An Economy Ruled By Corruption Cannot Survive

Transparency International just released its Global Corruption Barometer 2013, which draws on a survey of more than 114,000 respondents in 107 countries. It addresses people’s direct experiences with bribery and details their views on corruption in the main institutions in their countries. It also provides insights into people’s willingness to stop corruption.

The survey found that the three most corrupt nations were Afghanistan, North Korea and Somalia. No surprises here. China ranked 80th as the world’s least corrupt whereas the United States ranked 19th. This means there were 79 countries where the perception of corruption was less than in China and 18 countries where the perception of corruption was less than in the United States.

But before we celebrate, the survey found that 76 percent of people in the United States thought that political parties were affected by corruption. That’s not good for anyone.

America should be setting an example around the world about our sense of fair play. So how can our government preach free enterprise when our own people think its leaders are corrupt?

Corrupt government officials around the globe hoard money and force their people to live without opportunity. Workers toil in shameful conditions at heartbreakingly young ages. Natural resources are desecrated, human resources are pillaged and air and water are despoiled. The gulf between the haves and the have-nots grows ever wider.

I have followed Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer for many years, and I can attest that their survey of corruption is spot on.

I spent many years living in Asia where I experienced corruption firsthand. While working in Indonesia during the Suharto regime (President Haji Mohamed Suharto is said to have embezzled some $73 billion), I learned that in order to maintain a successful business presence, I needed to set aside my moral objections and play the game.

At the time, I was bidding on large commercial food-service equipment contracts. Those with whom I worked in the country told me several times that I needed to increase the pricing on these bids to accommodate members of the Suharto family. Suharto’s wife, Madame Tien Suharto, incidentally, was so monumentally corrupt that she earned the nickname “Madame 10 Percent,” in reference to how she skimmed money off the top of so many Indonesian transactions.

These payoffs sickened me because I knew I was playing into the cycle of corruption that generated the poverty I had witnessed as an impressionable young man on my first trip to Indonesia. Yet, I had to make my payroll. Such is the slippery slope on which U.S. exporters regularly find themselves.

I also did much work in the Philippines, where Ferdinand Marcos fell just short on the corruption competition, embezzling some $20 billion.

The pattern of corruption was repeated, and I found myself embroiled in shady currency manipulations that resulted in “commissions” to individuals with close ties to Marcos. This practice was so widespread that even the American government was powerless to intervene.

I no longer live in Asia, but from my offices in the United States, I continue to trade in Asia and countries around the world. I export U.S.-made food service equipment, and while I am continually coerced by corrupt officials, I have learned to withstand their siren’s song of graft.

I am not naive enough to believe that corruption will disappear. But I am calling on governments everywhere to stop the cycle of corruption that robs the average citizen of a secure future.

I am saddened that Afghanistan, where the United States has invested so much blood and treasure, has turned its back on American principles. Now as one the three most corrupt nations on earth, we have failed our responsibility to help that country recover not only militarily, but also economically.

I was disheartened to see that this year’s Global Corruption Barometer found that one in two persons thinks corruption has worsened in the last two years. But there is some hope since participants also firmly believe they can make a difference and have the will to take action against graft.

In fact, nearly nine out of 10 people surveyed said they would act against corruption and two-thirds of those who were asked to pay a bribe had refused, suggesting that governments, civil society and the business sector need to do more to engage people in thwarting corruption.

“Bribe paying levels remain very high worldwide, but people believe they have the power to stop corruption and the number of those willing to combat the abuse of power, secret dealings and bribery is significant, ” said Huguette Labelle, chair of Transparency International.

The United States must start by setting an example. It’s time to crack down on cronyism and pork barrel politics. It’s time to change our approach to trade — rewarding partners that are resisting corruption and punishing those that refuse to end the onerous practice of payoffs.

We must all adopt a mentality that we have a shared responsibility when it comes to stamping out corruption. I call it Conscientious Equity: conscientious, because it’s the right thing to do, and “equity,” because we all have ownership in doing the right thing.

The idea is there is a way for all good people to do business freely and fairly.

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