Outlawing a World of Bribery
12 March 2000

An OECD treaty aims to put an end to the international culture of backhanders. Peter Eigen, founder of the anti-corruption body Transparency International, was a moving spirit behind it.A breakthrough in the war against grand corruption in international business was achieved in February 1999. That month, industrialized countries, representing over 60 per cent of the world's export trade, ratified a convention to outlaw 'offshore' bribery, drawn up by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris.

The treaty aims to ban 'the bribery of foreign public officials in international business transactions'. Thirty-four nations have signed it, committing their parliaments to put the necessary legislation into place. No longer will Western businessmen, and their shadowy middlemen, armed with contracts for prestigeous development projects and hidden slush funds, get away with greasing the palms of government ministers and their officials throughout the developing world.

At least that is the theory. But will the convention put an end to graft, baksheesh, venality in high places, and the salting away of millions of dollars into unnamed Swiss bank accounts?

Much will depend on how the laws passed by the major trading nations, including the USA, Germany and Japan, are policed. There was concern, for instance, that the UK's existing corruption laws, dating back to 1906, were not effective in prosecuting offences committed abroad. The OECD has set in train 'peer reviews', modelled on earlier OECD agreements to monitor money laundering and drug trafficking. Typically, teams from three governments look at the way a fourth government is implementing its new law.

Until now, America has been the only nation which outlawed the bribery of foreign officials. The USA's Foreign Corrupt Practices Act was passed in 1977, during the Jimmy Carter administration, following the Lockheed Aircraft scandal in Japan. US companies which break the law are liable to fines of up to $2 million per violation and individuals up to $100,000 and imprisonment for up to five years.

Not every American businessman has become a paragon since then. But there is broad agreement that the law has affected behaviour. General Electric, for instance, paid a hefty fine, and sacked a number of its managers, following a bribes scandal over defence supplies to the Israeli airforce.

Now America is no longer going it alone. As well as the OECD convention, the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Organization of America States and the World Bank have all reviewed their regulatory procedures to eliminate bribery. Till now it was even tax deductible as a legitimate business expense in 11 OECD countries.

Much of the drive to get the business world and its illicit 'benefactors' to clean up their act has come from the Berlin-based non-profit organization, Transparency International, founded in 1993 by a former World Bank executive, Peter Eigen. He was the bank's Resident Director in East Africa but was so appalled by the sheer wastage of resources on inappropriate development projects that he took early retirement to launch TI.

Transparency, which now has national chapters in 77 countries, has been credited as a major influence in framing the OECD convention as well as on the culture of the World Bank where its President, James Wolfensohn, has also declared war on corruption. TI will take part in monitoring the OECD convention.

'We must use every fibre of our energy to wage this fight if we are to contribute to a more humane world,' Eigen told the 1999 Caux Conference for Business and Industry in Switzerland. 'Corruption undermines good government, distorts public policy, leads to misallocation of resources and harms the private sector but, above all, it hurts those who can least afford it.' Corruption particularly flourished in the arms trade because of its culture of secrecy, he added.

Eigen was based in Kenya from 1989-91, in charge of donor co-ordination for the World Bank. His work involved rejecting projects of little economic value or which were harmful to the environment and climate. Yet too often they would return 'through the back door, driven by an unholy alliance between the suppliers and local decision makers who received large bribes put into their Swiss bank accounts', Eigen says. Some projects would be up to 50 per cent more expensive than those 'better for the economy and better for the people'.

When the World Bank wanted to support a $40 million project to rebuild a pipeline for water-starved Mombasa, foreign firms lobbied Nairobi for a more expensive new pipeline to carry water 200 kilometres to the city.

The 'all pervasive' nature of such corruption has 'an absolutely devastating effect' on development, says Eigen, a lawyer who joined the World Bank with the ideal of 'working for the development of poor countries and for peace'. The feeling that his life's work was being destroyed and undermined by corruption 'made me furious', he says.

Prior to his Kenya post, Eigen was a division chief for the World Bank in Latin America. In those days, the bank accepted corruption 'as an unchangeable, inevitable fact of life'--the problem of its partner countries rather than the bank itself, he says. While the bank had explicit procurement procedures for goods and services, 'we washed our hands of corruption' and could only act if a court of law in the country concerned had determined wrongdoing. The bank was not able to take action, for instance, in Zaire when it knew that a high official in the Ministry of Transport had demanded bribes to falsify licence documents.

Now the bank is much more proactive in tackling 'grand corruption' or what it tersely describes as 'the abuse of public office for private gain'. It published its report, Helping countries combat corruption, in 1997 and is ready to place conditionality--once a dirty word in development circles--on aid schemes.

The problem lies in trade not just with developing countries, with their 'relatively fragile' political and legal systems, Eigen continues, but also with some former Soviet bloc nations where a cowboy culture prevails and 'the legal system is still patchy'.

Each year, TI publishes its 'corruption perception index' of the world's potentially most corrupt nations, collated from a range of independent studies. Nigerians howled when their country was at the top of the list in 1996. More recently it was Cameroon. Denmark is seen as the least corrupt of the 85 nations studied. Eigen describes the index as a 'wake up call' to political leaders to confront corruption. But he is also careful to point out that the list is only an index of perception, rather than fact, and far from the whole picture. Data on too many countries are not available. And, he says, some developing countries would be seen as far less corrupt were it not for the graft encouraged by companies based in the industrialized countries.

'There are too many cases when the initiative for corruption comes from the Northern middlemen,' Eigen says. 'They are well known. They sit around in the capitals and on the golf courses; they offer to get ministers' children into Oxford and Harvard. [British businessman] Tiny Rowland admitted as much.' During a court battle he said he needed millions of pounds to maintain his relationship with the first families of African countries.

TI also publishes a separate bribe-payers index to 'shine the light' on countries where bribe-paying corporations base. In 1999 TI ranked the 19 leading exporting countries by the degree to which their private-sector companies were perceived to be paying bribes to senior public officials. Seimen's telecommunications arm, for instance, was banned for five years from any public contracts in Singapore, after paying millions of dollars in bribes to a local utilities official.

China headed this index while Sweden was seen as the least corrupt. This was despite the Bofors scandal, in which the Swedish field gun manufacturer paid huge bribes to Congress politicians in India in order to secure a $1.3 billion contract. Though Sweden doesn't rate well in India, the Swedes are well regarded throughout Africa, says George Moody-Stuart of TI's UK chapter. The Bofors scandal 'was a pretty uncharacteristic event for Sweden. It was a great shock for Swedes'.

In this index, Britain was the seventh least corrupt country. British businessmen were seen as less corrupt than their German, American or French counterparts, but more corrupt than those from Australia, Canada, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands. Russia did not feature because it is not a major exporter.

Tackling these rich countries is far more difficult than the bribe-takers in developing countries, Eigen asserts. 'Any suggestion of Western moral superiority has rightly evaporated.' He sees hope in 'a new generation of leaders in the South who have understood that corruption is destroying them'. After all, what is the use of a corrupt minister holding office for two or three years, only to be thrown out again by the voters 'because everybody thinks he has enriched himself through bribes'? Meanwhile the poorest of the poor suffer the most from the effects of lost investment.

Moody-Stuart, author of Grand Corruption, believes the OECD convention strengthens the hand of Western business people who might have had a conflict of interest between their moral scruples and their 'duty' towards their companies. 'Most businessmen don't want to break the law when they know what the law is,' he says. 'They will not risk going to jail.'

TI also advocates 'integrity pacts' whereby competing companies bidding for a contract and the government concerned sign an agreement not to indulge in graft. This has worked well in Argentina, Panama and Ecuador, where a petroleum refinery was rehabilitated in 1994 under a contract secured by bidding controlled this way. TI wants all donor bodies to introduce the concept and is helping the World Bank to do so in six African countries.

No one suggests that corruption will be totally eliminated. Some public employees in developing countries are so poorly paid that 'gratuities' are endemic as a means of family survival. But it is the large scale corruption, involving heads of state and government ministers, which outrages Eigen. 'These are some of the richest people in the world, and they don't even know what to do with their wealth.'

A man of evident integrity himself, Eigen, who takes no salary from TI, says he has 'strong convictions about what is fair and good'. He draws particular strength from his wife, Jutta, a medical doctor who spends eight weeks each year in Third World clinics. 'She believes that one's life has to be driven by values rather attempts to make money,' he says. e-mail:

First published in Sunday Business, London, 7 February 1999, and in For A Change magazine, February/March 1999. See also 'Call to step up fight on offshore bribery', by Michael Smith, Sunday Business, London, 29 August 1999; 'Building voted world's most corrupt trade', Sunday Business, London, 13 February 2000.

Unless stated otherwise, all content on this site falls under the terms of the Creative Commons Licence 3.0