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Fighting inequality and corruption in the world

21 November 2014

Efforts are being made to combat corruption and sharp practice in global finance. Peter Selby has seen this at first hand

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 the many.

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 questioned.

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 money.

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 company.

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 was received.

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 them.

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 corruption.

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.

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