Friday, March 22, 2013

Waging War on Corruption

Frank Vogl first came to the US in 1974 to cover the Watergate scandal for the London Times. He walked in on a moment in history that was to forever shape him as he discovered the mother of all corruption scandals was not contained by the romantic narrative that Woodward and Bernstein created and immortalized by the Alan Pakula movie, All the Presidents Men. The story he continued to follow continued long after Nixon resigned in shame and has not yet ended. It is a story of how not only a free press but civil society institutions like the one he co-founded Transparency International (TI) still need to identify corruption where it exists and name and shame those who commit these crimes. Vogl’s book makes for compelling reading because he gives us a large number of reasons why succcessfully going after corrupt officials matters to the well being of hundreds of millions of people around the world who although they may live in mineral rich countries find it difficult to feed themselves or keep their societies free from endless wars.

This is a must read book for any student of foreign policy. Vogl points out that the aftermath of Watergate dragged on in the Committee rooms of Congress and exposed the extent of corrupt corruption involving US companies around the world. You become aware while reading the book how gigantic the problem of corruption really is despite Congress and various world bodies to curtail its spread. Vogl estimates that corruption forms perhaps 25 percent of Africa's GDP, or is ten times as great as the money flowing in foreign aid,. Vogl never loses sight of the human realities of corruption the untold human misery, suffering and death that it causes. This is the great strength of the book, to balance the political and institutional context in which corruption is allowed to breed with the human dramas. Vogl has had a cat bird seat in the battle against corruption and it shows in every word. Readers will be pleased to know that this is not one more miserable tale of how the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Vogl believes the war against corruption is winnable and provides good evidence for this in the book. The author himself has contributed to some clear progress in the fight, having co-founded Transparency International (TI) which has been credited for winning many battles in the long struggle to take this enemy of progress and civilization down. 


The story of Watergate as Vogl points out did not have ended on the White House lawn with either Nixon’s departure by helicopter or Gerald Ford’s decision to pardon the former president but dragged on much of it without the public paying much attention. What Watergate revealed was the long list of corporations who had contributed to the Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP) through their subsidiaries were just a fraction of the bribes and payments that had been paid to a long list of government officials around the world. In other words Watergate was the tip of the tail of a huge dinosaur of global corrupt actions and practices that some of our most prestigious Fortune 500 companies were involved with including such luminaries as American Airlines, Lockheed, Ashland Oil and Goodyear. In the post Watergate era, Senator Frank Church, as Chairman of the Subcommitee on Multinational Companies decided despite the eagerness to move on and go back to business as usual to hold an unusually hard hitting set of hearings in which he placed on the witness stand the heads of these companies that had topped the CREEP contribution list. He managed to get on the record sizeable bribes that an assortment of companies had paid to corrupt dictators around the world. But their attitude towards reforming the system reflected much of the problem that it was the cost of doing business in these countries and they did see why they should be put at a disadvantage. It took bipartisan leadership to get the landmark legislation the Foreign and Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) signed into law and only after business had received an amendment allowing for “faciitation payments’ did American business to reluctantly get on board and start working to get other countries to pass simllar laws or sign relevant international agreements.

Vogl follows the mixed reaction to the FCPA through the 1980s and early 1990s with high level institutions like the UN and the World Bank where Vogl worked at a senior level after he left the Times to fully embrace the new mentality. In fact most of the multilateral institutions felt that despite their efforts of economic aid and development ending up in too many cases in the Swiss bank accounts of dictators and felons that they were tilting at windmills to insist that basic rules should apply to the donating of money such as transparent accounting, respect for the rule of law. Well respected institutions like the World Bank had to find leaders who could effectively take their bureaucracies and the networked relationships they had with low and high level government officials and set them on a new path. As he points out the efforts of Wolfensohn at the World Bank ran into frequent roadblocks and unbelievable levels of cynicism. The UN had not helped itself with efforts to stamp out corruption when it was revealed that it was running its own corrupt oil for food program in the 1990s and had to confront the fall out from several other scandals. But to its credit in 1989 after the OECD had moved in the same direction Kofi Annan announced the launch of the UN Global Compact to “stimulate best practices in global corporate citizenship.” But then after Volker found huge abuses in the UN the General Assembly adopted the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) in 2003 and by 2009 140 countries had signed on. ut with so many countries that have shown little interest in enforcement (only a tiny number of people even in the US have gone to jail) the role for a monitoring body was clear and Vogl’s TI has stepped into the vacuum publishing its AntiCorruption Index which analyses the practices of 82 countries when it comes to corruption.

 What is the cost of corruption? Vogl cites some statistics which give you more than a sense that the problem is gigantic, perhaps 25 percent of Africa’s GDP, or 10 times as great as the money flowing in foreign aid, but the true cost of corruption is described in terms of the human misery, suffering and death that it causes. This is the great strength of the book. Vogl is able to show the great inter-relationship between corruption, poverty and loss of human rights. Some of the most dire povery is found in countries that have vast mineral and oil and gas reserves. Sudan, Angola, Nigeria and Myanmar would be able to lift their people out of poverty if corruption was held in check. Vogl uses the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as perhaps the poster child for a kind of rampant murderous corruption that the world thought it saw the last of in the nineteenth century. On paper DRC has enough mineral wealth to feed its people and provide them with a western standard of living. but what has happened there should make us all weep. Just in the last handful of years 5.4 million people have died, half of those were children because of battles between war lords competing over the right to steal the country’s enormous wealth for their own purposes. International corporations are complicit arranging their secret deals and funneling the profits to the Swiss bank accounts of these brutal rulers. DRC also points up the fact that a country might proclaim itself democratic (as the DRC ironically does) but cannot function as a democracy without civil institutions and checks and balances for the executive branch. Vogl makes the case that we must tackle aid and development issues hand in hand with strengthening civil society. Vogl wants to paint despite the horror and destruction that corruption has caused around the world a hopeful picture. We may not be able to win the war on corruption at least not in one generation but we are well on our way to diminishing its pernicious effects across the globe. This is in part due to historical circumstances. With the end of the cold war there was less incentive for the Soviet Union and the US to basically bribe third world leaders with funds that allegedly went to economic development but in reality was funneled into the Swiss bank accounts of people like Marcos in the Phillipines and Somoza in Nicaragua.

 The continued failure of mulitilateral institutions to demand more in the way of accountability or basic norms of law from receipent countries continues to irk Vogl. “The current model used by aid agencies is to try to get along with all kinds of regimes. They do not say there should be no money unless an independent judiciary is in place, unless there is press freedom, unless the people have the right to free assembly, or unless human rights are guaranteed.” They want to hold open the chance for incremental government reform “despite a record of failure.” As Vogl points out these funds come from you and I they are taxpayer funds and we should demand that they should go to the people who need the funds not for more limousines or weapons. His hope is that public pressure from Congress or elsewhere (maybe stimulated by the TI and other global transparency NGOs) will stop the circus once and for all. It is difficult to doubt Vogl’s conclusion that “there is an Everest of corruption still to climb.” The author believes that we are at last a base camp, no longer looking at the mountain and dreaming but ready for more decades of activism and to see the day when we finally turn the tide on this huge evil. He ends his magnicent account of the struggle with the hopeful words of civil rights advocate and author James Baldwin, “the people that once walked in the darkness are no longer prepared to do so.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Steps Towards a SImple Learning Revolution

I have been a fan of Mitra's work for a few decades now and I am pleased to see how he has advanced his ideas from the Hole in the Wall computer to a SOLE concept to help transform learning world wide. SOLE stands for self organized learning and it is designed to put curiosity and mystery back into the learning process and take full advantage of the way children take to the computer and to the Internet without a lot of instruction. The computer seems now to be their natural learning medium. Instead of asking students to work out the tangent of an angle ask them to tell whether an asteroid is or is not on a path to hit earth. it is a simple design-- "Find a welcoming space for the children to share their stories of collective discovery. Facilitate a discussion about the question itself and their investigation process. Engage the kids in their own review" There does not have to be any tests. Just learning for the sake of learning under the kind supervision of a respectful encouraging adult. Here is the SOLE kit. Anyone can do it-- a teacher in a classroom, a parent who wants to home school or an after school supervisor. Let's help change the way people conceptualize what learning for the 21st century. The revolution begins here! Access the tool kit here