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TACKLING CORRUPTION IN THE TRADING SYSTEM THROUGH A CULTURE OF INTEGRITY

corruption

TACKLING CORRUPTION IN THE TRADING SYSTEM THROUGH A CULTURE OF INTEGRITY

No Disagreement Here

For decades, economists have extolled the virtues of the rule of law as a critical factor in leveling the playing field through a framework of rules and regulations that are easy to understand and evenly, logically and fairly applied to all participants in an economic system. This central premise is reflected in the principle of “predictability through transparency,” one of three pillars of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the global trading system. At the heart of this focus has been an emphasis on reducing the role that corruption can play in the administration of laws, function of government, conduct of business, and protection of citizen rights.

Back in an October 1996 address to the Board of Governors at the Annual Meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, then World Bank President James Wolfensohn gave a groundbreaking speech in which he described corruption as a cancer and committed the Bank to strengthen its internal controls and supporting the international fight against corruption.

“…corruption diverts resources from the poor to the rich, increases the cost of running businesses, distorts public expenditures, and deters foreign investors…it erodes the constituency for aid programs and humanitarian relief.”

– James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, October 1996

The Heavy Toll of Corruption

Significant attention has been paid to the goal of reducing corruption, particularly for emerging economies. The World Economic Forum calculates the global cost of corruption is at least $2.6 trillion, or roughly 5 percent of global GDP. For emerging economies alone, the UN estimates that corruption costs these countries some $1.2 trillion annually through bribery, theft and tax evasion.

Cost of Corruption

It is also widely recognized that global corruption can undermine the benefits of agreements negotiated to introduce predictability and transparency into the trading system. Former WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy described corruption in the international trading system as tantamount to “a hidden increase of the cost of trade.” Within the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the global community identified the promotion of the rule of law as a key priority for development through Goal 16, which is dedicated to promote just, peaceful and inclusive societies, and to achieve this goal by 2030.

Given the consensus among stakeholders within the international trade community, the question is: how to effectively combat corruption to achieve our shared goals of rules and laws that are applied objectively, consistently and equitably to all?

Since the time of Wolfensohn’s catalyzing speech, governments, the business community, civil society and international institutions have rallied around global efforts to create initiatives and mechanisms to mitigate the scourge of corruption. Member states and international organizations drafted and signed anti-corruption conventions through the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the United Nations (UN), and established regional conventions and working groups in Africa, the Americas and Asia.

Corruption Agreements Table

A Comprehensive Approach to Dismantling Corruption

In spite of the proliferation of anti-corruption instruments in regional and international organizations, the issue of corruption persists as a challenge. Punitive measures only go so far in achieving anti-corruption aims. A more comprehensive approach to dismantling corruption centers on enhancing integrity and ethics in an effort to affect the cultural practices and norms that perpetuate corruption.

This change was reflected in the 2017 OECD Recommendation of the Council on Public Integrity that reframed the anti-corruption strategy to focus on promoting the essential societal pillar of integrity as a sustainable response to the global problem of corruption. The adoption of these recommendations was part of a deliberate shift to go beyond ad hoc efforts toward a more comprehensive and strategic approach to promoting integrity through systems, culture, and accountability.

Defining Public Integrity

The OECD defines the term public integrity as “a consistent alignment of, and adherence to, shared ethical values, principles and norms for upholding and prioritizing the public interest.” Consistent with describing public integrity as an aspirational goal (versus the punitive connotation of combatting corruption), this definition grounds the work of promoting integrity in global efforts to make government functions more effective, economies more accountable, and societies more inclusive by involving all stakeholders in the effort to improve governance and strengthen the rule of law.

In May, the OECD took the next step in publishing the OECD Public Integrity Handbook. The handbook details best practices, principles and concrete actions for promoting a culture of integrity in government functions with an emphasis on generating dialogue between business, government and civil society to promote greater stakeholder collaboration in upholding public integrity values. The report expands on the 13 public integrity recommendations articulated in 2017 and goes a step further by translating those principles into practical measures governments can implement to institute change.

The OECD describes the handbook as a roadmap to help governments identify what integrity looks like and why it is important to take a whole-of-society approach in building public trust. The handbook can thus be viewed as a toolkit that helps anti-corruption advocates undertake the hard work of creating the ‘right relationship’ between government, citizens, business, and civil society.

Public Integrity

Public Integrity is Important to Trade and Investment Flows

International organizations and governments are not the only institutions concerned about combatting corruption, creating a culture of integrity, and strengthening the rule of law.

These issues are equally significant for the private sector in an increasingly globalized world as they are determinant of the business environment. This is why trade agreements have been grounded in rule of law principles, and have incorporated transparency and anti-corruption components to instill investors with greater confidence they can compete and operate in global markets. As noted by The World Justice Project, “uneven enforcement of regulations, corruption, insecure property rights, and ineffective means to settle disputes undermine legitimate business and deter both domestic and foreign investment.”

Companies make trade and investment decisions based on where they have confidence in the integrity of public and private institutions and where there is fairness, enforcement and proper adjudication of the law. In a 2017 Business Pulse Survey conducted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Association of American Chambers of Commerce in Latin America and the Caribbean, 31 percent of respondents described the rule of law as the “most important” issue to address for business, while 45 percent of executives characterized strengthening the rule of law and fighting corruption as the most important issues to be addressed to enhance economic growth in the region.

Corruption Quote

It is this emphasis on promoting public integrity that underpinned the inclusion of an anti-corruption chapter in the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) that entered into force on July 1, 2020, representing one of the first times governments have formally committed to combat bribery and corruption in a trade agreement. The private sector has also prioritized an anti-corruption component in the bilateral trade negotiations now underway between Brazil and the United States.

Given the private sector’s interest in eliminating corruption from global trade, the U.S. Chamber recently co-hosted a public forum with the OECD entitled “The Role of Public Integrity in Promoting the Rule of Law” to examine the importance of the public integrity movement for global commerce. Julio Bacio Terracino, Acting Head of the OECD’s Public Sector Integrity Division, joined government officials, senior executives and the U.S. Chamber for a dialogue to review the OECD recommendations, discuss practical considerations outlined in the new handbook, and examine how tools like this are helpful in creating trade and investment conditions that enable business success.

Public Integrity through the Private Sector Prism

There are a number of public-private interactions the OECD has flagged as vulnerable to corruption or solicitation of bribes, notably in customs clearance and trade facilitation, public procurement, licensing and permitting processes, and public infrastructure contracting. During the forum, executives highlighted the critical role that governments play in creating the conditions for trade and investment by leveling the playing field for all actors, creating certainty, operating transparently, upholding the sanctity of contracts, and enabling access to justice.

Through its Coalition for the Rule of Law in Global Markets, the U.S. Chamber defines the concept of the rule of law through the prism of the private sector by articulating the five factors that determine the ability of any business to make good investment and operating decisions. These elements are transparency, predictability, stability, accountability and due process — each of which requires adherence to the shared ethical values, principles and norms that define public integrity.

The whole-of-society focus of the OECD Public Integrity Handbook recognizes the private sector’s role as a co-creator of the rule of law and acknowledges that all facets of society must commit and contribute to building a culture of integrity. This approach aligns with the Coalition’s vision of business working in concert with governments, civil society, and international organizations to promote remedies that will advance the rule of law.

Fostering a culture of integrity in the global trading system that enables inclusive economic growth requires all actors to take concrete steps to maintain open, transparent and meritocratic environments where there is proper enforcement and adjudication of the law. These actions include addressing structural obstacles to trade and investment, simplifying regulatory frameworks, harnessing technology to increase transparency in public functions like procurement, permitting and licensing processes, supporting trade facilitation efforts that strengthen and make customs regimes more efficient, and extending legal investment protections. It is only through this collaborative action and partnership among all stakeholders that a world where corruption is vanquished and a culture of integrity thrives can truly be possible.

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Kendra Gaither

Kendra Gaither is the Executive Director of the Coalition for the Rule of Law in Global Markets at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Over her career spanning two decades, Kendra has specialized in international trade and investment as a career diplomat with the State Department focused working in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Americas, and global public policy innovation through strategic partnerships at Carnegie Mellon University.

This article originally appeared on TradeVistas.org. Republished with permission.

corruption

Corruption is a Costly “Hidden” Tariff

Hidden costs

Tariffs, quotas and sanctions are all overt hurdles to free trade that increase the costs of commercial exchanges or even prohibit them. But not all barriers to trade are written down in law or even apparent on the surface. Some lurk in the form of money changing hands under the table.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in a recent report identified corruption as one of the most costly non-tariff barriers in global trade, particularly for low and low-middle income countries. Acting as a “hidden tariff,” a lack of integrity in trade can be just as damaging to trade relations as any legalized restriction.

Corruption wreaks direct costs such as skimmed revenue and outright theft, but can also create health and safety risks as officials look the other way on dangerous cargo. At the firm level, the OECD estimates informal payments and corruption add a “tax” of anywhere from five to ten percent of the value of company sales in markets where corruption is normalized. Combined, these effects will damage countries’ economic welfare over the long run.

corruption adds tax

Trading in bribes

Burdensome regulations and opaque bureaucracy often go hand in hand. The more complex regulation is, the greater the cost of compliance, and the more attractive bribery becomes as an end run around the bureaucracy and the easier corruption is to hide. When governments maintain quotas and other quantitative restrictions, administrative procedures to allocate them also create opportunities for mischief.

Corruption in trade is damaging to business in a number of ways. The added costs consume resources that could be spent bringing down prices or improving quality. Corruption also distorts private sector competition – firms that do best are the ones that can best work the corrupt system, not necessarily the ones that provide the most value. Companies unwilling or unable to engage in corruption are limited or barred from providing their goods and services in that economy.

High levels of corruption also make international firms unwilling to invest due to the added risks. Local citizens, particularly those in emerging economies, feel this damage through a lack of access to affordable, quality products, reduced job opportunities, and insufficient allocation of government resources to public services due to missing tax revenue.

World Bank lost revenue at customs borders

Greasing wheels at the borders

The World Bank estimates that corruption generates losses of about $2 billion each year in lost revenue collection at customs borders.

Complicated rules, a lack of oversight, and the discretionary power characteristic of many customs administrations provide opportunities for corruption at all levels. Whether it takes the form of slipping an agent money at a customs check to let goods through or fudge some paperwork, or large-scale fraud involving officials all the way to the top, corruption can be widespread and corrosive. As former Secretary General of the World Customs Organization, J. W. Shaver, once put it: “There are few public agencies in which the classic pre-conditions for institutional corruption are so conveniently presented as in a customs administration.

In one high profile example, a 2015 investigation in Guatemala uncovered systemic corruption in their customs authority. In return for bribes, importers were allowed to under-report shipments to avoid import taxes on a large scale, costing the country millions. Mass protests with citizens calling for transparency and accountability led to the vice president’s resignation.

Sometimes corruption is less bold but equally systemic. Superstore giant Walmart has recently come under fire for looking past bribery within its supply chain. In 2019, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigated Walmart under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act for deliberately ignoring corruption risks and red flags in its dealings in India, China, Brazil and Mexico. In India, many payments were less than $200, but together totaled millions. Walmart is paying $238 million to settle the investigation.

WCO quote about customs

Dangers of turning a blind eye

Beyond lost revenue, when customs officials turn a blind eye to nefarious shippers, human lives are put at risk. In 2015, chemicals that were falsely declared in China’s Tianjin port exploded, resulting in over 150 deaths. Investigations found that bribes were paid to sidestep safety regulations. The incident worsened when firefighters used water on the fire, unaware (due to deliberate mislabelling) that the type of chemicals involved would detonate upon reaction with the water.

Solutions that could pay off

There is an argument that, in some cases, so-called “informal payments” may actually facilitate trade in situations where government regulatory hurdles and inefficiencies are hard to overcome. However, greasing the wheels in this manner fails to remove systemic incentives to engage in corrupt behavior.

The trouble is, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to the problem of corruption in international trade. The most pressing risks must be targeted to ensure safety and integrity while avoiding over-burdensome rules and red tape that hamper trade and economic growth.

The OECD suggests a mix of approaches. Broad, high-level government support is needed to tackle corruption within customs administrations and border control. The penalties for bribery offenses must be stiffened and applied. The private sector must be engaged to monitor practices in their global supply chains. And, the OECD suggests writing transparency and anti-corruption provisions into trade agreements.

Beyond business and borders

Corruption is a quantifiable hidden tariff on individual commercial transactions. What’s harder is to measure the extent to which corruption, perpetrated in drips over the course of years, damages broader economic prosperity.

If open markets and greater trade benefit ordinary people, as we know they do, then tackling corruption to promote legitimate trade would have positive impacts on the well-being of millions around the world.

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Alice Calder

Alice Calder received her MA in Applied Economics at GMU. Originally from the UK, where she received her BA in Philosophy and Political Economy from the University of Exeter, living and working internationally sparked her interest in trade issues as well as the intersection of economics and culture.

This article originally appeared on TradeVistas.org. Republished with permission.