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Good idea: Transparent trap

Strange, really, how much more glamorous "reporting corruption" sounds than "reporting anti-corruption" does, with its bureaucratic lexicon of "compliance", "implementation" and "corporate responsibility". Strange because, in fact, they amount to the same thing: a way of shining a light on exploitation.

This month, the leading anti-corruption NGO Transparency International marked World Anti-Corruption Day, which you'd expect to be a fairly big one in its calendar, with the publication of its guidelines on "the tenth principle against corruption". The tenth principle sets out the need for businesses to work against crookedness in all its forms: extortion, bribery, conflicts of interest and plain old dishonesty.

The guide explains, in minute detail, how companies can report their anti-corruption policies: what they are, how they're put into action, what is being done to monitor and improve them. Parsing each element of anti-corruption policy into its even tinier constituent parts doesn't make for particularly vibrant reading. But it does provide an invaluable practical guide to a stickily complex area of the law.

And it is one that is clearly long overdue. It's all very well for companies to make grand statements about fighting corruption, but many, it seems, are still adrift when it comes to putting their words into action. This year, Transparency International looked at 500 leading global companies and gave them marks out of 50 for anti-corruption practices.

The average score was 17. Evil corporations? In some cases, almost certainly; but a survey by Dow Jones this month also found that many executives struggle to understand the "patchwork of anti-corruption regulations". Unsurprisingly, the Dow Jones respondents didn't confess to bribery and fraud; uncovering that is still the remit of corruption reporting, not its dowdier sister. But they did signal frustration at losing business to less ethical competitors who aren't concerned about following the rules.

So, wisely, the Transparency report points out the business case for making change. In terms of social development, the benefits of transparent and fair practices are obvious. But there are also profits, in the more common sense, to be made. Ethical companies can trade on the values they are associated with. Employees tend to be happier (read more efficient) in companies that act consistently, and are less likely to act crookedly themselves - whether because they are more comfortable with their work culture or just because they know they are being monitored. And the more companies take part, the more honest practice becomes standard. Profit all round.

This article first appeared in the 21 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special