A Knowledge Imperative - Fighting corruption and safeguarding integrity
Corruption is not necessarily caused by poverty. By definition, and in general, the poor are so excluded from the levers of power that they do not have the possibility to extricate themselves out of poverty by corrupt means. Rather, in many instances, corruption serves as a sufficient condition for the further entrenchment of poverty, negating the potential for development. We know of many examples where corruption robs a large section of humanity of their right to homes, food, transport, education, health, clean water and many other essential services.
The incidence of corruption, especially as it occurs within the context of a global social order that deifies the personal acquisition of wealth regardless of the social cost, that advocates the creation of a world in which wealth, profit and conspicuous consumption are pursued by individuals and corporations at all costs, naturally raises the question whether [the English philosopher] Thomas Hobbes was not correct after all. But if he was, the question would arise: Is contemporary society therefore obliged to accept that to avoid a situation of “war of all against all,” it has no choice but to accept rule by benevolent dictators!...
In [Senegalese author and filmmaker] Ousmane Sembène’s well-known novel, God’s Bits of Wood, character Houdia M’Baye recalls the words of another character, Ramatoulaye, who said, “Real misfortune is not just a matter of being hungry and thirsty; it is a matter of knowing that there are people who want you to be hungry and thirsty—and that is the way it is with us.” Here Ousmane Sembène is pointing to the relationship between poverty and power, and the conscious abuse of power for personal enrichment at the expense of the powerless. For Sembène, there are people and, by extension, systems and institutions, whose existence and success is predicated on the deprivation of another, as a consequence of which Ramatoulaye said, “that is the way it is with us.”
In this setting, corruption becomes the way it is with us. Thus the knowledge that there are others who intend that others should be poor becomes even more painful than the resultant poverty, which constitutes the “real misfortune” that Ramatoulaye decried. The real misfortune lies in the fact that “there are people [in positions of power] who want [others] to be hungry and thirsty,” whose apparently unstoppable actions distort and pervert the very essence of what it means to be human…
We have gathered here today from all corners of the globe because together we understand the simple and obvious fact that corruption benefits the few and harms the majority. It is inimical to pro-poor sustainable growth and development. It distorts human values, exacerbates market inefficiencies, undermines democracy, its institutions and ethos, engenders citizen frustration with elected and appointed officials, seriously erodes confidence in the process of governance and is detrimental to the effective and efficient delivery of goods and services to those most in need. The corollary of this central thesis is that any anticorruption strategy and the necessary anticorruption instruments, while obviously absolutely necessary, must not be seen as ends in themselves. They must be firmly located within a development and antipoverty discourse that promotes citizen engagement, a people’s contract that binds the democratic state to the citizenry and promotes the values of human solidarity and public accountability…
Corruption is a multifaceted, systemic and institutional global phenomenon involving all sectors of human society. It takes a variety of forms, including theft, fraud, bribery, extortion, nepotism, patronage and the laundering of illicit proceeds. Corruption exists in both developed and developing countries and destroys the positive value systems of all societies and institutions. It replaces the concept and practice of human solidarity with the unfettered pursuit of individual gain, grafted onto the imperatives prescribed by free market ideology. It emasculates development and democracy and undermines the fight against poverty by diverting key resources away from programs designed to improve the quality of life especially of the poor, globally.
As an affirmation of our resolve to defeat corruption and its outcomes, we must work together to deal with market-related and market-induced inequalities. We must provide equality of opportunity to all our citizens. We must work to develop social cohesion. We must promote peace and stability in our countries, as well as regionally and globally.
Thabo Mbeki is the president of South Africa. The above remarks are excerpts of his speech at the opening ceremony of the UN Global Forum: Fighting Corruption and Safeguarding Integrity, on April 2, 2007.
By Thabo Mbeki