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Can the UN enforce its anti-corruption resolutions?

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-06-25

NEW DELHI - In this capital city where, naturally, the currency of the realm is politics and business, the words "corruption" and "transparency" traditionally haven't resonated very well. The nexus between India's powerful politicians and the businessmen who seek their favors is well established. And while economic liberalisation has reduced opportunities for peculation (correct) by bureaucratic satraps, monies intended for development aren't always spent on grassroots projects.

And so it came as a bit of a surprise yesterday (Friday) to the political and business community here that, 10,000 miles away at United Nations headquarters in New York, a summit of international corporate leaders, politicians and diplomats agreed that "corruption" and "transparency" must figure more prominently in the lexicon of boardrooms, chancelleries and political hallways. In the presence of United Nations Secretary-General Kofi A. Annan of Ghana, the luminaries acknowledged that graft, corruption and poor governance were severely retarding economic and social development in the Third World.

While that acknowledgement didn't specifically mention India, the U.N.'s message was clearly applicable to this country of 1.1 billion people, more than half of whom remain mired in poverty some 57 years after independence from the British. On Thursday evening, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh delivered a first-time address on national television in which he called for good governance. He didn't mention that India's "underground economy" - transactions involving corrupt practices such as underinvoicing, smuggling, profiteering and the black market - exceeds US$200 billion annually, or nearly a third of the country's gross domestic product.

This means that the Indian treasury is being deprived of revenues through taxation. It also means that corruption has become an accepted way of life in this country. Ms Shilpa Gupta, a successful young restaurateur here, tells about how, practically every day, she's importuned by a series of local officials who demand money or sexual favours. Just the other day, a police constable threatened to tow away her customers' cars if she didn't cough up cash. "I was disgusted," Ms Gupta said, "so I told him to do what he wished. I was sick and tired of doling out cash. He slunk away, fortunately."

There are tens of thousands of victims of daily corruption like Ms Gupta, not only in India but also in the other 134 countries of the Third World, where public accountability and clean government are practices that have yet to mature. Mr Peter Eigen, Chairman of Transparency International - an international Berlin-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) devoted to tackling corruption - says the world business community has often regarded corruption as a necessary evil, with some top executives openly defending the practice of bribing government officials. With a shrug of the shoulder, Mr Eigen said, these executives will explain their action as follows: "I hate to do it...and I hate all the problems it will cause down the line...but I have to."

Now the U.N. has decided to take up anti-corruption as a cause. Its "Global Compact" for businessmen - the brainchild of Secretary-General Annan - pushes good corporate practices in human rights, labour and the environment; it now also urges business and government officials to combat graft and corruption with renewed energy. The New York declaration that the U.N. adopted on Thursday said: "Business should work against corruption in all its forms, including extortion and bribery."

Mr Annan says that following the wide-scale endorsement of the UN Convention Against Corruption - the first globally agreed instrument to provide sweeping measures regarding the prevention of graft, its criminalization, international cooperation against it and recovery of illegal assets - "there was now a solid consensus behind the need to fight corruption."

But consensus is one thing, practicality is another. One of the problems with U.N. resolutions, no matter how well intentioned, is the lack of enforcement capacity. How is corruption going to be rooted out? By sending the equivalent of U.N. peacekeeping troops to boardrooms and bureaucracies?

The international community might wish to consider three points:

_ All aid from multilateral and bilateral bodies to developing countries should carry strict conditionality clauses concerning corruption. This means tighter auditing of project expenditures, and more frequent spot checks of how aid monies are actually spent. In India, for instance, nearly 80 percent of funds from aid agencies never reach the intended recipients at the grassroots. This is simply unacceptable.

_ Closer scrutiny of the assets and lifestyles of government officials, particularly those dealing with industrial licenses, foreign investment and aid from abroad. In New Delhi, for example, scores of politicians and bureaucrats have built themselves fancy homes. It stretches credulity to believe that such edifices are the result of thrifty living and careful savings.

_ Punitive measures against violators. These could include being disbarred from holding public office. It's shameful that more than 100 of the 545 members of the Lok Sabha, India's Lower House of Parliament, either are convicted felons or have indictments against them on charges such as murder, rape and extortion. Public service must be a privilege accorded to only thee clean.

In the final analysis, of course, what will truly make the difference concerning higher standards of governance is a country's economic system. Statism - even in the guise of benign socialism that's still fashionable in countries like India - is a natural incubator for corruption. Nations like Singapore have demonstrated that, in economics at least, the best government is the least government. It's time that this lesson was adopted by countries that are being crippled by corruption, often on the part of the very men and women sworn to work for the public good.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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