In a laudable effort to raise awareness about corruption and to mobilize to combat it, the United Nations General Assembly designated December 9th as International Anticorruption Day. The UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), which came into force in December 2005, has been ratified by some 140 countries to date. Given the turbulent economic climate and increasingly sour mood around the globe in developing and developed countries alike toward venal political leadership and business, meaningful anticorruption efforts can have an important salutary impact in giving citizens a stake in their governance and reducing cynicism.
So it is rather curious and disappointing that the first review reports of the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) regarding the convention’s implementation are not going to be made public if governments do not want to. In essence, this review of performance in improving transparency is, well, being kept secret.
Why is this important?
Apart from the obvious problematic optics, this approach strikes a blow at the heart of a potentially successful anticorruption initiative.
A report by Hertie School of Governance released by NORAD in 30/09/2011 indicates that to date there is no statistically significant difference in progress between countries which adopted the UNCAC and those that did not. Tellingly, there was also no difference between those countries that established anticorruption agencies and those which did not. The crucial pieces to this puzzle that can propel anticorruption success are the depth of political will from governments. Over the longer term, wider society needs to be engaged and, in turn, drive demand for greater probity in order to secure durable anticorruption success.
If we look at the recent history of democratic development, we see some important lessons, and should not be entirely surprised by the slow impact of the UNCAC.
Five years after the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, only a small group of countries in the world could be considered as fully respecting such rights. By 2010, according to “Freedom of the World,” Freedom House’s annual assessment of political rights and civil liberties, their number had grown to 87, representing 45 percent of the world’s 194 polities and 43 percent of the global population. This democratic progress can be attributed primarily to citizens who fought for democratic rights as part of a rise in demand for freedom in these countries. International pressures for norm adoption and their implementation also played a crucial role.
The story of UNCAC has some parallels. Many countries adopted ethical universalism as a norm, which simplifies the job of anti-corruption fighters because it provides them with legitimacy (few can still defend government favoritism as cultural exception) and tools (any citizen can monitor government if good freedom of information legislation is in place). But it is also critical to generate significant domestic demand for new rules of the game. Without public participation in the reform process, sustained political will is unachievable.
As the Hertie School report observed: “Accountability to the entire society regarding the implementation of UNCAC is a minimal requirement in building the general accountability of governments. In this context, the ownership principle in donor sponsored anti-corruption must simply be interpreted as ownership by the society, not by the government.”
If we combine findings from “Freedom of the World,” Freedom House’s annual assessment of political rights and civil liberties, with World Bank Governance Control of Corruption indicator we find 32 countries which are rated as Not Free and below the threshold of 60 on the Control of Corruption scale (0-100). In other words, these are countries run by dictators and their cronies, who treat the state as their own patrimony. But their number is currently superseded by a new group of plural corrupt countries which in “Freedom of the World,” are categorized as Partly Free and Free, but rated below the threshold of 60 on the Control of Corruption. There are over ninety such countries, making them the largest group in the world. Elections are held regularly in these countries, but groups competing for power only end up by spoiling the state in their turn. Statistical evidence from the same report shows that empowerment of the society, through NGO and community watchdog systems, Internet infrastructure and help for the independent media are the most effective anticorruption tools.
The potential of the UNCAC will be squandered if local media and civil society play only a marginal role, when they themselves should be the main monitors of implementation and users of institutional weapons provided by the treaty. The Convention will have an impact only if a critical mass in every society contributes to a check on the government. Grounding the oversight of implementation in domestic civil societies is the place to start.
Alina Mungiu-Pippidi is Chair of Democracy Studies and director of the ANTICORRP project at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. Christopher Walker is Vice-President for Strategy and Analysis at Freedom House. The picture featured above is from trust.org.