Fighting Corruption with Cobus de Swardt

Fighting Corruption with Cobus de Swardt

Cobus de SwardtDr Cobus de Swardt

Ernest Raetz:

Welcome to the La Trobe University Podcast. Today, we have with us Cobus de Swardt , Managing Director of Transparency International, a La Trobe University PhD graduate in Globalization, and Adjunct Professor Peter Loney, a former state member of Parliament who now heads the University’s Public Sector Governance and Accountability Research Center. First, Dr. de Swardt. Most people have heard of Amnesty International but can you just briefly explain to us what is Transparency International?

Cobus de Swardt:

Thank you very much for having me. We are the world’s largest anti-corruption NGO. We have national chapters in 98 countries around the world including a small but growing chapter in Australia. We fight corruption, and we fight corruption because we believe that it is a major impediment to have a world of social justice; and we are funded from governments, from the private sector, from foundations and a small amount currently from the public at large.

Our key philosophy is that we build coalitions between governments, private sector and civil society because we believe that it is important that our particular brand of advocacy – namely critical but strategic engagement of all stakeholders – is essential in order to advance our particular cause, mainly to make a significant impact in reducing corruption around the world.

Ernest Raetz:

What are the main types of corruption that concern you? Where are the biggest problems that - any particular regions that you’re concerned about?

Cobus de Swardt:

No, I think it’s firstly important to note that corruption is a truly global phenomenon and that whilst certain countries and the public sectors in certain countries most definitely have more problems than others, no country in the world can stand satisfied; and even the current financial crisis on a daily basis reminds us about the global dimensions of corruption as we see illicit financial flows moving between financial centres; between rich and rich, poor and rich, poor and poor countries. And in so far our work is to establish internationally, legal framework to deal with corruption, and particularly transnational corruption, and there the United Nations Convention Against Corruption is a critical instrument. And then on a national level, to tackle the various forms of corruption as seen by our national chapters who are all independently registered NGOs in the countries where they operate, where their priorities lie in. Those vary from country to country.

Ernest Raetz:

You mentioned global financial crisis. Has that sort of weakened the moral authority of the West in this fight against corruption elsewhere?

Cobus de Swardt:

Well, I think that to weaken your moral authority, you first have to have moral authority. And surely, the moral authority of several countries to fight corruption have been weakened long before the global financial crisis. When the UK Government decided to stop an investigation on the British Aerospace case, the moral authority of the British Government to speak out in corruption was surely damaged in many parts of the world. So having said that, clearly this current crisis has put the issues of transparency and accountability into the spotlight.

We are seriously concerned that whilst 9, 10 months ago, everybody was acknowledging that, that was on the front burner. Later on, we saw demands for reform of the global financial architecture; and thirdly, came bailout and stimulus packages.

Right now, that order is being reversed and we are seriously concerned that in, for example, the G20 process, the focus and concern about how the poorest of the world are being affected by this current crisis has not been receiving sufficient attention and that undermines moral authority of the G20. And as you know, that includes not only western government.

Ernest Raetz:

Can you give us some examples of corruption? What exactly constitutes corruption? I mean is it as blatant as obviously as pocketing large sections of taxpayer’s funding and in other times, it might be a matter of seeking a slight commercial advantage in this globalized trading world? Can you give us some examples of the sort of things that you’re looking at?

Cobus de Swardt:

Well, the examples that you gave are both corruption and whether you seek a slight advantage, if you do that for improper means, that’s corruption.

We define corruption as abuse of entrusted power for private gain and that you can of course apply to many spheres of life. What is important is that we realize that all countries have some problems. The private sector has got its challenges and so does the NGO sector. So it manifests itself differently in different parts of the world. But generally speaking, it is not rocket science.

We spoke earlier about the current case happening in the last few days with British Parliamentarians. I don’t think that we need to be a forensic expert to ask serious questions whether this was slightly improper. I think that a number of these issues are pretty cut and dry and it is amazing to sometimes see people that might have PhDs in ethics that don’t understand the basics of how to fill in a form that is not fraudulent.

And so, I think that one should be very careful not to make this more complex than what it is, and that goes for both analyses of the problem, as well as the solutions. Most of the successful examples of fighting corruption are all embedded with two principles that you really push the issue of transparency and that you have public accountability. I’ll give you one brief example.

A few years ago, less than 20 % of the allocated budget to Ugandan schools arrived at the school door. And the Ugandans then did something very simple, they just published at the notice board of each school the amount of money allocated for the central budget to that school; nothing more. They didn’t hire consultants, forensic auditors; they just published it and within the space of 12 months the amounts arriving in those schools increased from less than 20% to close to 90%. Suddenly, the leakages just seem to evaporate because ordinary citizens were empowered to ask questions, and without a drive for public accountability, you will not win the battle against corruption.

Ernest Raetz:

So your work is about empowering people in order to solve some of these problems, and also is there an educational aspect to this? Is that what brings you to Australia? And there’s also government legislation of course too…?

Cobus de Swardt:

Firstly, one has to realize that 20 years ago, there was not widespread political will to fight corruption. There was virtually no international institutions, the legal framework was weak internationally, as well as nationally. So that had to be put in place.

We’ve made important strikes against that. It is now a second wave of fighting corruption and that, I believe, can only be sustained through empowering citizens at large. We would like to see from an international perspective, Australia to be stronger involved with the United Nations Convention against Corruption. This is something, as all initiatives, where leadership from the top and a strong political will that sends a message, and we believe that Australia can be more vocal in their support for review mechanisms.

This instrument is truly a landmark in so far that if it can deliver on its promise, will create a level plain field for businesses around the world. And the beneficiaries will be governments, the private sector, as well as people around the world. And we believe that the Australian Government can be stronger in this approach, can be more vocal, should be, and particularly given that the conference of state parties at the end of this year in Qatar will be a critical one, which we might not be able to revisit for a few years, a stronger voice from the Australian Government there would be very much encouraged.

Ernest Raetz:

What can universities do or teach in relation to the sort of problems you’ve outlined?

Cobus de Swardt:

I think that – when we think a little bit back – what has changed over the last couple of years and what have we learned from that, one thing that has changed is that behaviour that was acceptable 10 years ago, 15 years ago, 20 years ago no longer acceptable.

In many parts of the world 20 years ago, when lawyers didn’t fill in their tax forms exactly to 100% accuracy. People would say, “Well, you’re just doing a little bit of your duty, not a diligently as you should.” As recently as 10 years ago, it was acceptable in many countries around the world to take bribes paid abroad off your tax.

There’s a changed environment and this has a lot to do with people also being educated about the effects of corruption and about ethics that underpin how we live and how we do business in the business community. Businesses today appreciate immensely the value of having an organization driven by strong organizational values; universities know that organizational culture matters.

And for business schools and universities at large to teach that kind of value-based education is surely something which we would welcome. And that is to link in to the earlier point not teaching anti-corruption because if you were to ask the thousands of TI activists around the world, very few of them were born to fight corruption.

It is a struggle for social justice that drives us, and that means that we have to make the level of what is acceptable behaviour in a society, we have to increasingly lift that bar. And I think universities can play an important part in that regard.

Ernest Raetz:

That brings us now to Peter Loney. Can you tell us a little bit about the work of your centre and how the sort of things that’ve just been outlined fit with what we’ve been doing here at La Trobe?

Peter Loney:

And it’s about, from a legislative point of view, from within the legislature, shining a spotlight on the practices and procedures of the public sector. So that if anybody is behaving inappropriately or corruptly, they are likely to be exposed.

Ernest Raetz:

And you help legislatures achieve those sort of aims?

Peter Loney:

Yes and we work in partnership with World Bank Institute, Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, Centre for Democratic Institutions, Parliamentary Centre of Canada, more recently, as I’ve said, Transparency International Australia, in programs that train legislators, audit officers, auditor generals attend our programs; parliamentary staff attend our programs; the fact that Cobus is here actually gives the opportunity in many ways to take it to a wider audience than we’ve had previously.

Ernest Raetz:

Cobus de Swardt, Managing Director of Transparency International and Adjunct Professor Peter Loney. Thank you very much.