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Where Is the Corruption Rhetoric in the US?

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I was having a few drinks with friends the other night at a dark bar in Paris. Much like my last HP posting, my company was principally African.

We were talking about all sorts of things, from how much we loved one of our co-hort's, Parselelo Kantai's, new fiction (his story, "You Wreck Her" was just short-listed for the Caine Prize) to how no matter how long we live in Paris there will still be things we never quite understand (we debated this after having been moved from one section of the bar to another, for no apparent reason). However, like all my conversations with my African friends all roads lead inevitably to one topic: corruption.

Parselelo, a writer, journalist and Nairobi stalwart lamented: "Everyone talks about corruption such that it doesn't even mean anything anymore!"

What he said struck me because it was as true as it was untrue, its veracity depending on which part of the world one resides.

It is true that for most Africans, corruption is so often discussed, debated and denounced by our politicians that it has literally lost its meaning. Whereas, the World Bank defines it as "the abuse of public office for private gain", for many Africans, corruption is merely a moral proxy. On a survey conducted by a team I was working with in Sierra Leone, we found that the many Sierra Leoneans thought corruption comprised of litany of bad deeds ranging from adultery to divorce. Pick up any newspaper in a cosmopolitan African city and corruption allegations are flung at one politician against another, the same way the American media uses infidelity to gauge the integrity of the country's political leadership.

In the wake of the global financial crisis, however, there is a notable absence of corruption mud-slinging in the American press. The unscrupulous conduct of a few costs many their jobs, homes, and security. These raiders were rewarded, as big banks got even bigger bailouts, courtesy of you, the taxpayer. As an African with corruption constantly on the brain, I was perplexed: where was corruption rhetoric in the US?

If this were Nairobi, the media would have been in an absolute frenzy. The crisis would have been dissected within the context of corruption: from the revolving door between the Department of Treasury and Wall Street, to the choice of bailed-out banks and SEC indictments. Instead, a quick Google search will reveal that the phrase 'corruption' + 'global financial crisis' (and its variants) renders just one result from a major American media source, namely Forbes magazine which commissioned an article from economist Daniel Kaufman.

Daniel Kaufman has a long and illustrious career in anti-corruption work and research. He is a current senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and the former World Bank good governance director. With extensive South America experience, Kaufman has been figuratively screaming for the anti-corruption movement to take notice of what he terms legal corruption or legal acts committed by private entities to gain undue influence. In a Forbes exclusive, Mr. Kaufman explains the link between corruption and the financial crisis .

Kaufman breaks down what he has been arguing for years, namely that corruption is more than just handing a politician an envelope filled with cash. Rather, it also includes private persons or companies gaining undue influence over public decision-makers in a range of ways -- most of which are perfectly legal albeit unscrupulous. Daniel Kaufman argues that when legal corruption is allowed to continue unfettered, state capture results, where politicians find themselves accountable to private entities rather than their constituencies. Kaufman argues that if current corruption indices accounted for legal corruption, the US would substantially drop in the rankings, given the amount of influence corporations currently exercise over American politicians. Whereas current corruption indices position the US as one of the least corrupt countries in the world, when accounting for legal corruption, the US would rank among the bottom half of countries, below Colombia, Botswana, and South Africa.

The US exercises one of the most aggressive anti-corruption agendas in the world, with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Department of Justice (DOJ) executing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) to the limits of this law. Record-breaking fines grab head-lines as do recent moves to pursue jail-time for individual perpetrators. However, these efforts are limited, since even the FCPA equates corruption to bribery. Without those suitcases stuffed with cash, there is no smoking gun to tie the architects of the global crisis to the FCPA and pursue them accordingly -- unless, we move for a broader definition of corruption.

Americans are not oblivious to corruption, rather we just discuss it narrowly within the context of politicians receiving cash bribes. When such events occur, there is significant media interest, as evinced by the attention former US Congressman William Jefferson (D-La) received for hiding thousands of dollars in illicit funds in his freezer. That got people talking.

Undeniably, the US sets the pace for creating international legal frameworks, anti-corruption law being one of them. Indeed, the internationalization of corruption law was largely due to US efforts to export FCPA provisions abroad in order to level the playing field for US businesses. Arguably, a more appropriate definition to address corruption today would be the abuse of public trust for private gain. The US has the resources and leverage to pursue such a definition both at home and abroad, and it would be in the interest of both businesses and consumers around the world if they did so.

What do you think?

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