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Development not possible with rampant corruption: TI chairman Jose Carlos Ugaz

José Carlos Ugaz, chairman of Transparency International, is a Peruvian jurist. He served as Ad-Hoc Attorney of Peru for the highest profile criminal cases in recent history of Peru, involving the investigation of former president Fujimori. He was elected as member of the Transparency International Board in 2011, and as chair of the board in 2014. As the TI chief he ran two major campaigns, one to unmask the corrupt, and the other against impunity.

In an exclusive interview with Prothom Alo during his recent visit to Bangladesh, Jose Ugaz spoke to Consulting Editor Kamal Ahmed and Consultant (English Online) Ayesha Kabir on the challenges of combating corruption, Bangladesh’s anti-corruption commission, governance and democracy, the civil society, future strategies of Transparency International and the need for political will.

Prothom Alo: During this brief visit, you have exchanged views with officials at different levels and civil society representatives. What’s your view about the current situation in Bangladesh in terms of civil society organizations and their activities?
Jose Carlos Ugaz: I basically had the chance to talk to our own chapter, TI Bangladesh, and I perceived we have a vibrant and very strong chapter here in Bangladesh. It has national presence in more than 40 districts of the country. We had a meeting with more than 300 volunteers working in all these offices around Bangladesh. I think it is a unique experience of the strong presence of civil society concerned about the situation of corruption in Bangladesh.
Prothom Alo: The vibrancy of civil society in Bangladesh is said to be an example for other countries, but you have heard about a new legislation that seems to be curbing the rights of civil society. Would you like to elaborate?
Jose Carlos Ugaz: When you have a vibrant civil society struggling against corruption, when you work correctly, usually you have threats. It is part of our work to say when things are going well, but also to criticize when we believe things are not going well. As you know, every year we release a Corruption Perception Index, CPI. Since Bangladesh is systematically falling very low in the struggle against corruption, we know the government doesn’t like our CPI and doesn’t like TI measuring this because they believe that we are not doing it on a technical basis, but maybe there is a hidden political agenda that we are trying to present.
We are used to that, not only in Bangladesh, this happens all around the world. When governments are too happy with us, we must be concerned. That means we are not doing our work correctly. This situation of the new law that has been passed is a threat to this organization and others, with which the government is not comfortable.
But I think the government or the prime minister is missing the point here. We are not the enemies. The enemy is corruption. The enemy is the corrupt official and the corrupt company that is trying to take money from the people of Bangladesh for the personal gain of a few. When we are making this public and trying to support the government and others in producing policy, producing research, demonstrating what is happening, we shouldn’t been looked at as if we are in the opposition. As a matter of fact, we don’t do politics. We are not aligned with any party. One of our basic principles is that we must be neutral politically speaking. So tomorrow if the opposition becomes government, be sure they will also be angry with us because we will be saying the exact same things if they do not act correctly.
Prothom Alo: The argument on your side is that you are not taking sides with either of the parties because in the past when the other party was in power, Transparency’s role was similar to this. But the government’s argument is that it is cracking down on corruption and they blame the corruption on the previous regime.
Jose Carlos Ugaz: And that probably is true. We are not saying that they invented corruption. Corruption is a historic problem. What we are saying is, now that they are in power, they have the power, they have the resources and we expect them to deliver as they offered in their electoral campaign.
There is of course always the possibility of improving, if not completely change the environment. We have seen around the world that there are some countries that have really, with doses of political will, changed their environment. Botswana is an example.  It is an African country, much poorer than Bangladesh, but a government that came into power and deployed enough political will, has radically changed the environment for the benefit of the people of Botswana. So we are asking other governments in similar situations, why are you not concerned about deploying the necessary political will to change the environment of corruption instead of looking for so-called enemies or opponents in civil society?
We understand of course that does not apply to all of the government. Yesterday I had a very interesting conversation with one of the advisors of the prime minister and I think he really values what we are doing and he publicly congratulated TIB for the series of work the chapter is doing and its executive director Iftekhar for the work he has been doing in the past years.
We had a meeting this morning with the chief commissioner of the Anti-Corruption Commission. We have offered our support. TI is a coalition working in more than one hundred countries so we have the opportunity of collecting good practices all around the world. That is something we can put in favour of the Bangladesh Anti-Corruption Commission. We can be brokers for the country, bringing expertise for ways to empower the commission and make it more efficient in its work against corruption. He thanked us for that and said he also really valued the work done by TIB and he was expecting to work with us on some priorities that the commission is willing to establish. So when there is space and when dialogue is open, the government will have us as partners and allies in the work against corruption.
If they think it is better shrinking the space of civil society, attacking organisations and putting a threat on us, unfortunately we will have to respond as we usually respond in civil society.
Prothom Alo: What sort of response are you talking about?
Well, if the conditions deteriorate, we are an international organization. We are esteemed by many governments of the world so we can mobilize the international community in order to express concern of what is happening. This wouldn’t be the first case in which our activists have to confront harsh environments. We have our chapter in Russia that is dealing with Putin, a very corrupt environment. They have been brought to trial, they are defending themselves and they are succeeding. Our chapter in Venezuela with Maduro is under permanent threat and they are there doing their work, of course with a lot of international support.
It is not easy to go against civil society because also on the internal side we have many allies in each country that I hope will stand to defend our position. So we will be a real embarrassment if the authorities start chasing organisations that everybody knows are working in favour of common good and not because of political interests.  
Prothom Alo: There are allegations that the anti-corruption watchdog ACC is being used politically to harass and repress the voice of dissent from the opposition. The allegation, to be more precise, is that the law is being applied selectively for political advancement. Any view on that?
Jose Carlos Ugaz: It could happen. It wouldn’t be the first time or the first country that this has happened. Many anti-corruption commissions have failed and many others have been manipulated by the executives of different governments of different countries in order to attack the opposition or go after the so-called enemies of the government.
In this case, I had a very good and positive impression of the new commissioner. I think he is willing to do good things. We discussed difficult and sensitive issues openly. He recognized some of the limitations he has and at the same time, I understand, he is making changes in the office. He is moving some people, bringing some other people in and we trust him. We hope, of course, in the coming time we will confirm that he is the correct person to conduct this commission. If this does not happen, of course we will say it loudly and openly.
Prothom Alo: Another criticism against Transparency is that its perception index is not the ideal tool and does not reflect the real situation of corruption. Big corruption by big corporations, multinationals and big investors is swept under the carpet or sidelined. How do you respond to that criticism?
Jose Carlos Ugaz: If you ask the Danish or the Swedish or the Norwegians or the Finnish, they would tell you that they are very happy with the CPI. They truly believe in the technical consistence of our instrument. Of course, if you are well positioned, you will think this is a valuable tool. If you appear in a bad place in the picture, you will feel and believe that this is not fair.
We have never said the CPI is a hundred percent accurate measure of the situation of corruption in the world. But in my personal experience, I can tell you in most of the cases, perception is reality. And here I will comment on a phrase I read from Jim Wolfensohn when he was president of the World Bank some years ago. He was the first president of the World Bank who spoke openly and was very tough against corruption. He said that corruption is a cancer that increases poverty and is a threat against governance and development. Wolfensohn said he needed only ten minutes to go into a country, to talk to the taxi drivers, and some other officials at the entrance of the hotel to know who was on the take in that country. Everybody knows.
It is absurd that a country like Peru or like Haiti say that since this is not a technical measure, this is not a situation of corruption in Peru or Haiti. If we go and verify on the field the picture of Peru or Haiti on the CPI, it is more or less the situation of reality. Trying to deny reality is a bad policy.
Those who criticize the CPI can say, there is no corruption in Bangladesh, we should be given 75 points out of 100, but apparently that doesn’t coincide with reality. I’ve been here only two days. I’ve heard a lot of stories about corruption. I read the papers, I talked to the people, I talked to journalists, I talked to the authorities, and everyone recognizes there is systemic, structural and widespread corruption around the country. That is reflected in the 25 points Bangladesh has out of 100 in the CPI, or maybe 28 points.
Prothom Alo: The Bangladesh chapter of TI ran into trouble with the government over parliament watch. How does parliament watch fall into Transparency’s remit?
Jose Carlos Ugaz: Parliamentarians produce laws and they are sitting in their positions representing the people. They are there because they were voted to do what they are to do. So for us it is very relevant to observe how they conduct themselves, and if they are prioritizing their personal interests or interests of their party instead of the interests of the people and the country. When we find that there is misbehaviour or not good practices in the way the parliamentarians conduct themselves, then we feel it is our obligation to make it public. So those reports that the chapter have been doing on the parliamentarians are also part of our work.
We believe when we are presenting our facts, we are not inventing anything. That’s the reality. In those cases we are not talking about perception. When we talk about perception, they say, why do you talk about perception? When we present facts, then they say, no, those are not the facts. You are still talking about perception. However, there is hard data. Everybody that wants to criticize our report can read it and of course we will defend it because it is very serious.
Prothom Alo: Any forward looking plan that you want to share with us?
Jose Carlos Ugaz: Globally, yes, we have now embarked on our 2020 strategy. We have prioritized three pillars for our work. One of them is people’s engagement and partnerships. We first of all recognise that the level of corruption we have seen around the world is impossible to be tackled by only one organization. Even though we are big and strong and have presence in more than 100 countries, it is not enough. So we need to find others who are willing to do this effort with us and we are now exploring different partnerships with journalists, human rights organisations, with environmental organizations and others concerned with governance, poverty and democracy. That’s on one hand.
On the other hand, we believe we need to strengthen and intensify our engagement with the people because people are reacting against corruption in many places around the world.  I come from Latin America and I can tell you what is happening in Guatemala, Honduras, Brazil. You are having millions of people in the streets, demanding the eradication of corruption because they know corruption is depriving them from health, housing, water, sanitation. Corruption is killing their people. When these social movements start, we want to be there. We want to be there to provide support, to provide the elements we have developed over the years, to provide the data that we have from our research, and facilitate these movements to arrive to a positive outcome.
The challenge of these social movements is sustainability. We don’t want more Arab Springs that appear, make a big outburst and then just suddenly disappear and things become the same or worse than they were when they started. So we want to engage people, especially the youth because we believe the youth has the energy and the strength and the motivation to make a real change.
A very great surprise for me when I came here and was looking at the Bangladesh chapter of Transparency. I found that they’ve been engaged with people for many years. That is something we as a global movement need to learn. There is a model for Bangladesh to export to the world, the way anti-corruption work has been done here in the past years.
The other priority we have established is the one related to grand corruption. We have worked seriously to try to define grand corruption. Grand corruption is a different phenomenon from the corruption in the world we had 23 years ago when TI started. Now if you open any newspaper or watch the TV channels, you will see the numbers of corruption are huge.
We are talking about billions of dollars-- Yanukovich from Ukraine, US$ 7.5b has been stolen. Martinelli from Panama, US$ 5b. Obiang in Equatorial Guinea, he’s taken billions. We cannot count it because he is still in the position of president. Dos Santos in Angola, Ben Ali in Tunisia, Petrobras and construction companies in Brazil, more than US$3.5b. The amounts that are laundered by the big banks, we are talking about US$800b laundered by the Mexican drug cartels, US$ 300b to the terrorists groups by another bank in France and the list is huge, almost all the big banks are involved in money laundering. So this is what we call grand corruption. Corruption that is committed by powerful actors because they have political or economic power, they are mobilizing huge resources and this situation is generating a huge impact on human lives, basically in developing countries like yours and mine. Money is taken from us to be funneled to Europe or the United States or other places where they can enjoy their ill-gotten assets.
That type of corruption, because it is committed by powerful actors, usually face no legal consequences because they are in power and because they can afford the best law firms and construct a very complex defence. We want to break the impunity, we want to expose these people, we want to identify them, we want to tell their stories to the world. If they are not going to suffer legal consequences, they should be socially sanctioned. In many countries these people that are corrupt are shown as role models of success because they are millionaires, because they have nice houses in their beaches, they have private jets and a lavish life, when everybody knows the wealth they are exhibiting is a product of corruption, is product of crime. So we want these people to be identified and isolated, with everybody reacting to what they are. They are criminals.
Prothom Alo: The Global Financial Integrity reports that about US$9b has been channeled out from Bangladesh, mostly to be deposited in offshore banking and territories. Can Transparency International do something in unearthing those people who are siphoning off this money from the country?
Jose Carlos Ugaz: Yes we can and we are in that effort. This confirms what I was saying. Can you imagine what could have been done in this country with so many billions of dollars, all the people that could have been taken out of poverty, all the infrastructure that could have been built in favour of the children of Bangladesh? That is why we need to identify who are the authors of these crimes.
We are advocating at an international level to create a registry. The registry will reveal the ultimate beneficiaries of offshore companies, of big companies where the real owners hide behind a corporate vehicle structure with nobody knowing who is moving the money from one place to another. We are succeeding. G20 already accepted those principles. When Mr Cameron was the prime minister of the UK, he convened a summit in London some months ago and 12 countries already signed in favour of this global registry. Already UK, Denmark and Norway have it.
We need to follow the money, we need to investigate who are these people. Once we know who they are, we need to go after them and after the money because it is not only sending these people to prison. Bangladesh has the right to recover the money. Now we have the UNCAC, the United Nations Convention Against Corruption and it has several provisions of how to repatriate the money that has been taken out of a country.
In my country Peru, former president Fujimori who is now convicted to 25 years in prison because of corruption, he and his network took away a significant amount of money. We were able to repatriate US$ 350m at this point from abroad. So it is possible. But of course we need information and we need to track that information in order to generate the necessary consequences.
Prothom Alo: Then there is the concern about democracy. There are those who maintain that economic development must take priority over democracy. How do you react to that?
Jose Carlos Ugaz: It is impossible to achieve economic development with corruption at the same time. It is true that corruption is not only the problem of the authoritarian regimes or dictatorships. There are many democratic regimes that have severe problems of corruption. Professor Klitgaard, who is one of the champions of research on corruption, says corruption is like AIDS. It doesn’t distinguish age, gender, religion, ideology, political position, social status. So we find corruption on the right and we find corruption on the left. We find corruption of course in most of the dictatorships of the world and the authoritarian regimes, but we also find corruption in many so-called democracies.
It is true that it is not specifically a one-sided problem, but what is clear from our experience is that it is not possible to achieve development with rampant corruption on the side because corruption increases poverty. Corruption generates inequality. Corruption brings problems of governance. Look at Brazil again. The president has been brought down because of corruption. The former president is now under investigation. And the new president who is not much better than the one that has just left will be in a problem soon too because all the issues of corruption related to him are appearing. So this is a problem of governance too.
Prothom Alo: The media comes under tremendous pressure when it exposes corruption. In that case, how effective a tool can social media be in exposing corruption?
Jose Carlos Ugaz: Social media has demonstrated itself to be a very powerful means for this purpose. In many countries, for example, the mobilization of people and particularly youth have been mobilized in minutes though Facebook, though Twitter and some of the other social media instruments that we have now in the world. It is very powerful in organizing things, in exposing things, not only on the local level but also internationally. If you put up something and it becomes a trend, in minutes the entire world knows that is happening. So yes, we believe in social media. We are working intensively to develop some of the anti-corruption instruments at that level.
Prothom Alo: Thank you
Jose Carlos Ugaz: Thank you
This interview has been published in Daily Prothom Alo on 23-10-16. Link