By U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Anthony Wayne Exclusive op-ed for El Universal newspaper – December 9, 2014
Imagine a city where the people have lost faith in the institutions of government, from politicians to police. Under a corrupt government, bribes are the norm and organized crime is allowed to flourish. Corruption is so pervasive that criminals do not fear arrest or prosecution as they know the cost of staying out of jail is whatever they have in their wallet. Politicians can be bought through bribery, allowing criminals to team-up with them and gain legal immunity. This was Chicago in the 1920s and 30s, the days of Al Capone. No city or country is immune from the ills of corruption. Thankfully, there are effective ways to fight corruption, and, today, we are addressing this issue internationally.
Corruption is not simply immoral. It is a crime that undermines economic and social development around the world. Corruption leads to weak governance, empowers organized criminal networks and winner-take-all politics, and can even aid terrorism—all of which are potential triggers of instability. It facilitates human rights abuses, hinders economic growth, and diverts much needed resources from health, education, or disaster relief efforts. Corruption gobbles up employment opportunities, discourages foreign investment, and decimates small businesses that cannot overcome the “start-up costs.” According to the World Bank, every year around the world $1 trillion is paid in bribes while an estimated $2.6 trillion is stolen annually through corruption, equivalent to more than 5 percent of global GDP. The OECD Foreign Bribery Report released on December 2 reports that “Bribes are being paid across sectors to officials from countries at all stages of economic development.”
The violence of the Chicago gang era culminated with the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on February 14, 1929. This triggered public demand for government intervention and led to numerous acts of Congress to help authorities enforce the law. When citizens demand progress, governments need to be able to respond.
While resilient institutions, a strong legal framework, accountability, and political will are all required to tackle corruption, the transparent disclosure of information is essential to reducing the risk of corruption. Three years ago, the United States, Mexico, and six other nations launched the Open Government Partnership (OGP) to work together, share best practices, and expand our efforts to employ transparency in the global fight against corruption. In just three short years, this partnership, driven by civil society, private sector and governments, has grown from eight nations to 65. This year, Mexico is chairing the group. Through OGP, more governments are partnering with civil society to find new ways to expose corruption and improve governance. This is not an easy task. As President Obama said at the Open Government Partnership Meeting in New York in September, “continuing this global fight against corruption has to remain a central focus in this partnership.”
Mexicans and Americans can inspire all countries participating in the Partnership to turn the OGP commitments we have made into real and meaningful action that improves the daily lives of our citizens. In the United States, we are working hard to make our government more accountable and more transparent. For example, we are modernizing our Freedom of Information Act process so that it’s easier to use. The upgraded website, USAspending.gov, will make it easier for Americans to access and understand how the federal government spends our tax dollars. The U.S. government is doing more to help people in other countries, especially students, access the incredible educational tools and resources available online and widely used in the United States. In the coming months, we intend to partner with American businesses to develop a national plan to promote responsible and transparent business conduct overseas. Much as Mexico has committed to join the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative in their OGP National Action Plan, we made the same commitment in 2012 and we were accepted as an EITI Candidate in March. We embrace the opportunity to work together with Mexico and other countries to ensure transparency and accountability in industries that can be especially vulnerable to corruption.
In my three plus years in Mexico, I have witnessed a country and its people capable of making enormous, difficult and positive changes, as is evident in the recent reforms. But for big transformations to succeed, effective institutions with functioning systems of checks-and-balances are necessary. Comprehensive reforms to end corruption and strengthen judicial systems will build citizens’ faith in government and justice.
Preventing and combating corruption requires a comprehensive approach and the participation of governments, the private sector, the media, civil society organizations and the general public. The United States has had and still has its share of challenges combating corruption. But we have come a long way since the days of Al Capone in Chicago, and we continue to strive to achieve a society free of corruption. On this International Anti-Corruption Day, let’s all join forces around the world to fight this crime and foster a culture of integrity, transparency, accountability and good governance.