LONDON Frank Vogl, who co-founded the anti-corruption group Transparency International (TI) in 1993, believes campaigners have reached base camp in their fight to end the abuse of public office for private gain.
TI has offices in more than 100 countries and its annual rankings of clean government are widely used by investment analysts to help gauge political risk.
But the almost daily disclosures of rigged elections and corporate bribery across the globe shows why Vogl, a former journalist and senior World Bank official who lives in Washington, is quick to admit there is an Everest yet to climb.
Vogl spoke to Reuters about his new book "Waging War on Corruption" during a visit to London.
Q: Are you winning the fight against corruption?
A: "I don't say we're winning, but we've come a long way in 20 years. Polls around the world show that many people view corruption as their single-biggest concern. The Arab Spring showed an enormous level of frustration by ordinary people with the humiliation they suffer every day as a result of corruption and extortion, and a willingness to go out on the streets and do something about it."
Q: Is corruption a price worth paying to ensure political stability in friendly countries?
A: "In an earlier era, you could have perhaps made that case. Today, thanks to the Internet and social media ordinary citizens everywhere are far better informed than ever before. You don't secure peace and stability in a country if the broad public has no confidence in the leadership and institutions of government. Whether it's in China or Russia - or more unstable countries like Afghanistan or Iraq or Pakistan - public awareness of corruption is something governments have to address. If they run totally fraudulent elections or continue to put in place gangsters to run institutions, then over time you will have far greater instability."
Q: What lessons are to be learned from Egypt?
A: "What is difficult for Western powers, especially the United States, is to find partners in highly unstable countries. Or they stick with them for too long. President (Hosni) Mubarak is a very good example. For a long time he was important for peace and security in the Middle East. But he lost so much credibility at home that the U.S. was seen almost as a co-conspirator against the people of Egypt, which today makes it very hard for the U.S. to restore a strategic relationship with Egypt."
Q: Is corruption in business on the rise?
A: "There is no way of knowing. It's far easier to move money round the world swiftly and illicitly. But there are now more laws in place that criminalise foreign bribe-paying by corporations than ever before. There are more prosecutions and investigations. The fines being paid are higher. And the number of companies that have developed training and compliance programmes to try to adhere to ant-bribery laws is greater than ever before. There is also far more media attention on the issue. And from 2014 oil and gas and mining companies in the United States will have to publicly list all their royalty payments to host governments. A similar law will come into effect in Europe. So through greater transparency you are going to start to reduce the level of illicit payments."
Q: What about the wealth amassed by officials in some African oil-producing countries?
A: "As I said, we have a long way to go. Transparency International France and another NGO asked the French courts to order the state to investigate the illicit investments that the leaders of three west African countries had in France. The French government contested this, but the investigations have gone forward. But it's incredibly difficult because the French, the British and others have very strong security interests in wanting to maintain supplies of minerals and oil and gas."
Q: So governments are saying in effect that corruption is a price worth paying?
A: "It's very short-sighted. If we can bribe people to guarantee our security of supply, others can too. If we are going to turn a blind eye to the illicit trade in diamonds, for example, it isn't going to help the stability and security of southern Africa. The fundamental debate about this in the UK is over. People 'get it' and see where the longer-term interest lies. But a lot of defence and oil contracts are still a very murky area. And there is a lot of money being laundered that the authorities, for one reason or another, have decided not to clamp down on."
Q: Which countries stand out as winning and losing the fight against corruption?
A: "Take a country like Georgia. The fact that they recently had a contested election, which the opposition won, is a good indicator of a significant effort at reform. There are very close correlations between the levels of perceived corruption, human rights abuse, press freedom and the strength of democratic institutions. But we also see backsliding. We all rejoiced at the intentions of a new government in Kenya after President (Daniel arap) Moi. But today there's probably greater corruption in Kenya than before."
Q: The chief of staff of former Brazilian president Lula was recently jailed for corruption. How significant is that?
A: "The investment community should be paying close attention to what is happening in Brazil. You have got very important changes in public procurement and freedom-of-information laws that are making it harder to use bribes to get government contracts; you've had the prosecution and sentencing of top politicians that, five years ago, would never have happened. Why? Part of the reason is that after two decades of economic policy reform and the modernisation of the economy you have an increasingly influential entrepreneurial middle class that understands that their business success is best achieved in clean markets."
Q: Has TI come under attack for its campaigning?
A: "Whether it be in Zimbabwe or Sri Lanka or Venezuela, people leading anti-corruption movements - and not just Transparency International - are facing continuous threats by the police. Our office in Sri Lanka has been bombed, the head of the office was kidnapped and there have been repeated death threats against members of staff. The level of threats has increased in many countries, including in Russia, and that is a direct result of the increasing success of these groups. If they were not successful or effective, the governments wouldn't care. We have citizens' help lines to report corruption in 55 countries. Thousands of people are lodging complaints, and that is testing many governments. Even lower-level officials are suddenly being challenged. So we're entering a much more dangerous period for the leaders of civil society."
(Editing by Paul Casciato)