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Activists seek to turn raw energy of protest into change

People power may be making itself felt in protests all over the world, but away from the streets some traditional command structures are looking as resilient as ever. In the US presidential and legislative elections this week – one of the world’s largest exercises in democracy – the campaign spending totalled a staggering $6bn, said Ellen Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, a non-governmental group. That money – and the influence it bought – was lavished by donors accounting for just 0.1 per cent of the US population: in other words, one in a thousand US citizens drove the agenda of a process that would decide the political future of the country for the next four years.

The argument over the role of a moneyed few in the US poll is one of a host of debates over what some activists would call “legal corruption” –  the sway some individuals and institutions wield over society because of their wealth, disproportionate access to information, or some other advantage. As demonstrations over alleged social injustices rip through countries rich and poor, campaigners are asking how to parlay that anger into reform, rather than turmoil and instability.

“The energy is not going to go away,” said one activist, in remarks that referred to the Arab world revolts but apply almost anywhere. “The question is whether it’s going to be channelled into more social strife and ferment.”

Many of the great protests of the last two years – from Occupy Wall Street to the revolts sweeping the Arab world – have been triggered in part by disgust at real or perceived elite corruption. The Tunisian demonstrations that ousted President Zine el Abidine ben Ali followed WikiLeaks disclosures about alleged graft linked to the regime, while western protestors have condemned the bonuses paid to bankers after the financial crisis. 

Turning this feeling into reform is far from straightforward, however, as many popular movements that have since run into frustration are finding. Vested interests strike back against change, while the very instability and uncertainty created by protest movements can – somewhat paradoxically – create an environment where corruption flourishes, rather than retreats.

Misha Glenny, the author and journalist who specialises in organised crime, suggests a dark truth is that graft is an essential counterpart of profound socioeconomic shifts. He tells the story of an oligarch at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union who claimed he and his fellow shady businessmen were the ones making logistics function during the crisis and thus ensuring Russians had “bread on the table”.

“Organised crime and corruption are absolutely vital to the process of transition,” Mr Glenny said. “The problem is when they lay down roots in the new state [because] the state is not able to keep pace with the speed of economic transition.”

One way to try to short-circuit that process is to try to bring more focus to popular pressure, moving it from a strong but vague desires for change to campaigns for specific – and thus achievable – action. Mr Glenny cites the example of the “ficha limpa” – clean record – law confirmed in Brazil this year, which brings in tougher curbs to prevent convicted criminals standing for public office.

Activists are also increasingly seeking the help of powerful groups who might not seem natural allies – such as companies who share an interest in seeing specific reforms happen.  John Sullivan, executive director of the Centre for International Private Enterprise, a not-for-profit group focused on private sector governance, said there was now a coalition of 22,000 businesses giving each other mutual support on avoiding extortion in Russia – the companies don’t want to pay bribes, just as concerned citizens don’t want to see them do it.

It’s clear that – whatever the nature of the graft they are targeting – many campaigners are increasingly concluding they can’t achieve what they want on their own. 

“Civil society is under a hell of a lot of pressure. We are not winning that fight,” said Jeremy Hobbs, executive director of Oxfam International, the anti-poverty campaign group, which has allied with lawyers in post-revolutionary Egypt working for civil rights. “We need corporate leadership to help. Because I don’t think civil society can do it without real muscle from business leaders who are prepared to set the bar very high.”


Michael Peel is a Financial Times journalist. He writes here in a personal capacity. 

Secret money: the trail stretches long

It’s a truism to say there is a lot of money flowing around the world’s tax havens – but it’s still staggering to visualise exactly how much. Nicholas Shaxson, author of the book Treasure Islands, put it this way: if the $32 trillion of wealth he estimates is stashed offshore were to be amassed in dollar bills laid end to end, the money trail would amount to five times the distance travelled by the earth in its orbit around the sun.

Raymond Baker, author of Capitalism’s Achilles Heel, comes up with a big number of his own: about $1 trillion of wealth is bleeding way annually from poor countries into international financial networks. He said: “The first thing we have to do is to address the reality of the global shadow financial system that facilitates the movement of this money.” > Read full story

Rio shows way on links between environment and corruption

The inter-governmental deal on climate change inked in Rio de Janeiro in June has proved nothing less than the “longest suicide note in history”, according to Kumi Naidoo, Greenpeace International’s executive director. He sees the successor compact to the original landmark 1992 Rio declaration on climate change as a crucial and perhaps fatal missed opportunity to tackle a problem that links the worlds of environmentalism, economics and graft.
“On many of the critical [areas] we have actually gone back,” Mr Naidoo said, lamenting the “corruption and the absence of transparent governance” that continue to enable the over-exploitation of fossil fuels. “When we look at the reality, time is running out.”
Twenty years after the original Rio agreement, the links between the degradation of the planet and the problem of international corruption have become increasingly clear. From illegal pollution in poorly regulated countries to illicit carbon trading dealings in western financial markets, the growing international focus on the environment has revealed many disturbing examples of poor governance and even outright fraud.
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The Dangerous and Difficult Fight against Impunity

Chut Wutty died in April as he lived, investigating allegedly illegal logging operations in his home country of Cambodia. He was apparently shot dead by security forces while taking two journalists into a forest in the country’s south-east, in an incident in which a police officer was also killed.

Markus Hardtke, a fellow logging campaigner, said the authorities had suggested the officer had shot Mr Chut and then turned the gun on himself in remorse.

“It’s nonsense,” Mr Hardtke said. “Everybody knows it’s nonsense. But they try to get away with it and make these cases go away.”

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Filipinos give Lessons in push for Openness

Filipino parents unhappy with the way their children’s schools are being run now have a ready remedy: sending an email or text to the website

The site has a scrolling list of user complaints, ranging from a computer shortage in an elementary school to allegations – supported by a photo – that another institution is putting pupils’ health at risk by allowing rubbish to pile up.

“[The site gives] real-time feedback on whether teachers and textbooks are showing up in schools – and it’s putting pressure on government to respond,” said Sanjay Pradhan, a vice-president of the World Bank, which is supporting the project run by the education ministry and civil society groups.

In its simplicity, accessibility and exploitation of the raw power of information, the initiative reflects a growing enthusiasm internationally for grassroots approaches to tackling graft. Aided by social media, activists are using revealing data to harness a widespread public frustration with governments manifested in events ranging from Arab world revolts to the Occupy protests.  > Read full story