Posted on February 21, 2014 · Posted in Frank Friday, P-cubed News, Roosevelt House Faculty Forum

Image Credit: Transparency International

By Shyama Venkateswar

Corruption and bribery remain commonplace practices in many parts of the world, where one in four people paid a bribe in the past year, adding up to an annual total of $1 trillion. This kind of corruption acts as a corrosive force in stripping public trust, and it lowers the credibility of government agencies to serve the larger needs of citizens. Corruption is prevalent in both developing countries, whose citizens are trapped in inter-generational cycles of poverty, and in wealthier societies with political systems locked in perpetual gridlock.

Nowhere is the impact of corruption felt more than in the outcomes of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Created in 2000, the MDGs had clear targets for 2015: reduce extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and the empowerment of women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other communicable diseases, ensure environmental sustainability, and develop global partnerships. With just over 1000 days remaining until the 2015 target date, the MDGs have failed to accomplish their overall agenda for systemic change.

Research from Transparency International, an international nonprofit headquartered in Berlin, shows that corruption and the lack of governance has played a strong role in derailing MDG goals. Data shows that corruption leads to lower literacy levels and higher dropout rates. Additionally, access to safe water is in peril in countries where corruption is rampant. And in the case of healthcare, kickbacks and bribery prevalent in a country lower the quality of medicines and delay delivery of healthcare services, leading to higher mortality rates.

Fortunately, the report also includes key recommendations governments can implement to combat corruption. Firstly, governments should promote transparency by publishing information on initiatives to advance governance and anti-corruption initiatives and create a legal framework that includes public education campaigns on citizens’ rights. Secondly, they should create measures for accountability by including the participation of vulnerable communities in decision-making and creating mechanisms for citizen oversight and scorecards to hold governments responsible. Finally, they should promote integrity by strengthening the capacity of different actors and elevating the rule of law above all else. Transparency International’s data showed that ensuring transparency, accountability and integrity of government institutions led to better outcomes on key policy areas like education, health and water in 48 countries.

What is important to stress is that corruption in public institutions — or even public opinion on the trustworthiness of public officials — is not a phenomenon unique to poor countries. A 2013 survey from Transparency International measured how the public views the degree of corruption in the public sector, and placed countries on a scale from 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean). Two-thirds of countries score below 50. The United States ranks on the higher end, with a score of 73 out of 100, with 19 other countries ahead of it. Predictably, the Scandinavian countries ranked the least corrupt.

While the above survey shows the United States is doing better than the majority of other countries when it comes to corruption, it is tackling a more abstract problem: the issue of perception. The 2013 Global Corruption Barometer captured the disaffection that many Americans feel about their elected officials due to the increasingly unequal structure of power in the country. In the survey, 76 percent of Americans felt that political parties were corrupt or extremely corrupt, 69 percent believed that corruption is a serious problem in the public sector in the country, 36 percent felt that the level of corruption in the country had increased significantly in the past year, and 64 percent of respondents felt the government was entirely or to a large extent run by a few big entities. When asked about the government’s action to fight corruption, 59 percent of respondents felt that the government was either ineffective or very ineffective. Perhaps most concerning were the almost 25 percent of respondents who disagreed or strongly disagreed that ordinary people could make a difference in the fight against corruption.

Good governance is a goal for every society – from those targeted by the UN Millennium Development agenda to affluent, industrialized societies. Anti-corruption measures, greater accountability and transparency of government are the best strategies to ensure more effective and sustainable public policies and greater public trust in government institutions that across the world are failing citizens. This is where leadership begins.

Dr. Shyama Venkateswar is the Distinguished Lecturer and Director of the Public Policy Program. Follow her on Twitter: @DrSVenkateswarlike the Public Policy Program at Roosevelt House on Facebook and follow @PcubedatRH on Twitter.