By Stella Dawson
Launching a global anti-corruption movement is no mean achievement. When a band of evangelists founded Transparency International in 1993, Frank Vogl recalls they were scoffed at. The Economist magazine drew a cartoon depicting them as vainglorious Don Quixotes tilting at windmills. Bribery, like death and taxes, was viewed as unfortunate but a sin to largely tolerate.
Almost 20 years later, anti-corruption has moved to the centre of global policymaking. It was a driving force behind the Arab Spring, when protesters angered by poverty, lack of opportunity and pillaged national wealth overthrew dictatorial governments. It is discussed at meetings of G20 world leaders, enshrined in international conventions and in national legislation. Today there is a thriving lobby of specialists putting the squeeze on kleptocrats by exposing illicit money flows, revealing the revenues they pocket from oil, gas and mineral contracts and scrutinising how foreign direct aid is managed.
In this highly readable primer “Waging War on Corruption”, Frank Vogl, a former journalist and World Bank communications manager, describes how a band of former World Bank officials and lawyers angered by seeing development aid line the pockets of government and business elites, decided to do something about it. They rejected the idea that corruption is embedded in certain cultures and believed change can come from mobilising individuals. Today Transparency International has grown from its headquarters in Berlin to chapters in 90 countries around the world and is the leading voice in fighting corruption, its scoring of countries’ public sector in its Corruptions Perceptions Index followed as a benchmark. The simple but powerful idea was to hold government officials accountable, so that sunshine might have a sanitizing effect on behaviour.
The strength of Vogl's book is in making clear the linkages between corruption and thwarted economic, political and social development; and between corruption and weakened international security. He tells a sweeping narrative of how the fall of the Berlin Wall inspired a new generation to rise up, and how the spread of communications technologies has further empowered the movement.
There are many wrenching stories of how the use of public funds for private gain robs a country of its wealth, disproportionately hurts the poorest members of society, undermines trust in government and its institutions, severing the political comity necessary to lead -- Zimbabwe under President Robert Mugabe, for instance, is a classic example of a rich country, once one of Africa’s most prosperous agricultural producers with well-educated citizens, made destitute by mismanagement and corruption that rewarded the president’s political allies. Ghana is another. Russia displays similar problems of immense resources coralled to benefit the political leaders and their business cronies. Unfortunately, these are only broadly sketched in this book, not deeply reported.
The same is true of the victims and the activists. Vogl tells of meeting Natalia Magnitsky who campaigned relentlessly until Russian Prime Minister Dimitry Medvedev released the truthful police report on the death of her son Sergei Magnitsky, the 36-year-old Moscow lawyer. Magnitsky was beaten to death in prison for defending Hermitage Capital’s William Browder against charges of tax fraud. Vogl also met Sri Lanka journalist Lasantha Wickramatunga, who was given Transparency International’s integrity award in 2000 for his meticulous reporting exposing corruption, which terrified some politicians. Nine years later, eight unidentified gunmen on motorcycles shot him in the head as he was driving to work.
But each gets only a few paragraphs. Vogl describes eloquently the imperatives of the anti-corruption movement. But it is a fragmentary account, more a knitting together of events and newspaper clippings than in-depth stories that provide fresh insight. He skips within pages from the failure of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki to root out the bribery which unleashed brutal tribal killings, to Bernie Madoff, the American financier who stole millions from unsuspecting investors in an elaborate ponzi scheme. Vogl's skill is to show that what links them is corruption and what separates them is the rule of law -- Madoff is in jail while Kibaki remains in power. In this way he binds a wealth of material together.
The question inadequately answered, though, is how much difference this anti-corruption movement has made, whether it has equipped the campaigners with effective tools, and whether as a result the rule of law is spreading sufficiently to start taming corruption. Though brimming with optimism, the book lacks an analytical framework. It has many sentences like these: “We are on the cusp of a new era where the rising pressures on bribe takers and bribe payers will become increasingly evident to growing numbers of people around the world. This will provide vital encouragement to support civil society action, law enforcement and positive political change.” Vogl asks us to take on faith that the technology revolution is flinging open the doors to transparency and that the young Egyptians in Tahir Square are the vanguard of a great awakening across the world “to a mounting understanding that a revolution is unfolding against corruption and in support of cleaner government.“
Perhaps that critical look is another book, and "Waging War on Corruption" could profitably be read alongside Laurence Cockroft's "Global Corruption: Money, Power and Ethics in the Modern World" also just published. It is hard to sustain the argument that corruption -- a $1.4 trillion business by some estimates and rising, with tentacles deeply embedded in organised crime, the drug trade, and human trafficking, and far greater in size than 20 years ago -- is on the back foot. Corruption is the grease that enables these criminal enterprises to grow.
But this is a generous and energetic book. Vogl admits it is a long war and does make important suggestions for strengthening the campaign -- development aid that focuses on quality of results, not dollars disbursed; better law enforcement; punishments that fit the crime for example. But essentially, "Waging War on Corruption” is more a paean to the many brave people who have brought the movement thus far, and less a handbook for the next 20 years.
Waging War on Corruption, By Frank Vogl, published by Rowman and Littlefield 2012