Global corruption is like smoking; here’s how to quit

Last week, the Danish newspaper Politiken reported that the Danish government will pay £1million to obtain secret financial information on its citizens that was gathered as part of the ‘Panama Papers’ scoop.

The information will help them uncover corruption, tax evasion and money laundering – surely in the interests of justice? Yet the move was controversial. The information had originally been stolen from a major offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca. Is it ever acceptable for a government to buy stolen goods, some asked?

One thing is for sure: the Panama Papers have focused worldwide attention on the problem of global corruption. They revealed that corrupt practices are not just a dirty habit of poor countries, but are widely practiced in wealthy countries too – and by their wealthiest members. It is not somebody else’s problem; it is all of ours.

In my teaching, I often compare corruption to tobacco. For many years, it was common knowledge that smoking caused cancer: the US Surgeon General publicly said so in 1964. And yet smoking remained fashionable, people continued to take it up in great numbers, governments failed to legislate, and companies did not change their practices.

Growing up in the 1980s, I cast around for explanations. Maybe the addictive properties of tobacco were to blame. Maybe human nature was too weak to resist. Perhaps governments had a vested interest in tobacco tax revenues. Or the tobacco lobby was simply too powerful?

The same kinds of explanations are often given for why corruption persists: Human nature? Culture? Vested interests?

But on tobacco, huge progress has been made. In many countries, governments have legislated against smoking in public places, fewer individuals take up smoking, and smokers are stigmatised rather than admired. Admittedly, laws are not always implemented and tobacco companies still see some developing countries as growth markets. But the trend, as my children grow up, looks radically different.

What are the lessons for the fight against corruption, or for achieving social and political change more broadly?

For the anti-smoking lobby, an important shift occurred when they started to highlight the effects of passive smoking. No longer was smoking just the problem of smokers; it was harming innocents – children, co-workers, even other patients in hospitals.

The world is beginning to wake up to the fact that corruption too is not a victimless crime. But anti-corruption campaigners must keep demonstrating the myriad harms that corruption causes. At the macro level, these are about retarding growth, exacerbating inequality, undermining the rule of law. For individual victims, corruption means being denied access to jobs or school places, watching your business collapse because you don’t have the right connections, or being unjustly punished for a crime you didn’t commit.

Anti-corruption campaigners also need to build constituencies. In the case of smoking, framing the problem as passive smoking meant that healthcare workers got involved, as did employees of bars and restaurants, so too parents – adding their voices to those of more obvious victims. This in turn motivated some employers to ban smoking, and forced governments to accept their responsibilities to protect vulnerable groups.

To fight corruption, too, we must involve as many stakeholders as possible. Force lawyers and real estate agents to admit their complicity in corruption – when they facilitate or turn a blind eye to money laundering. Remind people that the costs fall on them too: through soaring London house prices as corrupt tycoons buy up property, or shoddy public services as corrupt companies win contracts. And urge people to use their power to challenge corruption wherever they see it.

The Panama Papers investigation was a remarkable piece of journalism, but it was also a pioneering work of global political activism. Its effects are only just starting to be felt…

Liz David-Barrett



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