Every year, over $1 trillion is stolen from the people of the world’s poorest countries through corruption. It’s an unimaginable amount of money.  In fact, if you tried to count a trillion US Dollars, Dollar by Dollar, it would take you over 30 000 years.

Corruption threatens the health, welfare and security of the people affected by it. It weakens democracy, erodes trust, hampers economic development and further exacerbates poverty, inequality, poverty, social division and the environmental crisis.

And yet, if you’re not personally affected by corruption, why should you care?

Well, for a lot of reasons, actually.

Corruption erodes our trust in government and undermines the social contract. This is not only a cause for concern for those living in corrupt societies. Ramifications echo across the globe, as corruption not only fuels, but also perpetuates, the inequalities and discontent that lead to conflict and violent extremism.

Corruption also limits investment, and this affects overall growth, prosperity and job creation. Those countries with a firm grip on corruption attract more investment and consequently grow more quickly.

One of the (very) few good things to come out of the Covid-19 crisis – in South Africa, at least – is that it has finally forced the government into taking some kind of visible action against corruption. It was difficult to ignore the nationwide outrage when reports emerged that almost R450 billion in funds earmarked for our Covid-19 response had been stolen.

Something not only had to be done, but it had to be seen to be done.

But what? This is the $1 trillion question.

The problem is, in countries such as South Africa that are faced with systemic corruption, businesses face a “prisoner’s dilemma.” In other words, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you don’t jump on the bribery and corruption bandwagon, your competitor will. So, which do you sacrifice – your principles or your bottom line?

In an article for The Ethics Institute’s monthly newsletter, Prof Leon van Vuuren writes, “You cannot fight corruption by fighting corruption.” He goes on to say, “Billions are thrown at the problem. Countless conferences, forums and thinktanks are arranged to discuss ways of fighting corruption. Practically though, the talk is diluted as soon as it leaves the forum room, as there may be structural inadequacies, or a lack of courage and competence, to implement any solutions generated.

“When you fight corruption, it fights back. Laws that allow forms of secrecy are promulgated. Hindrances are put in the way of those appointed to monitor and audit corruption. Even the Auditor-General is handicapped, and control over the Public Prosecutor ensures an easy ride into the sunset of corruption. Whistle-blowers are victimised and persecuted for being disloyal or jealous of those ‘lucky’ enough to enrich themselves. And, of course, they often pay with their lives.”

So, what can we do?

Logic tells us that fighting corruption does not actually have to be that hard.

Most people, for example, would quickly stop stealing if they weren’t allowed to keep their stolen property. And if it wasn’t so easy for corrupt officials to launder their embezzled loot in dark corners of the world, they’d think twice before embezzling it in the first place.

Like a parent chasing monsters out of their child’s darkened bedroom, our greatest weapon in the fight against corruption is light. Let’s open the curtains and switch on our brightest overhead lighting. We need to see where the money is coming from and how it’s being diverted from where it should be going. We need to expose those who prefer to operate under cover of darkness.

Prof Van Vuuren makes these suggestions:

  • Collective action is needed to build healthy ethical cultures.
  • Transparent communication – the money trails for funds designated for specific application or distribution should be communicated openly and transparently in the routes where the money flows.
  • Legitimate agents: When money is disbursed it should be done under conditions of strict monitoring, auditing, and reporting – this should apply to all public spending and donor funding.
  • Education: the public should continuously be educated, in simple terms, about what corruption is, and why it is wrong. Our citizens must be empowered to ask questions if they feel something isn’t right.
  • Naming and shaming: Those who commit corruption steal from the people. Continuous public exposure of such individuals and groups should become standard practice. Taxpayers have a right to know how responsibly, or not, their money is being spent.
  • Visible sanctions: Transparent, consistent, decisive, and swift punishment of transgressors remains an effective way of preventing corruption.
  • Rewarding of whistle-blowers.
  • Media contribution: Shift the focal points of respect from revering those who ‘have’ to commending those who are honest. Create a culture where critical thinkers are not labelled as “coconuts” or “racists.”

We cannot hope to ever stop all people in positions of leadership and authority from being dishonest, but we can have a jolly good stab at making it more difficult for them.