Encyclopedia of Business and Professional Ethics

Living Edition
| Editors: Deborah C Poff, Alex C. Michalos

Global Corruption

  • Frank VoglEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-23514-1_132-1


Professor Laura S. Underkuffler has noted that: “Corruption is an explicitly moral notion; corruption describes, in general parlance, a powerful all-consuming evil.” She goes on to say that this idea, although often unarticulated, permeates both popular and technical discussions of the subject. Furthermore, because of the power of this idea, any approach to corruption that fails to reckon with its moral aspect will be both descriptively and programmatically inadequate.”1

Ensuring that an understanding of corruption needs to include a moral dimension takes the issue of corruption beyond the confines of the many laws that relate to the subject. Legal definitions often fail to capture the full dimensions of corruption. This is also the case when using the word bribery which is frequently treated as a synonym for corruption. Transparency International (TI), a global, nongovernmental, anti-corruption organization, defines corruption broadly as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.”

TI emphasizes the importance of differentiating between small-scale, or petty corruption, and large-scale, or grand corruption. Petty corruption involves the bribery of public officials by ordinary citizens to obtain services that to which they are entitled, a form of corruption that is akin to extortion to which the poor are particularly vulnerable. In 2016, after international consultations with legal experts, TI defined grand corruption as occurring “when a public official or other person (such as an associate or a business person who conspires with a public official) deprives a particular social group or substantial part of the population of a State of a fundamental right or causes the State or any of its people a loss greater than 100 times the annual minimum subsistence income of its people.”

The most effective means of measuring corruption are surveys of perceptions of corruption, such as TI’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index, and ones using detailed questionnaires that ask various categories of citizens about the bribes they pay, notably the TI Global Barometer. Further insights into the scale of corruption are provided by research into the difficulties that business people have in a country when seeking official permits and licenses, as it is frequently the case that red tape is a pretext for officials to seek bribe and the World Bank’s Doing Business: Measuring Regulatory Quality and Efficiency provides valuable information of this kind. Detailed investigations of public sector projects and programs at community or municipal levels are also an effective means of measuring corruption and its impact.

Today, petty corruption affects many aspects of life in many countries and can include payments: to the police to avoid being charged for real or imagined crimes, to enroll children in schools, for access to doctors and health clinics, and to secure all manner of official permits and licenses. In its 2013 Global Barometer survey of 114,000 respondents in 107 countries, TI found that more than one out of four respondents had paid a bribe during the last year. TI concluded that: “every day, all over the world, ordinary people bear the cost of corruption. In many countries, corruption affects people from birth until death.”

The late Michael Elliott started a cover story in November 1994 for Newsweek International with these words: “You’re driving in Accra, capital of Ghana, minding your own business, when a traffic cop decides you’ve made an ‘illegal’ left turn. The spot fine? Fifty bucks, and no receipt. Your company needs telephone repairs in Beijing. The price? A fishing trip for everyone in the local telephone and telegraph office. You spend a day at the Venezuelan port of La Guaira, filling in forms so you can export mangoes. At the last minute, an official spots a typo. So sorry, all the paperwork has to be redone: that, or pay a ‘special fee.’ Or watch your mangoes rot. Baksheesh in Egypt, dash in Kenya, mordida in Mexico – corruption is everywhere, and ancient. Mercury probably ran a crooked messenger service on Mount Olympus. Anti-corruption laws are just as old: ‘Neither shalt thou take bribes,’ God told Moses, ‘which blind the wise and pervert the words of the just.’”2

This personal perspective is complemented by the thousands of stories and complaints brought by citizens in 50 countries over the last decade to Advocacy and Legal Advisory Centers (ALACs) managed by TI. These stories from the victims of corruption, together with media reporting in many countries as well as investigations by government authorities, provide a picture of bribery and extortion and conspiracies to benefit officials at the expense of those they should be serving, from healthcare to agriculture, sanitation, housing, forestry, water, finance, the arms trade, and infrastructure construction.

Corruption is an age-old phenomenon. Today, testimony by business leaders before public bodies and testimony resulting from public prosecutions and surveys in such industries as defense, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, information technology, aerospace, finance, and telecommunications indicates that grand corruption is common in many areas of public contracting, sometimes involving conspiracies between organized crime networks and public officials3 and/or between major multinational corporations and senior government officials. Frequently, power over national judicial institutions and the media protects public officials from prosecution. The proceeds that they accumulate are frequently laundered through the international financial system, including offshore tax havens, enabling them to invest in assets across the world.

Grand corruption often goes hand-in-hand with organized crime. The activities of international criminal networks are facilitated by public officials who are bribed to manipulate customs and police officials and/or to rig public contracts. Vast criminal networks engaged in narcotics, human trafficking, the sale of counterfeit pharmaceuticals, counterfeit pesticides, fake manufactured goods, the illicit sale of arms, and the killing of elephants for the illegal ivory trade all need to bribe customs officials and their superiors in many countries in order to succeed. And they all need to find ways to launder their ill-gotten gains so that they can invest them productively. These activities undermine world trade, destabilize the financial system, and add frequently to critical issues of security at the national, regional, and international levels.

Corruption also undermines both individual and global strategic security. Countries with the highest levels of corruption typically also have the highest levels of violence. Corruption is always present on a large scale where there are wars and frequently involves international organized criminal networks and terrorist networks who exploit corruption, including money laundering,4 to finance their endeavors.


While efforts to counter corruption have been made in many countries over the centuries, landmark actions in recent decades emerged from the “Watergate” investigations in the United States, which revealed bribe-paying at home and abroad by some of America’s largest enterprises. The result was the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) of 1977 which made it a criminal offense for a US company to bribe a foreign government official. With the enactment of certain amendments in 1998, the anti-bribery provisions of the FCPA were also made to apply to foreign firms and persons for corruption that takes place or is facilitated within the territory of the United States.

Pressure from the US government and business community and Transparency International, by then an influential international NGO, led in 1997 to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) Anti-Bribery Convention, which by 2016 had 41 signatories. For the most part, the OECD Convention mirrors the FCPA. In the intervening years, the number of cases prosecuted in signatory countries, particularly the United States, has grown significantly as have the penalties imposed.

The 1990s were to see other landmark developments to counter corruption. It had long been evident to experts in economic development that corruption was an impediment to economic and social progress in many developing countries, yet until the mid-1990s, there was no institutional support at either bilateral aid agency or multilateral levels for action. There was silence at the United Nations and the World Bank, for example, on the topic of corruption. Part of the explanation related to the Cold War and the willingness of the major powers to use foreign aid for strategic purposes as they sought to influence diplomatic relationships while turning a blind eye to the corruption in the aid-receiving governments. For example, US government concerns in the 1960s of mounting Russian influence in Congo led to the US government providing substantial foreign aid and military support to Congo’s President Mobuto, who was widely seen as among the most corrupt leaders in Africa at the time.

It is also the case that until the ending of the Cold War, there was not a single international nongovernmental organization (NGO) dedicated to anti-corruption. While many of the worst human rights abuses in poor countries directly relate to the use of authoritarian power by corrupt politicians and their henchmen, none of the human rights NGOs or those explicitly involved in antipoverty programs in the Third World attempted to draw significant public attention to corruption. The leading international media reported on corruption scandals as and when they happened, but their reports did not result in major calls and sustained campaigns by citizens for legislative reforms.

Transparency International (TI), officially launched in May 1993, was the first global nongovernmental organization to be exclusively concerned with the fight against corruption. It has influenced public awareness and public attitudes, promoted countless campaigns in dozens of countries, and contributed to shaping landmark legislation and important public statements by governments and official international institutions. Today (2017), TI has about 140 staff at its global secretariat in Berlin, Germany, and approximately 100 national chapters.

There are now also dozens of anti-corruption civil society organizations engaged in promoting democracy, protecting human rights, and advocating for judicial reforms. At the same time, the international media is shining an unprecedented spotlight on corruption and a number of specialized media organizations notably Global Witness, ProPublica, and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which, with its Panama Papers disclosures, has raised and strengthened global public awareness of the reach and the damaging impact of corruption. In many countries, courageous investigative journalists expose corruption at the highest levels of government and business and stimulate public demands to end impunity.

The scale of academic interest in many aspects of the topic has also expanded enormously as has the number and range of authors researching and writing on diverse aspects of corruption. All of these developments have stimulated extensive discussions within major business organizations, such as the World Economic Forum and the International Chamber of Commerce, which in turn have promoted international efforts to curb corruption.

In the spring of 1997, the leaders of the group of seven major economic powers, meeting in Washington, agreed that curbing corruption required the active involvement of international financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund both of which responded with anti-corruption strategies and guidelines. In the following months, the regional development banks of Asia and Latin America followed by introducing anti-corruption policies based on those established by the World Bank. Importantly, the United Nations recognized that it too needed to campaign to secure an anti-corruption agreement embracing the great majority of its members. As UN Secretary General Kofi A. Annan was to stress in the Foreword to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), which was formally ratified in 2005: “Corruption is an insidious plague that has a wide range of corrosive effects on societies. It undermines democracy and the rule of law, leads to violations of human rights, distorts markets, erodes the quality of life and allows organized crime, terrorism and other threats to human security to flourish.”

UNCAC states that: “(t)he purposes of this Convention are: (a) To promote and strengthen measures to prevent and combat corruption more efficiently and effectively; (b) To promote, facilitate and support international cooperation and technical assistance in the prevention of and fight against corruption, including in asset recovery; and, (c) To promote integrity, accountability and proper management of public affairs and public property.”

In recent years, world leaders meeting under the auspices of the group of 20 have agreed on a series of plans to counter corruption and to encourage full enforcement by governments of international anti-corruption conventions. Building on these agreements, far-reaching pledges to counter graft were announced in May 2012 at an “Anti-Corruption Summit” in London hosted by then UK Prime Minister David Cameron. The participants in this latter event stressed in their final official statement: “Corruption is at the heart of so many of the world’s problems. We must overcome it, if our efforts to end poverty, promote prosperity and defeat terrorism and extremism are to succeed.”

Citizen Engagement

In spite of legislative reform and the proliferation of international conventions, the lack of progress in curbing corruption worldwide has fueled growing public demands for reform. Examples include massive public demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Middle East in 2011and Ukraine in 2014 and public protests on a vast scale in Iran, Iraq Guatemala, South Africa India, Brazil, and Malaysia. There has also been unprecedented international cooperation among investigative agencies including investigations of the alleged diversion of over $3.5 billion from a Malaysian development fund to relatives and associates of Malaysia’s president involving the FBI in the US and its counterparts in Switzerland and Singapore, as well as some officials at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission; the US. Justice Department’s FCPA prosecution of Alstom, a major French engineering company, which would not have been possible without cooperation from the police in Indonesia; the prosecution of the Odebrecht construction company of Brazil, which saw a US Justice Department record fine of over $3 billion, resulted from intense cooperation between Swiss, Brazilian, and US authorities; and the prosecution of leaders of world soccer’s (FIFA) governing association, which required the cooperation of US and Swiss authorities in the first instance and a number of other governments as the cases developed.

At a less dramatic but important level, NGOs have gradually been convincing bilateral and multilateral aid agencies to strengthen citizen engagement in the implementation and monitoring of a range of development projects. In many cases, the engagement of citizens in economic development projects can reduce the risks of corruption while strengthening local delivery of public services.

Curbing corruption demands not only international agreements and legal conventions, but it also requires the patience and long-term resilience to sustain public support for the building and/or strengthening of transparent and accountable institutions of government. These institutions must be answerable to all citizens and not just to an elite few. The forging of what Professor Michael Johnston has called “deep democratization”5 to establish the institutional capacities in countries to guard against corruption is a vast, yet vital, challenge.



  1. 1.

    Laura Underkuffler, J. DuPratt White Professor of Law, Cornell University Law School – chapter 2 in Corruption, Global Security, and World Order (2009, Brookings), edited by Robert I Rotberg.

  2. 2.

    Newsweek International, November 14, 1994, Money Talks cover story by Michael Elliot, as quoted in Waging War on Corruption – Inside the Movement Fighting the Abuse of Power, by Frank Vogl, Rowman & Littlefield, updated, 2016.

  3. 3.

    Dirty Entanglements: Corruption, Crime, and Terrorism, by professor Louise Shelley (2014 Cambridge University Press)

  4. 4.

    National Money Laundering Risk Assessment 2015, United States Department of the Treasury. https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/terrorist-illicit-finance/Documents/National%20Money%20Laundering%20Risk%20Assessment%20%E2%80%93%2006-12-2015.pdf (Accessed 9 January 2017).

  5. 5.

    Johnston (2014).


  1. Johnston M (2014) Corruption, contention, and reform: the power of deep democratization. Cambridge University Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Transparency InternationalWashingtonUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Wesley Cragg
    • 1
  1. 1.Schulich School of BusinessYork UniversityTorontoCanada