Watching Out from the South

By Beatriz Botero Arcila*


Corruption scandals are in global media headlines everyday. Just this week in Latin America complaints resurfaced in Colombia regarding senior judges that apparently accepted money in exchange for reviewing certain cases; a Petrobas director was sentenced for bribery and misappropriation of funds within the company; and in Guatemala thousands of people have gone out on the streets to protest against corruption in the Molina administration. The FIFA corruption scandal has also reverberated globally.

While corruption may trouble every country, it would seem it has more notable effects in countries from the global South, as shown by the Transparency International’s map, and thus should be an issue of special interest for human rights activists from the global South. I define corruption as the presence of practices, usually illegal, that affects a system or organism’s efficacy, weakening or diverting the system’s capacity to fulfill with its purpose. Thus, state corruption significantly reduces its capacity to respect and guarantee the fulfillment of its human rights obligations.

Corruption violates human rights indirectly, for example, when it reduces the amount of available income a state has to invest in the fulfillment of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ESCRs) or because the diversion of resources maintains or increases poverty, which in turn exacerbates other human rights violations. However, corruption can also constitute a human rights violation in and of itself, like when bribery affects access to the judiciary. It seems also that corruption creates a vicious cycle: it occurs where there is opportunity and inclination, and situations marked by institutional weakness and weak protection of human rights offer both opportunities and incentives for corrupt practices.

Now, the way that organizations like Transparecy International, based in Berlin, measure corruption as a global phenomenon is a bit biased. If one looks at the map closely, it claims that the most corrupt countries are those in the South while the least are in the North. Moreover, many international organizations argue that corruption is a key element in the struggle against poverty and the situation is as simple as if in our countries we weren’t corrupt, we also wouldn’t be poor.

Protestors in Guatemala demand public officials’ resignation due to corruption scandals. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via  Surizar .

Protestors in Guatemala demand public officials’ resignation due to corruption scandals. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via Surizar.

This statement is imprecise. It is true that our governments have institutional weaknesses that facilitate corrupt practices, just as it’s true that if they didn’t our institutions would probably be stronger and more efficient. However, it is also true that many of the most taxing corrupt practices are more sophisticated than individual country analysis presented in the map. Factors like economic globalization help to sometimes connect corrupt practices in the global South to countries in the global North.

In Germany, for example, bribe payments abroad were legal until 1999, corporations could deduct bribes from their taxable incomeThe Democratic Republic of the Congo lost more than US$1.3 billionbetween 2010 and 2012 due to tax evasion by firms involved in mining based in the U.K., Gibraltar, or Bermuda. In 2008 Siemens bribed Argentine government officials with US$1.6 billion to obtain contracts and in 2011 the French communications company Alcatel-Lucent bribed officials in Costa Rica, Honduras, Taiwan, Malaysia, and other countries for US$137 million to also win contracts. Indeed, it is very telling that in this 2011 article of the Fiscal Times, nine of the “Ten Largest Global Business Corruption Cases” involve a multinational from the global North bribing a government from the global South.

Furthermore, other risk factors come together in global South countries that can incentivize both public and private actors to undermine state capacity. In this way, extractive industries or public works— which operate with force in many countries of the region— include factors like high-value inversion, significant interaction between private firms and the government, and important decision-making regarding development and property rights, that due to the sheer importance and amount of money they imply, create good opportunities and incentives for corrupt practices.

With the last point I don’t want to imply that the corruption problems in the global South are all due to multinational from the global North or that extractive industries are necessarily corrupt. Nevertheless, bribing judges or government officials, or diverting public funds to fulfill private interests, undermines any system’s capacity and it leads to states’ incapacity to fulfill their human rights obligations. In today’s globalized world, research on corruption should be transnational and should go beyond simply identifying where these practices occur geographically. Analysis from the South can be particularly useful to take account of the complexities created by this phenomenon at the local level, its causes and effects, and suggest better responses to battle it. Also, it could be especially useful to name and shame internationally the transnational corrupt practices that occur in the South but that can come from other countries.

Many anti-corruption activists see corruption as a deterioration of democracy itself. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via  Meiling .

Many anti-corruption activists see corruption as a deterioration of democracy itself. Source: Flickr Creative Commons via Meiling.

For now, most anti-corruption activists demand for greater transparency. My specific call is that just as the global South human rights movement has enriched the debate on human rights generally, something similar could happen with anti-corruption monitoring from our countries.

It’s important to promote from our countries regulations that obligate both government and large foreign and local investors to publish detailed financial reports so that it is possible to know their tax declarations, the destination of resources, and avoid or at the very least detect bribes; make public and participatory the decision-making about public expenditures, and motivate criticism and criminalization for corrupt government and private practices.

These are mammoth tasks, giving anti-corruption movements another point to learn from the experience of the human rights movement, namely the empowerment of civil society, of our civil society, is key.


*Beatriz Botero is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).