Grappling With Graft

How to Combat the Growing Corruption Epidemic

Graffiti on the fence surrounding the construction site of the new European Central Bank headquarters in Frankfurt, October 2013. Kai Pfaffenbach/ Courtesy Reuters

Corruption is one of the world’s hottest topics. Four decades ago, only about 25 to 30 English-language books on the issue appeared every year; that number increased to more than 400 today. A Google search for the word “corruption” produces more than 45.7 million results, compared with just 26.4 million for “terrorism.” The Corruption Perceptions Index, an annual ranking published by the watchdog group Transparency Internatio­nal, has become one of the world’s most cited reference sources. Yet despite all this attention, no adequate solutions to the problem have come to light.

Meanwhile, corruption has become a major threat to the global economic order. It wreaks havoc on the societies of developing countries, fuels social unrest and violence, and increasingly undermines the stability and security of the West. 

Stopping this epidemic requires a unified global response, led by the foremost developed countries, including the United States and the EU member states This campaign should follow three broad steps. First, Western policymakers must redefine the challenge by clearly distinguishing among different levels of fraud and identifying target areas for intervention. Second, a new international anticorruption pact must localize the problem and prevent its further spread. And third, countries shunning the pact must face financial isolation, while anticorruption movements within them receive international support. Carrying out these measures could go a long way toward stamping out the threat -- a result that would amount to one of the most significant achievements of the twenty-first century.


The first step in fighting a centuries-old problem is defining it better. The commonly understood definition of corruption -- using an official position for personal benefit -- is too broad for the international community to make meaningful headway. There will always be individuals who use their access to administrative and financial resources to pursue self-enrichment. Containing the problem requires pinning it down further by introducing a crucial distinction between corruption and bribery.

Bribery is mostly a low-level phenomenon, neither systemic nor organized. People who collect bribes -- from policemen and clerks

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