Tackling Corruption: Empowering Citizens To Hold Their Governments Accountable

February 1, 2016
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks at the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Last month, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Secretary of State John Kerry reaffirmed the United States commitment to tackling corruption, and called on partners to make this a first order, national security priority. Secretary Kerry said, “Corruption is a social danger because it feeds organized crime; it destroys nation-states; it imperils opportunities, particularly for women and girls; it facilitates environmental degradation; contributes to human trafficking; and undermines whole communities…Corruption is a radicalizer because it destroys faith in legitimate authority.” 

Left unaddressed, corruption ruins lives, and it ruins countries. This is why the United States is pressing forward on reforms in places like Ukraine, Guatemala, and Kenya to fight corruption, and it is why we are working to expand civil society's role to empower citizens to hold their governments accountable. We are also joining with G7 and G20 partners to highlight our collective fight against corruption this year. 

As Secretary Kerry noted, corruption is not a new problem, and it is not a problem of only one country, one people, or one sector of society. Corruption is prevalent, persistent, and, as Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index makes clear, a growing challenge. It impacts the everyday life of citizens, some of whom are coerced to pay bribes for basic governmental services or extorted during traffic stops. Over time, corruption is corrosive; it undermines citizens' faith in their governments, reduces economic competitiveness, and contributes to an environment that allows violent criminals and terrorists to thrive. 

Corruption costs the global economy an estimated $2.6 trillion each year. That oft-cited figure cannot be ignored, and individual countries cannot address it alone: we must fight against graft and illicit behavior together at the local, national, and global level.

However, anticorruption policies are only as good as their enforcement, and citizens’ willingness to hold their governments accountable. This is why U.S. assistance goes to a broad range of sectors and needs, and focuses not just on good governance, but also on preventing the drivers and enablers of corruption. 

In fiscal year 2015, the State Department and USAID dedicated over $120 million to foreign assistance programming to fight corruption globally, and this goes to a wide range of effective programs. This assistance helps governments develop electronic systems – typically less prone to corruption – for basic government services like vaccines and identification documents; supports capacity building of law enforcement, prosecutors, and the judiciary; bolsters our efforts to mentor parliamentarians to implement key legislation, and dozens of other effective programs. The United States also supports key international mechanisms, such as the UN Convention against Corruption and the Inter-American Convention against Corruption, which also enable us to hold countries accountable in implementing their commitments to international anti-corruption standards. 

While the United States is not exempt from the global scourge of corruption, we are leading by example through the continued implementation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, denying the entry of corrupt foreign officials into the United States, and targeting perpetrators of corruption and their ill-gotten gains both domestically and around the world. The U.S. Department of State and my office within it, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, will also continue our extensive work strengthening justice systems, training law enforcement, and building institutions with partners committed to reducing widespread corruption within their own countries. Ensuring good governance and ethical and just societies is a challenge we cannot afford to ignore; it is a fight we must wage both within our borders and alongside our international partners to counter its threats to our global growth, stability, and our future.

About the Author: William R. Brownfield serves as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.

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