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Battling Corruption: Interview with Transparency International

October 8, 2014
Natasha Bowler
8 min read
Whistleblower supporters, Occupy Wall Street, 2011.
Whistleblower supporters, Occupy Wall Street, 2011.
Anti-corruption poster, Nigeria.
Anti-corruption poster, Nigeria.
Demonstrator at a march against corruption, Brazil, 2011.
Demonstrator at a march against corruption, Brazil, 2011.
Port-Au-Prince, 2010. Due to corruption, many earthquake victims did not benefit from the millions of dollars donated to help them.
Port-Au-Prince, 2010. Due to corruption, many earthquake victims did not benefit from the millions of dollars donated to help them.
In 2009, presidential candidate Mir-Hosseini Mousavi argued that levels of corruption was worse under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
In 2009, presidential candidate Mir-Hosseini Mousavi argued that levels of corruption was worse under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Corruption plays a part in the daily lives of millions of people around the world. Whether it is paying a bribe, being blackmailed or not getting a job because of cronyism, most people have been the victim of or experienced dishonest or fraudulent conduct by someone in a position of power — and most accept there is little that can be done about it.

In Iran, one of the main causes of the country’s weak economy is systematic corruption. During the 2009 presidential election, reformist candidate Mir Hosein-Mousavi argued that levels of corruption were even worse under the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad,  and that his administration was responsible for widespread abuse of power.

Mousavi pointed to Transparency International’s Corruptions Perceptions index for evidence, which demonstrates how corrupt a country is by analyzing the data of 13 different external sources that have also measured varying aspects of public corruption. These data sources, including Freedom House, Global Insight and the World Bank, consider things like the ability of officials to sanction corrupt officials and the quality of institutions to enable the rule of law. Countries are rated from 1 to 100, with 0 representing rife corruption and 100 constituting a completely corruption-free environment. In the case of Iran, the country fell to 1.8 in 2009, having been rated at 3.0 in 2003.

Billionaire businessman Mahafarid Amir Khosravi, whose investment company boasted a portfolio that included water and steel companies, land holdings and a football club, was charged with embezzlement and bribery after the country’s biggest corruption scandals was revealed in 2011. There were allegations that Ahmadinejad’s chief of staff Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei had authorized one of Khosravi’s company’s most profitable deals, the $600 million sale of the Khuzestan steel works. Ahmadinejad denied any connections with Khosravi, who was executed earlier this year. For many, the scandal encapsulates corruption under Ahmadinejad, but also the complexity of Iran’s power structures and intertwined interests, going well beyond one president’s tenure. Though the situation has improved since 2009, with Iran’s corruption perception index currently standing at 2.5, it is clear corruption is endemic, and will take decades for things to improve substantially.

Transparency International, a global organization with local bodies in over 100 countries, was set up in 1993; its vision is to create a world in which government, business, civil society and the daily lives of people are free from corruption. Santhosh Srinivasan, a research coordinator at the Transparency headquarters in Berlin, spoke to IranWire about corruption, its effect on people and what his organization does to stop it.


What is Transparency International does and where does it work?

Transparency International is an anti-corruption movement that has more than 100 national bureaus around the world; these are independent civil society organizations that are accredited parts of the movement. Our work ranges from doing research on measuring corruption, in particular our global corruption index and corruption barometer, and we also do a lot of advocacy related work. For instance we look at financial flows at the G20 level or we talk about corruption and its link to poverty at the UN level. We also have advocacy and legal advice centers in more than 60 countries, which are set up to provide direct help to citizens who may be facing issues of corruption in their dally lives. These provide services as simple as citizens being able to call a hotline for assistance or getting information on their rights in whichever country they’re located. If there is a bigger corruption issue, some of these centers work with government agencies to try to solve a case depending on the seriousness and level of the case being brought in. We also have a research arm.


Has your work ever lead to the prosecution of a corrupt official?

Our work is more advocacy and advice focused. In other words, we don’t work like an organization like Global Witness, which tries to expose a specific corruption case or issue. Our approach is to work with all stakeholders engaged in the fight against corruption and to use that to try to find a solution. Having said that, there may have been instances where our work leads to the uncovering of corrupt actions or officials.


What types of corruption do you look at?

Our work encompasses all different types. Our corruption index, which we publish every year, looks at public sector corruption; this means mainly the quality of institutions in a country: what types of laws they have and to what extent they’re effective at preventing different types of corruption. This involves the role of public officials and the civil service and how they interact with businesses and citizens. Then our global corruption barometer looks at peoples’ experience with corruption, so bribery and other forms of petty corruption. Then we have a stream of work looking at political corruption. In particular, political financing, transparency in politics, the role and influence of lobbying in a country, who’s funding a particular candidate, whether there are conflicts of interest in who is appointed, and so on. Then we also look at corruption in procurement, transparency in procurement, things like open governance and how to bring about greater levels of accountability to citizens by making all documents public.


Are there signs of corruption that citizens can look out for?

It depends on the type of corruption but the overall quality of a country’s institutions is key. Weak institutions create a climate that are ripe for corruption so greater openness and transparency in these is crucial. Then the role of anti-corruption agencies and their level of independence is another area to look into. For citizens wanting their country to be less corrupt, no matter where they live, they should be asking for greater transparency because this will lead to a more vibrant civil society and in the process less corruption.


What are the main causes of corruption?

First of all, the way the rules and regulations in a country are set up is important and it’s not just about having the right laws in place but about implementing them properly; this is what has major consequences. Yet again, the main thing is ensuring the greatest levels of transparency and accountability possible.

If you look at our corruption index and the corresponding per capita income, you will see there is a higher amount of public corruption in less economically prosperous countries. But it has yet to be proven whether it’s poverty that causes corruption or corruption that causes poverty. This debate is still very much open but there is an undeniable relationship between the two. This could be because in resource-restricted countries, resources are diverted to promote the activities of corrupt officials, meaning the people who need them don’t get them, which leads to further corrupt actions. Furthermore, institutional quality is generally weak in these countries. Even in firmly established democracies, the laws are there but they’re not implemented properly and so citizens experience greater levels of bribery and other forms of corruption.


Can citizens be the victims of corruption and be unaware of it?

Of course they can. Citizens could be experiencing corruption in their day-to-day lives, like being asked to pay a bribe when they want a new passport or when they go to the doctor, and because it’s normal to them, they don’t hesitate to pay. And then on the other end of the spectrum — and this is more common in wealthier countries — services like national healthcare or politics appear to citizens to work very well, so you don’t even question whether there’s corruption taking place. The reality is it’s happening on a far larger scale. For instance, there are a lot of interest groups lobbying or trying to influence public policy in their favor or groups that are pouring money into political campaigns to ensure they influence how policies are made after the election or who gets appointed to a particular position; these are issues that are not directly clear to citizens. It only comes out when the media publish big sensationalist scandals, but corruption of this magnitude happens all the time. Unless the public is told they remain unaware.


Does whistleblowing help to beat corruption?

Definitely. For instance the large-scale, unseen corruption I just described only comes into the public domain when there is a whistle-blower inside that exposes the issue. This is why whistleblowing protection laws are so important: they create an atmosphere that protects people and gives them the opportunity to stand up against things that are happening and makes them confident in the knowledge that they won’t be victimized for doing it or receive adverse consequences for standing up to corruption.


Are these laws sufficient?

There are several countries that have very good whistleblowing laws but aren’t implemented properly. Then there are countries that have no laws whatsoever. If you look at the European Commission’s most recent anti-corruption law, which was published earlier this year, whistleblowing laws were an area they said that needed to be strengthened. Our position is that they do need to be strengthened and even in countries where the laws are robust they need to be implemented properly so that those blowing the whistle feel safe. 


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