How do you deal with corrupt traffic police?
In 2004 then Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili simply sacked the entire force, all 16,000, and replaced it with new recruits employed on the basis of exams and offering higher pay.
The joke in Georgia at the time was that during the three months the country was without its traffic police there was no change in accident rates.
“It was a heavy handed and arbitrary way to tackle corruption, and I’m not saying it is a model to emulate, but it worked and is one way of dealing with it,” says University of Melbourne corruption expert Professor Emeritus Leslie Holmes, from the School of Social and Political Sciences.
Earlier this year the International Monetary Fund reported that corruption was one of the world’s biggest problems. Bribery of government officials alone amounted to as much as US$2 trillion a year, or over 2 per cent of world GDP.
Frustration with widespread corruption fuelled the Arab Spring and toppled the pro-Russian government of the Ukraine. China is in the midst of an ongoing anti-corruption blitz; in Brazil president Dilma Rousseff was impeached this year amid ongoing fallout from a bribery scandal involving politicians and oil giant Petrobras; and in South Africa President Jacob Zuma is facing calls to resign in the wake of corruption accusations. In the Philippines populist President Rodrigo Duterte has brought his own brand of corruption-busting by launching a brutal war on drugs that has killed 4,000 people, including last week a provincial governor.
The extent of potential grand corruption and illicit behaviour at the highest levels was revealed by the leaking this year of the Panama Papers that detailed the web of offshore companies that the rich and powerful routinely use to hide their wealth.
Corruption rage a two edged sword
But Professor Holmes says it is impossible to know whether corruption is worsening. It is only since the mid-1990s that agencies like Transparency International have started trying to measure corruption through various surveys. But what he is sure of is that citizens have never before been so aware of corruption as a problem. And while he says that is a good thing, it isn’t all good.
“What we can say for sure is that there has been an eruption in awareness, and that is clearly a good thing as it means more can be done about it. But the downside is that if we aren’t careful ‘corruption’ can be used too loosely and end up becoming a catch-all complaint for any discontent, undermining faith in political systems and making government dysfunctional.”
“Around the world we’ve seen people become so incensed at corruption, both real but also perhaps exaggerated, that they have brought down the system. That may be a good thing so long as the replacement system is better, but unfortunately that isn’t always the case.”
In the US Presidential election, both candidates have faced accusations of corruption. Professor Holmes notes there are suggestions that much of the support for the maverick Republican Donald Trump is motivated by loathing for an establishment that is being unfairly branded as thoroughly corrupt.
He argues that to tackle corruption effectively we need to be precise in what corruption really is. For Professor Holmes, corruption properly is the abuse of public office for private gain, and therefore must involve government. He said without government involvement, a case of corruption is more appropriately a corporate crime or illicit corporate behaviour.
“Corruption is about government because we expect and demand our governments to be honest brokers, whereas we know corporate interests are out to make a profit and that fraud can be a risk.”
Political Will not enough
He also argues that while there are no sure-fire ways to tackle corruption, it is best addressed systemically to ensure that when corrupt practices are exposed they don’t simply reappear in a different guise with different players. Professor Holmes notes that the new Ukraine government seems to be backsliding towards more corruption. It means that simply having the political will at the top to fight corruption won’t be enough unless the bureaucrats are also on board.
“Political will at the top is a necessary but by itself an insufficient condition to fight corruption. It has to be the will of the people and it has to be the will of the bureaucrats as well. And the only way you can do that is for everyone to understand the benefits of clamping down on corruption.”
Given some US$2 trillion a year is being wasted on bribes, the gains to be had by a country prepared to tackle corruption are huge, especially when you add in the benefits of rule of law and a strong investment reputation.
And while grand corruption among the elite is a tempting target for anti-corruption movements, Professor Holmes argues that for countries beset by petty corruption, such as routine police bribery, attacking this low level corruption can often be the easiest place to start in building systemic change and increasing public trust in the system.
“Wealthier and more democratic countries have less low level corruption, which means they are at least a step ahead. But when it comes to grand corruption these countries also have a long way to go,” he says.
“There is no silver bullet for this, it is a matter of chipping away.”
Professor Leslie is speaking at the Faculty of Art’s Combating Corruption in a Globalised World: Issues and Challenges conference on Friday, 11 November, Arts West building, University of Melbourne.
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