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Corruption is a great challenge. Worldwide it robs whole populations from the possibility of a decent living. Even in the West we are starting to face the issue. ATLAS has visited the International Anti-Corruption Academy in Austria.

By Jeppe Reedtz Husted

Corruption eats up state budgets for the benefit of a small proportion of the population and can make it an expensive experience for companies to step into a new market. And although many still associate corruption with thick brown envelopes changing hands in Africa, the issue has over the past 20 years evolved into an international struggle.

Part of the frontline is located twenty kilometres outside the Austrian capital, Vienna. In an imposing salmon-coloured building – the old residence for various aristocrats – the International Anti-Corruption Academy (IACA) has had its headquarter since the launch in 2010. The relatively new intergovernmental organization, which was founded by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), Interpol and Austria, has 65 member states from six continents and a training centre in connection with the headquarter.

»In a broad definition, corruption is the abuse of entrusted power for personal gain. It is not a legal concept, as we have no binding definition that applies in all countries yet. But among experts it is also a general belief that corruption is not only about crimes in legal terms," says Martin Kreutner. He is head of IACA and one of those men where a neat suit is not enough to hide a military background. The last fourteen years he has worked with the fight against corruption. Initially in Austria, where he built up the national anti-corruption authority, and later as an expert in numerous international contexts: UN, OSCE, Council of Europe and the World Bank.

Can corruption be seen as only one thing? In some countries it is grease in everyday life, other places few people have the opportunity to cash in, and we have also seen corruption as part of a poor culture in for instance FIFA.

»I would argue that there is not a single family, tribe, corporation, organization or government who seriously believe that corruption is a good thing. It is a common feature I see on all my visits. That said, there are certainly different phenomena varying in visibility from place to place. And what is perceived as critical in one country will not be perceived as critical in another. But if we stick to the definition of corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for personal gain then there is a common denominator for all phenomena from Afghanistan to the United States, from Russia to Nigeria."

– But what is the difference between the western countries and other regions in what form corruption takes?

»In the West we had for quite a long time the notion that corruption was something that existed only in the Third World. I remember that a minister from one of the old Western democracies said to me once: 'There is no corruption in our country because it is prohibited by law'. It is of course a lie. In western countries corruption exists more at the top than at the bottom. And to put it simple, I would say that more developed countries also have more advanced forms of corruption. If you get pulled over by the average policeman in Denmark, Austria or Germany the risk that you have to bribe is relatively small, but the deeper you get into the financing of parties or the relations between the political and economic elite, the more murky the water becomes. There are Western democracies where you can literally buy an ambassador post if you donate to the winning campaign before a presidential election."

– Would you say that corruption in the West is more invisible to the general public?

»Yes, I would say that. It's more sophisticated when we look at political influence and all that follows from lobbying – understand me correctly; I'm not saying that lobbying per definition is illegal or illegitimate but there is a large grey area that slowly fades into actual wrongdoing."

The fight against corruption is a long-term project

Transparency International has repeatedly proclaimed Denmark the world’s least corrupt country. And it is due to a lengthy process. In The Question of How Denmark Got To Be Denmark historian Mette Fresh Jensen concludes, that the fight against corruption started in 1660, when the king became the absolute leader because he restructured the Danish state based on the rule of law in order to control his public servants. Over the succeeding centuries it developed into a system similar to what we know today: Meritocracy replaced inherited privileges for the nobility, high salaries and pensions secured the loyalty of the public servants and a strong state ensured central control of the civil service across the country so officials acting against the law could be prosecuted. Most of it perceived as a matter of course today but it has actually taken countless years to establish the system, and not until 1860 did corruption in Denmark get under control.

»Any person who says he can eradicate corruption in a country or an organization in a day, a month or a year, I will call naïve or a liar. Overall there is no silver bullet and we must accept that the fight against corruption is a long and tough effort. I often compare it to the struggle for universal human rights, which were first accepted after a long time. Whether you count from the English Magna Carta in 1215, the French Revolution of 1789 or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights after the Second World War it took human rights at least more than 70 years plus to become more or less accepted globally as they are today. The fight against corruption first came on the international agenda 15-20 years ago, so no matter how you view the issue it's going to keep us busy for the years to come.«

According to Martin Kreutner the fight against corruption centred for a long time around only legislation and investigation of corruption cases. And that's one of the things IACA is set in the world to change. Prevention, education and international cooperation are the road ahead, and particularly training of professionals who actively fight corruption in most parts of the world are central. Martin Kreutner proudly emphasises that IACA is the first place in the world to offer a master in Anti-Corruption Studies. In addition to a bachelor degree it requires three years of relevant work experience to be admitted and the education is therefore targeted at employees in the private or public sector, international or non-governmental organizations, as well as media representatives and academics.

– Should the change in relation to corruption come from the top or bottom of society?

»There is no one correct answer to that question. A starting point is obviously a change in the top, but if it does not come the street may take over and create a revolutionary approach. Ultimately, however, it requires all to take part; reliability and sustainability are not very high if there is no change at the top, while lack of attention to the issue at the bottom means the top can try to change whatever they want but hardly anything will happen with lasting effect. So we need both ends if we are to go the evolutionary way.«

– What is most important in the education of people who fights corruption in Western countries compared with less developed countries?

»There are a number of common features such as good political and corporate governance as well as legal security, the rule of law. I think that the players in the fight against corruption in the developed world have reasonably good understanding of what good governance, democracy and so on is all about. Therefore I focus more on other elements: What is integrity and accountability, to what extent is the system of separation of powers a credible one, what is the difference between legitimacy and legality? In the sense that what is barely legal is not necessarily legitimate in a social contract, in a good governance context.«

He refers to the economic crisis. The hedge fund directors who contributed significantly to the crisis by speculating in ordinary people's mortgages got bonuses of billions of dollars a year. It was almost without doubt legal although some lawsuits have tried to place responsibility. However it is debatable whether it was legitimate. The same can be discussed in the case of Esben Lunde Larsen (V), who decided to put pressure on the Transport Authority to approve a wind farm project, which would give a profit of millions to his brother and father. Not necessarily illegal, but not necessarily legitimate either.

»This distinction is obviously too abstract for a citizen in a developing country where daily life is about survival, getting a decent job and secure necessary services from the state. So we have to argue differently. In that case it is more about drawing attention to what he or she can do not to be corrupted or be exposed to corruption when pulled over by a policeman or at the doctor. This is not as relevant to tell a Dane or German.«

The future may look bright

UN adopted the new Global Goals to be achieved by 2030 this September. And corruption is on the list: »Substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms«, in Goal sixteen (SDG 16). It's not quite as bombastic as »eradicate extreme poverty for all people everywhere,« but it is on the list. And that's the most important thing for Martin Kreutner who himself gave a speech at the UN General Assembly in New York when the targets were finalised and adopted. Nevertheless he does not describe himself as an optimist.

"I am a realist. There is no alternative to continuing the fight against corruption. Ask an average policeman why she is in the job, when there has been murder since Cain and Abel. She will probably recognise that there will be committed murders in the future but in spite of that she will still do her job as good as possible. And we must see it the same way. Therefore I am glad that the fight against corruption is explicitly included in one of the goals for the next fifteen years since the alternative is to do nothing. This means that no country can argue it is not an important issue or it is not on the global agenda. Look at target five of Goal 16. It is explicitly mentioned. It is on the global radar."

He quickly underlines that the United Nations is a multilateral forum. And when 193 Member States are to reach an agreement the number of compromises are dilutive for the content. Corruption must be viewed broader than the formulation all countries could agree on.

»We must not forget that the Global Goals – as I said in my speech in New York – will not be realized if we do not take the fight against corruption seriously. At the end of the day each of the specific objectives is in danger of being severely undermined by corruption. Whether it comes to reducing poverty, saving our environment, fighting crime or any of the other global goals. If we do not address corruption properly we risk failure.«

– Of course everybody say they are against corruption, but do you sense the will to change it is genuine? You know as well as I do that when you held the speech for UN, a good share of the audience were certainly corrupt. They have taken bribes the day before, two weeks before or twenty years before.

»Does everyone in the audience possess the will to reduce poverty, ensure gender equality or protect human rights? The answer will probably also be no. You'll never get everybody to join your agenda but by having them at the table you force them to confront themselves with the subject and the debate. And then you have already taken the first step. In addition, one should not forget that during the past two decades we have actually adopted binding international conventions on corruption, so at least we are starting to move.«

– In the countries where corruption is a major problem the willingness to change the situation among the country's leaders are probably not so great – after all their wealth came from somewhere. So when I say will I think of countries with an extreme degree of willingness to change the situation. Should they apply pressure to change the state of affairs? Should they do more? Sanctions for instance.

»There is already pressure. Not through sanctions, but through soft power between equal states. There was established a mutual control within the OECD countries by the end of the 1990s, the Council of Europe has established GRECO (Group of States Against Corruption), which monitors the fight against corruption in each European country, and – in similar vein - the UNCAC, the UN Convention against Corruption, is internationally binding. So yes, countries monitor each other to control whether the implementation of the international regulations is on schedule. I myself have been involved in such assessments as an expert in inter alia the UN, GRECO and OECD; I have also represented my own country when our corruption legislation was scrutinized. And believe me, on the basis of these reviews and reports politicians begin to discuss, debate starts in civil society and create pressure. So these mechanisms really have potential to bring change, gradually but steadily.«

Martin Kreutner accents the last sentence. He really believes in the system. Recently GRECO once again criticized Denmark for the legislation on party support that was described as »globally unsatisfactory« for the fourth consecutive year. Both the name of the backer and the amount of support can be hidden without major difficulties under the current law. Particularly Information has written about it, but also as different newspapers as BT and Berlingske has drawn attention to the critical review. Several parties are prepared to change the law and a political committee has even drafted concrete proposals for new legislation. So far the Venstre Government, however, refuses to support it. The soft power works partly but it still requires national goodwill if the situation should be changed. And it is being discussed.

»In some expert circles the feasibility of establishing an international corruption court modelled on the International Court of Justice in Hague is being discussed. I do not see it happening in the near future, but it is one direction in the debate. Others talk about the possibility of prosecuting corruption as a violation of human rights. It's an interesting point, but I do not think it will happen within the next month either. But it shows that there are areas where we deepen, expand and bring new dimensions into the fight against corruption.«

– Are there any threats to the fight against corruption in Europe?

»The greatest threat we face overall is the topic disappearing from the international agenda. To put it another way; we must ensure that it stays on the national and international radar. Particularly in the context of the UN Global Goals. The second issue, especially a risk in Europe, is that we fall back to the position we had a few years ago when the issue was considered to concern everybody else but not us. European countries must also worry about corruption.«

Last year the European Commission published a report showing that three out of four EU citizens considered corruption to be widespread in their country of origin; over half felt that it had increased over the last three years. A quarter were personally affected by corruption, and one in eight say they know someone who has taken bribes. Denmark is at the bottom of all the statistics, but the report clearly shows that the problem does not only exist in the Third World.

– Are we afraid to fight corruption in the Western world because it could reveal how big the problem is?

»To some extent we are still afraid because we thought we were immune. It follows a well-known psycho-sociological pattern: I am not the one who is corrupt. And if it is not me and you, then it must be the Italians, Greeks or Cypriots. Or even better the Africans or Asians. It is always comfortable to sit back and point fingers at others. But if we look at the numbers, we are talking about hundreds of billions of Euros that disappear each year in Europe. Think of what alternatively could be done for our societies with these resources?«