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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.