OECD Forum 2011: MO-mentum for battling graft

In the fight against corruption, no one can accuse Mo Ibrahim of not putting his money where his mouth is. After creating one of Africa’s biggest businesses, telecoms firm Cellnet, he sold it in the mid-2000s and set up a foundation  to support good governance in Africa. The foundation is probably best known for its innovative Ibrahim Prize, which awards $5 million over 10 years to a democratically elected African leader who leaves office at the end of his or her constitutional term. 

In a lively speech at the OECD 50th Anniversary Forum, Dr. Ibrahim talked about the fight against graft. “We have wasted 50 years of independence in Africa through misrule and misgovernment,” he said; “enough is enough.” He spoke of his low expectations when setting up the foundation: “We thought the word ‘governance’ was untranslatable in Africa. We were wrong, people understood it immediately and instinctively.”

Dr. Ibrahim praised the OECD’s efforts to fight corruption, but he called on OECD and G20 countries to do more. He criticised Europe and some emerging economies, including China, which he said were not doing enough. “Europe talks but we don’t see any action.” By contrast, he said, the United States was much more active, and he pointed to recent cases against a number of European firms in the US: “Why does it take the Americans to prosecute Europeans?” he asked. 

In response, Mark Pieth, chair of the OECD Working Group on Bribery, who spoke on a panel after Dr. Ibrahim’s address, said some European countries had a decent track record: Germany had 60 anti-corruption cases last year, he pointed out, “but you’re right, some other countries are blatantly absent.”

Dr. Ibrahim also attacked the track record of business: “You want to look for corruption, follow the money,” he said. “The private sector is the source of all corruption.” Based on his own business experience, he said firms were only punishing themselves if they started to pay bribes: “We took a position we will not pay bribes. The result, we made much more money. If you start to pay, you’ll never stop. You pay a minister, then the president, then the president’s wife, then the president’s mistress, and so on.” 

From Russia, Elena Panfilova of the Centre for Anti-Corruption Research and Initiative said it could be difficult to avoid paying bribes, especially in countries where there was a lot of crossover between business and government: “How do you address corruption if people in government are also running biz. What do you do when a son is a running a company, and his mother is a judge?” Speaking on the same day that the OECD is inviting the Russian Federation to join the OECD’s Working Group on Bribery and to accede to the OECD’s Anti-Bribery Convention, she said agreements and legal institutions had to be backed by action: “The only thing that can restore trust is action, not words.” 

On related issues, today sees the release of new OECD guidelines to promote more responsible business conduct. They form part of an update to the OECD’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. Also being released are recommendations designed to combat the illicit trade in minerals – such as “blood diamonds” – that finance armed conflict. 

Useful links

OECD work on bribery and corruption and on corporate governance

Brian Keeley

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