The Fight Against Corruption Goes Global

The Year Protestors Said Enough


Corruption complaint box in Leh, India. (watchsmart / flickr)

2011 was a turning point in the fight against corruption. Around the world, protest after protest had one common denominator: outrage at some form of corruption. In the Middle East, people took to the streets to oust political elites who had been building vast personal wealth while depriving citizens of the most basic necessities. Israel, too, saw its first mass middle-class economic protests ever. In India, meanwhile, the social activist Anna Hazare led several hunger strikes in a campaign against graft. And Chinese citizens staged protests against corruption. Following seemingly fraudulent parliamentary elections in December, Russia also saw an unprecedented middle-class movement mobilized against the existing establishment. Even in the United States and Western Europe, citizens rallied against unemployment, corporate greed, and inequality.

As any student of history knows, corruption is an age-old problem. Attempts to solve it date back centuries, but the modern, more global battle started in 1977, when the United States first enacted the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). It was passed in response to a series of defense industry scandals involving the business practices of such firms as General Electric, Lockheed Martin, and McDonnell Douglas in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. And for the first time in history, a law purported to be applicable beyond U.S. borders.

Before the FCPA, efforts against public corruption had been narrowly focused -- they were national or local -- and enacted piecemeal, routinely targeting only smaller acts of corruption. Rarely, if ever, did the United States cooperate with other countries to root out systemic inequity.

For decades after it passed, even the FCPA was not particularly widely enforced. U.S. companies despised it, because, they argued, it placed them at a competitive disadvantage with foreign companies. Non-U.S. businesses and governments reviled it, too, because the United States' claim of having jurisdiction on foreign territories seemed a violation of basic sovereignty.

But two long-standing pressures converged in the late 1980s and

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