Dark dealings under scrutiny

October 29, 1999

Academics are at the frontline of exposing corruption, but winning the battle will require more effort. Karen MacGregor reports.

The crucial role of research in the war against graft - especially its importance in uncovering and publicising corrupt practices - was stressed at the ninth International Anti-Corruption Conference held last week in Durban, South Africa.

Speakers stressed the role of universities and researchers in surveying corruption in their countries, developing anti-corruption laws and policies, and monitoring their implementation.

The conference, co-hosted by Transparency International, was the largest global anti-corruption meeting ever held. From 135 countries it drew 1,600 delegates representing governments, business, civil society and international organisations under the theme "Global integrity: 2000 and beyond".

The delegates repeatedly made the point that serious attempts to combat corruption in their countries had been driven by research that revealed attitudes towards graft and where and what kind of corruption was occurring.

Myoung-Ho Shin, vice-president of the Asian Development Bank, said there had been a radical reassessment recently in attitudes towards corruption in the region.

One reason was Asia's recent financial crisis, which exposed widespread corruption, cronyism and nepotism. The second was the "rapid expansion in solid analytic work on the consequences of corruption, which has underscored just how costly, widespread and systematic corruption can be." Recent studies, Myoung-Ho Shin added, had revealed that corruption could, among other things, add 100 per cent to the cost of government goods and services in some countries; cost more than some countries' foreign debt; claim lives through officials ignoring safety standards; and contribute to political instability.

A link between large research surveys and public involvement in fighting corruption was drawn by Neil Andersson, executive director of Community Information, Empowerment and Transparency, an international network of academic institutions, non-governmental organisations and charities.

Data gathered and analysed through surveys contributed to transparency and challenged the secrecy in which corruption thrives, Mr Andersson argued. People feel the impact of resulting changes and see their opinions beginning to make a difference.

"This empowers them and makes them less tolerant of petty corruption and less tolerant of grand corruption," said Chea Vannath, president of the Centre for Social Development in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. She said her research institute had made the first survey of Cambodian attitudes towards corruption last year.

Of more than 1,500 adults surveyed, 84 per cent believed graft to be the norm in Cambodia, 91 per cent believed it was harming the country and 98 per cent would like it stopped. Worryingly, young people showed a "significant lack" of concern for and knowledge of corruption, and civil servants tended to accept graft.

"This and other research has led the CSD to take a holistic approach to anti corruption efforts - not just ensuring the passage of effective laws and developing networks of cooperation between activists, but also developing education programmes that target the most influential, and most misguided, demographic groups."

Delegates from India and Bangladesh also described recent corruption surveys that uncovered widespread graft. In India, for example, 60 per cent of 156 manufacturers surveyed in three cities reported having to pay bribes, while in Bangladesh 96 per cent of 2,500 people questioned said they had had to pay police for their services.

The surveys, the delegates continued, had proved an extraordinarily valuable tool for anti-corruption activities. Having been widely publicised, they led to more investigations and placed pressure on government to clamp down on graft.

Vusi Mavuso and Stiaan van der Merwe, respectively chair and chief executive of Transparency International in South Africa, made the case for more and different research into corruption, ranging from collecting raw data and information on best practices to analysing trends.

"Corruption-related research is still by and large untapped apart from high profile public-sector and private-sector scoops," they said. "Research should not only be on corruption taking place but also on whether anything is being done, and what can or should be done about it. It should also include the development and use of practical tools to address corruption."

The conference resolved, among other things, to research, identify and publicise imaginative and effective examples of good anti-corruption practices.

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