ONE OF the most serious obstacles in the way of justice in world
development is the presence of bribery and corruption, often in
places of greatest need. Huge quantities of much-needed resources
are siphoned off into secret bank accounts, resulting in sometimes
spectacular wealth for a few and the even greater impoverishment of
Sometimes concern about corruption avoids the real issue. After
chairing many meetings of a local-authority ethics committee, I
remember thinking that, if we went on as we were, discussing
whether it was legitimate to accept a biscuit as well as a cup of
tea on a planning application visit, nobody in their right mind
would ever want to stand for election as a councillor.
And we have gone on that way, often straining out gnats and
ignoring the camels we swallow.
The recent Tokyo conference of the International Bar Association
(IBA), however, brought me face to face - in the work of its
anti-corruption section - with industrial-scale bribery: pervasive
and lucrative, international and, in many places, hardly
On the other hand, it is a sign of hope that the scale of
corruption has generated both a huge body of anti-bribery
legislation and an anti-corruption industry: accountants, lawyers,
legislators, and regulators in large numbers are engaged in the
often unequal struggle for integrity and fair dealing against
extremely powerful vested interests.
It was certainly an achievement to get the Bribery Act of 2010
on to the statute book with cross-party support, while the
existence of organisations like Transparency International, a
global anti-bribery coalition, while showing how much work still
remains to be done, is evidence that there are those willing to
secure an honest international trading regime.
THE debate staged in Tokyo was about the issue of blame: is
corruption the fault of those who give bribes, or of those who take
them? With three specialist lawyers on each side of the debate, it
was not surprising that we were made aware of the complexity of the
moral and political issues involved, and of the complicity of both
sides in corrupt transactions. Bribes would not happen if it was
not signalled that they were on offer; bribes would not happen if
the expectation that there would be a bribe was not part of the
body language of government officials and company operatives.
At the same time, the sheer sophistication of international
corruption was also evident. We have moved a long way from when
bribery consisted of passing brown envelopes full of grubby
banknotes under the negotiating table.
For example, providing prestigious internships for officials'
sons and daughters as an inducement to closing a deal represents a
far more seductive form of corruption than the overt passing of
Then there is the unequal face of corruption. The "little
people" - lowly and badly paid officials - are very vulnerable to
the temptation to augment their pay by taking bribes. More than
that, company agents may well feel pressured by fear of the sack if
they are not successful in achieving a lucrative contract for their
It is perhaps easier to sympathise with the fear of the lowly
person in the organisation than with the over-reaching greed of the
already powerful and well rewarded. There remains, none the less, a
much greater readiness to prosecute the lowly than the director,
who is often far more protected from being brought to account than
those lower down the company.
WHILE the anti-corruption section of the IBA staged a vigorous
debate about who was principally to blame for corruption, they also
invited me to contribute a different, specifically theological,
perspective by reflecting on corruption's roots. The case I made
was that any evaluation of corruption has to take very seriously
the monetised culture and trading environment in which we now live,
and it was good to experience the sympathy with which that argument
After all, a world in which money figures so largely - in which
vast inequalities abound in salaries and bonuses, and where the
prizes for lotteries have reached eye-watering sums - is the world
in which ordinary people going about their lawful trade have to
function. It is only to be expected that, as they see such
disproportionate rewards being distributed, they should desire at
least some part of those rewards.
And, in a world where the financial success of a company is
likely to far outweigh any other perceived value it might have to
society, it is again only to be expected that officials entrusted
with negotiating contracts should resort to corruption in some form
to protect themselves and those who work with them and depend on
This is not to say that the pressures are too strong to resist,
or to excuse the dishonesty of the individuals who took part in
manipulating the foreign exchange markets or falsifying the data
that lie behind the LIBOR rate; happily, it is the case that there
are people who walk the path of integrity even when those pressures
and temptations are around.
It is simply to be clear what those pressures are, and what the
progressive domination of the world by monetary considerations can
do to the individual soul, when the sums are vast and the penurious
consequences of failure can be so dramatic in comparison with the
rewards for success.
The urgency of monetary reform and of facing the challenge of
the world's massive inequalities is nowhere more clearly
demonstrated than in the murky world of official and unofficial
The Rt Revd Dr Peter Selby is an Adviser to St Paul's
Institute, and the author of Grace and Mortgage and
An Idol Unmasked: A faith perspective on money.