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Town Hall
En Espanol

Keynote Address By Al Gore
Global Forum on Fighting Corruption
Washington, DC

Wednesday, February 24, 1999

Once in a rare while, the cycles of time present us with what historians call an open moment—when some combination of luck and circumstance allow us the chance to choose a better future. We are in such a moment. We have the chance now to draw on our oldest ethical values, our strongest democratic principles, and our newest tools and technologies, to do a better job than any people before us in creating a world that is not just better off, but better—for all who inhabit the earth.

In the Old Testament, Moses teaches the people of Israel: "Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the righteous."

Some thousand years later, Confucius found in China a corrupt government, and began to set the high moral standards he believed would make for a more harmonious society.

Some thousand years after that, the Koran says: "O my people! Give full measure and full weight in justice . . . And do not evil in the earth, causing corruption."

Corruption is an old affliction, and no corruption is more damaging than the corruption that is the focus of this conference: corruption among justice and security officials, those pledged to uphold the law. In the information age, the speed of information, the movement of capital, the increase of trade have all magnified the potential impact of official corruption.

Official corruption can speed environmental destruction, accelerate the drug trade, even encourage the smuggling of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons materials. Economically, corruption represents an arbitrary, exorbitant tax. It can lead to wasteful government spending, bigger deficits, greater income inequality, and a crisis of confidence that can spark capital flight, crash the economy, destabilize governments, and put people half way around the world out of work.

While the debate can rage all night about the precise role of corruption in the global financial crisis, there can be no serious doubt that the crisis has been aggravated by corruption. And now—in spite of the general prosperity of the U.S. economy, some American sectors are hurting a great deal from that crisis. Of course, at the epicenter of the financial crisis, it is far worse—millions of Asian families feel they have lost their financial future.

The point is—corruption in one country can make its impact felt around the world. No country can seal itself off from the impact of corruption beyond its borders, and therefore every nation must work with every other nation to fight corruption wherever it is in the world.

At the same time, to work well together, we must all acknowledge a central truth: No nation has a monopoly on virtue. None has a corner on corruption. And no nation has the right to lecture any other.

Just this month, 3 U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service employees, charged with patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border near Nogales, were arrested for their involvement in a scheme to smuggle illegal drugs into the U.S. The alleged role was simple—looking the other way. The alleged crime was vile—betraying the trust of their country, and selling out the millions of young people we seek to protect.

The large amount of illegal drugs that pass through the 300 ports of entry into the United States—combined with the enormous amount of money drug traffickers will spend trying to corrupt U.S. officials—can put enormous pressure on the professionalism of officers from the DEA, INS, Customs, and Treasury. We are attentive to it. We are addressing it. But let's be clear: The stakes are too high—the lives of our children too precious—to waste time posturing about it. We in the United States must have a serious, rigorous discussion of every possible avenue for guarding against corruption—both here and abroad. And I want to welcome each and every one of you to the United States, and thank you for coming to this conference to join us in this critical three-day conversation on fighting corruption.

A sample of any week's newspapers, TV, and magazines might suggest corruption is on the rise. We read and hear everywhere about its infestation in former empires and its choke hold on young democracies. Today, the reach of corruption seems longer; its power to shake the world seems greater. And yet, there is hope. Hope in the successful approaches of the past. And even greater hope in the early and growing successes of today. There is an important reason why—at a time of apparent rise in global corruption—that corruption may be suddenly and surprisingly more vulnerable than before. Cynics no doubt will mock any optimism in the fight against corruption. But let me remind you of the words of George Bernard Shaw:

    "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Let me review for you today the forces that can assist our fight against corruption, and suggest to you that we have a secret weapon that is unique to our time in history, and could turn the fight in our favor.

First, the world's tolerance for corruption is fading fast. Gone are the days when corruption was written off merely as a cost of doing business. Today, in more and more parts of the world, corruption is seen as it should be seen: as serious crime with devastating consequences—as a cold, vicious, often violent sacrifice of citizen security, for a narrow, greedy, private, personal profit on the part of a crooked official.

As evidence of the rising interest in fighting corruption, let me explain that we initially expected to have representatives from about 40 countries at this conference. In fact, we have representatives from eighty-nine. Some nations were so eager to come they even cautioned us that our bilateral relations would suffer if they were not invited. And so we are here, squeezed to the walls, because of the rising intolerance of corruption, and the rising sense that it is time to take action against it. Victor Hugo once wrote: "An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come." Fighting corruption is an idea whose time has come.

A second important force in our favor is leadership. We are blessed to have in the world today—and many are in this room right now—very prominent leaders who have placed the fight against corruption at the heart of their public mission. There is no substitute for leadership by example—especially on the issue of official corruption.

The 13th-century Persian poet Saadi told this story to illustrate the importance of leadership. A King was moving with his army through the land when he came upon some beautiful apple trees. The King asked for an apple, ate it, and suddenly noticed his top general had gone to pay the owner the price of the apple.

When the General returned, the King challenged him: "Why did you pay the man? He must have been flattered to have a King take a piece of his fruit."

"Your Majesty," his General explained. "If you had taken even one apple, your army would have taken the whole orchard."

People are guided by the behavior of the men and women they look to for leadership.

A third force in our favor in our fight against corruption is the growing trend toward government reform—or reinventing government. Just five weeks ago I hosted right here at the State Department an international conference on Reinventing Government—the effort to institute reforms that can help government work better and cost less. There is one especially striking parallel between that conference and this one—namely: in many cases, the very steps you would take to reform government to reduce corruption are the same steps you would take to reform government to increase efficiency.

As an example, confusing regulations can foster corruption. Adopting fewer, clearer regulations would help reduce corruption. That is also a principle of reinventing government. Monopoly power can foster corruption. Diluting monopoly by privatizing some functions would help reduce corruption. That is also a principle of reinventing government.

Lack of accountability can foster corruption. Increasing accountability by focusing on measurable results would help reduce corruption. That is also a principle of reinventing government.

The point here is one often made by students and scholars of international corruption, namely: the fight against corruption is not separate from the process of government reform. They are both efforts to make sure self-government works for its citizens.

A fourth factor in our favor in the fight against corruption is ethical behavior. Robert Klitgaard, Dean of The Rand Graduate School in Santa Monica California, has developed a formula to gauge the likelihood of corruption. He describes it: C = M + D - A or "corruption equals monopoly plus discretion minus accountability." If you have a monopoly, and you have discretion in applying the rules, and no one is holding you accountable, you are far likelier to become corrupt.

I think that is a very insightful analysis, particularly if the formula takes into account what I would call the "inner accountability" of conscience. I believe conscience is innate, universal, and one of the most important tools in the fight against corruption.

Chilean poet Pablo Neruda talked of "the most ancient rites of our conscience." The poet Dante once wrote: "A light is given you to know good and evil." Immanuel Kant once wrote: "Conscience is not a thing to be acquired. . . but every man, as a moral being, has it originally within him."

More recently, Harvard Professor Jerome Kagan published a book contending that there is a universal desire to see oneself as ethically upright. This desire explains the power of conscience. If we wish to see ourselves as ethically upright, we will avoid situations where we could be seen doing wrong.

This explains not only the power of our private conscience, but also the power of our public conscience—our clergy. Our Priests, Ministers, Monks, Nuns, Mullahs—who represent God in society. They are the public voice of conscience. They command enormous respect throughout society. They have immense power to tilt the scales toward good in public life. I look forward to their work here at the conference, and to having their ongoing participation in society's efforts to root out corruption.

If we accept that people, driven by conscience, really do prefer to be clean and honest, we can see the wisdom in reinventing government and reforming systems to make it easier for people to make the right ethical choices. And it would itself be ethical to do so. After all, the last line in the most famous prayer in the Christian world begins with the words: "And lead us not into temptation." A system that reduces temptation and engages conscience will reduce corruption.

The fifth factor in our favor as we fight against corruption may be decisive. Some months ago, I spoke of people whose countries were in economic crisis, raising calls for democracy and reform. But today, in the information age, reform is not enough unless it matched with an effort to inform. First inform; then reform. Then, information may be decisive, because information is the natural enemy of corruption. Corruption thrives on ignorance, not information. It needs secrecy, not transparency. It seeks darkness, not light.

It has always been a legendary trait of organized crime that members of the syndicate would not talk; because talk would kill them. It is the same today with corruption. The free flow of information is the very thing corruption cannot abide, and yet the free flow of information is the signature trait of the age in which we live.

There have never been more channels of information, more sources of information, more storehouses of information. Information has never moved more quickly, to more people, with more purpose. Information has never been more prized, more purchased, or more essential to the wealth and success of society. It is the central medium of exchange.

At a time when society's central industry is the effort to satisfy people's need to know—it bodes ill for corruption that it lives off the need that no one know—that no one talk; and no one take action.

In fact, the recent examples of successful efforts against corruption come from the power of information, and the action of civil society.

In Argentina recently, newspapers reported huge discrepancies in public school lunch costs between the capital of Buenos Aires and a more rural school district. Within two weeks, there were personnel changes in Buenos Aires and lunch costs dropped by half. If we inform civil society, civil society will reform the system.

Through a process called third-party procurement monitoring that brings openness, transparency and information to the process, a private firm has helped the Ministry of Health of Guatemala reduce its corruption, gain savings of 43%, and lower the price of its medicine by an average of 20 percent. The same approach has shown results in countries as diverse as Kenya, the Dominican Republic, Argentina, and Colombia.

In several countries from Latin America to Eastern Europe and to the former Soviet Union, the World Bank—in collaboration with local institutions and civil society and international NGOs such as Transparency International—has collaborated with local Governments to administer deeply detailed surveys on corruption to citizens, companies, and public officials in willing countries. Survey results typically reveal that public officials are highly cooperative survey respondents. They are very candid. They say they are themselves sick and tired of the corruption in their midst, and they are prepared to join coalitions to address the problem.

Businesses—far from accepting corruption as a cost of business—say they would pay 15—20 % more in taxes just to be free of the costs and hassles of corruption. As an example of the depth of corruption exposed by these diagnostic surveys, respondents from one country say it takes an average bribe of one thousand dollars to get a phone line. In another country, 60% of the customs officials surveyed say they purchased their positions. You know that if they pay for their position, they will make their position pay off.

Following this in-depth diagnostic survey approach, all this data is released in a major public meeting in the country, with the media present. Leaders from government, business, and civil society then come to consensus on an action plan targeting the worst areas of corruption.

In Bolivia, Vice President Quiroga—after receiving and reviewing the survey results on official corruption in his country—delivered a PowerPoint presentation before a national television audience identifying his 20 priorities over the next twelve months, and promised to follow up with further diagnostic survey work to monitor progress. This is just a beginning, of course. But it is an auspicious beginning.

In Albania, the then Prime Minister was presiding at a diagnostic survey workshop last summer. He said "we can sit here past midnight and argue about a particular number or claim that a point has been overstated. That would be a waste. We have the data. We know what needs to be done. Let's begin." The next day, all the nation's newspapers carried Page One coverage of the results, with charts, graphs, and texts of survey results. Pushed off the front page that day—amazingly—was coverage of the prior day's crucial World Cup Soccer match between Albania's neighbors Romania and Croatia. People were more eager to see the survey information.

As a result of the excellent early results of this approach, and its success in engaging the energy of civil society, public officials, business people and individual citizens, I am pleased to announce today that the United States plans to work closely with the World Bank, local organizations, civil society and other international donors and NGOs to support willing countries in the use of these diagnostic surveys. When a country shows it is committed to the rigorous self-analysis necessary to launch a process of reform, we would be honored to work with its civil society, companies, public officials, and citizens to assist and encourage those efforts.

Of course, this initiative will be part of our administration-wide effort to mount a comprehensive, global response to the problem of corruption. Over the next two years we in the U.S. will work diligently with our friends and partners to

  1. urge other key exporting nations to ratify and implement the OECD Convention;
  2. to develop and implement global standards on transparency and accountability;
  3. to conclude an Agreement on Transparency in Government Procurement at the WTO ministerial in Seattle later this year; and
  4. to pursue region-wide anti-corruption initiatives in the Americas, Asia-Pacific, Africa, and Europe—including urging ratification in the United States Senate of the Inter-American Convention and seeking full implementation by all signatories.
We also look forward to working with all of you to maximize the advantages offered by what is called "mutual evaluation"— an approach where different countries conduct on-site mutual evaluations to heighten the accountability and rigor attached to anti-corruption conventions.

I would suggest, to build on the effectiveness of the mutual evaluations, that we discuss during this conference ways to supplement the mutual evaluation process with an Internet-based reporting device. In addition, the mutual evaluation teams might consider offering individual citizens and business people of the host country the opportunity to serve as evaluators. That would increase interest and awareness of the evaluation efforts and help contribute to their success.

The information age—with its advances in science and technology, new medical discoveries, mobile capital, expanded trade, and instantaneous communication—offers great opportunities coupled with great risks—and thus brings us to the open moment I mentioned earlier. We have a rare chance to use the tools of our newest technology in the service of our oldest values—helping us build faith in democracy, improve competitiveness, expand prosperity, expose corruption, and strengthen the system of self-government that is history's greatest guardian of freedom, equality, opportunity and human dignity.

If we do not fight for these values, the information age will simply create more efficient channels for the spread of mischief, mayhem and corruption. Make no mistake: this is a fight for our values. We know that as bribery rises, civil liberties fall. We know that as bribery rises, the rule of law falls. We know that as bribery rises, the professionalism of our civil service falls. We are not engaged in an academic debate. We are locked in a battle over the kind of world we will leave our children.

Together, for the sake of a greater global community, let us set new standards of humanity and new heights of prosperity—by matching wisdom with intelligence, humanity with humor, compassion with common sense, and realism with idealism—by instituting the open, honest, transparent, democratic systems that will help make public servants accountable for the best and most honest use of public money, and urge them to earn and safeguard every citizen's deposit of public trust. Thank you.



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