Corruption is an unparalleled threat to democracy and prosperity that costs the global economy as much as $2 trillion a year, and it will require the approach of a marathon rather than a sprint to eradicate the scourge, according to William Brownfield, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement. Victories like the current transformation of Ukrainian traffic police from reviled bribe takers to respected public servants give citizens the kind of hope needed to fortify them through the long, tough process of reform.

Kyiv Patrol Police Oath Ceremony, July 4, 2015
Photo courtesy of Flickr/U.S. Embassy Kyiv Ukraine

The corrosive effects of corruption can undermine entire societies, Brownfield said in a Dec. 10 event at the U.S. Institute of Peace. By weakening effective government, draining wealth, breeding discontent and destroying the investment climate, corruption plays a key role in spawning dangerous, unstable environments around the world.

“There is no greater corrosive threat to democracy and prosperity throughout the human race than corruption,” Brownfield said.

The examples run from Nigeria, where new President Muhammadu Buhari has called the fight against corruption a matter of the country’s survival, to Tunisia, where the self-immolation of a street vendor shaken down by police was a trigger for the country’s 2011 revolution.

Yet Ukraine, where the systematic looting of the state by a corrupt elite helped spark  protests that evolved into a revolution, provides a case study in the challenges of turning around deeply corrupt institutions. What’s needed is a push from civil society and political leadership that’s willing to stand up for change, Brownfield said. The Ukraine-focused panel discussion marked the United Nations-designated International Anti-Corruption Day. Brownfield has served as U.S. ambassador to Venezuela, Colombia and Chile.

"There is no greater corrosive threat to democracy and prosperity throughout the human race than corruption." -- U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield

With support from Brownfield’s bureau, Ukraine recruited a fresh patrol force in the country’s four largest cities, rebuilding it from scratch to eradicate the bribe-taking culture that dominated law enforcement. Civil society representatives were deeply involved in vetting the new recruits. In stark contrast to the former police, Brownfield said, the new force commands public approval ratings of 85 percent. Ukrainians now routinely stop to have their pictures taken with officers, 27 percent of whom are women.

Assets, Investigations

While that is far from the end of the anti-corruption story for Ukraine, the traffic patrol overhaul has fired up the public’s belief in – and demand for – more honest government, he said. That made U.S. support for anti-corruption in Ukraine perhaps “the best $25 million the American people have ever spent on any foreign assistance program,” he said.

Other anti-corruption strides in Ukraine include a new requirement that officials declare assets such as cars and houses on a publicly available database, said Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre in Kyiv, the country’s capital. That information has enabled investigative journalists to highlight cases where salaries of public officials are wholly at odds with their reported wealth.  

But the anti-corruption push has its limits, Kaleniuk said. While information on corruption is now widely available, the Prosecutor General’s Office is failing to bring cases. To date, Kaleniuk said, despite massive evidence of malfeasance, no charges have been filed against any official from the era of former President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled Ukraine in February 2014 after four years in office.

Post-independence Ukraine’s judicial system has been a “supermarket” where those with money and political influence arrange to open or close cases to protect their interests, and much of this system remains in place, Kaleniuk said. She alleged that the current prosecutor general, who serves at the pleasure of President Petro Poroshenko, is “very corrupt.” Poroshenko wants to keep control of the prosecutor’s office as a powerful tool in dealing with oligarchs and political opponents, she said.

As with the patrol police, the best way to deal with the question of prosecutions would be to build new, uncompromised bodies essentially from scratch, Kaleniuk said. For that reason, she and other civil society activists pushed hard – and successfully -- for the establishment of a national anti-corruption bureau with independent prosecutorial powers.

Public Videos of Job Interviews

Poroshenko had a favored candidate to head the bureau, but civil society groups pushed back, supporting a more neutral choice — and they won. The bureau now has its first 70 detectives in place, selected in a transparent process with extensive input from civil society. Indeed, the hiring procedure was so transparent that videos of the interviews of potential recruits were posted online for public viewing.

The primary drivers for anti-corruption reform in Ukraine have been civil society and Western donors, Kaleniuk said. To bolster those efforts, Western partners must do a better job of tracking and blocking the proceeds of corruption held in the West, she said. This sends the signal to corrupt officials that while they may enjoy impunity at home, they do not have it abroad. Kaleniuk cited the case of a prominent legislator and close ally of current Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk who is under investigation in Switzerland for money laundering.   

Elizabeth Andersen, director of the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative, also highlighted the need to “follow the money” in combatting corruption. She underscored the importance of tools such as the global Financial Action Task Force and the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in turning up the heat on corrupt actors and their enablers. The bar association’s initiative to develop the rule of law conducts a range of programs in some 60 countries around the world.      

James Cohen, an anti-corruption expert in USIP’s rule of law program, emphasized the role of corruption as a driver of conflict. Corruption weakens the professionalism of security forces and fosters grievances among the citizenry, which can boil over into violence. He noted that corruption in Tunisia and Mali had been a critical factor in pushing those states to the breaking point. Corruption in the military and security sectors is more difficult to spot because of less transparency in budgeting and operations, he said. Civil society must nonetheless push for access to information, he added.  

Corruption is a global plague for which there’s no easy cure, the panelists agreed. The treatment, as Ukrainians have shown, must begin with concerted effort and political will. Failure to attack this disease risks more than just criminal behavior and economic loss: corruption, for many fragile states, can be a matter of life or death.

Any views expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Government.

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