The global spread of a culture of integrity

One of the surprising news events of 2017 was the arrest of more than 200 prominent people in Saudi Arabia for corruption. The roundup on Nov. 4 even included powerful princes within the ruling royal family. Now the leader of the campaign, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has revealed a prime reason for this dramatic crackdown in the Middle East kingdom.

“My father [the king] saw that there is no way we can stay in the G-20 and grow with this level of corruption,” he said in a New York Times interview. Prince Salman estimates that 10 percent of government spending is siphoned off by corruption each year.

The G-20 is a club of the world’s wealthiest nations. It has also become the major forum for global governance. Its member states, including Saudi Arabia, not only set standards of reform among themselves, they also rely on peer pressure to hold each other to account.

Since 2010, the G-20 has had a “working group” of anti-corruption experts advising members on how to detect bribery and improve government transparency. For its part, Saudi Arabia has proposed a number of anti-corruption laws. It has set up university clubs to promote integrity and begun to measure public perceptions of corruption. And ever since the crown prince consolidated power this year – with a nod from King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud – the country’s elite has been targeted by an anti-corruption commission.

The mass arrests, in other words, reflect a decades-long global trend to cultivate a culture of integrity in many countries. This drive to curb corruption has now reached a level of importance in world affairs similar to that of human rights.

The trend has also sparked mass protests for honest governance from India to Romania. And recently, the presidents of two G20 members, Brazil and South Korea, have been impeached while a former president of Argentina faces charges for corruption.

The United States began this global trend in the 1970s with its far-reaching Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. But the movement has been widened to include the World Bank, European Union, and other bodies. Corruption is now seen as a driver of financial crises, terrorism, the drug trade, and slow economic development.

The main advocate for reform is a Paris-based group of 35 developed countries called the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. The OECD provides advice to the G20. In 1999, it approved the Anti-Bribery Convention, the first binding international instrument to focus exclusively on bribery in business transactions. The pact now includes 44 countries and encompasses much of the worldwide commerce.

This effort to instill a culture of openness and accountability, says Angel Gurría, the OECD’s secretary general, has made economies more productive, governments more efficient, institutions more trusted, and societies more inclusive.

“In short,” he adds, “integrity delivers better lives.”

Saudi Arabia has now fully jumped on this global bandwagon. Perhaps its mass arrests should not be seen as a surprise. Rather they are merely another example of a spreading norm that embraces the highest principles of governance.

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