good for my family and for my children?’ If you aggregate that at a higher level, it will benefit the society.”