Opinion | Breakthrough or broken promise?

In case you missed it, December 9 marked International Anti-corruption Day. If you live in Denmark, you probably did miss it.

The explanation for why you didn’t hear more about International Anti-Corruption Day might be found in the report released by the Danish chapter of Transparency International today. The report was the first to give an overall assessment of the national integrity system.

This is no small undertaking, and it is made possible only as part of a European Commission-funded effort that includes over 20 member states.

The report is based on a common set of strict guidelines, which makes it possible to look at it from a European-wide perspective.

Although such guidelines don’t make it possible to make a one-to-one comparison or even rank national efforts, using a common set of questions can elicit useful, parallel impressions of similar institutions, processes and regulations.

Such information can be used to identify the weaknesses of our own integrity system, but possibly more importantly we can use the information to learn from other countries that might have made more progress in some areas than we have.

We should clear one thing up right away: there is nothing controversial in the report. Yet, that said, the overall picture does show some tendencies that are hard to misinterpret.

Denmark is internationally recognised as a leader in the fight against corruption. In a world where corruption and bribery are increasingly apparent, it’s important that there is a role model for countries trying to put an end to the destruction caused by this social evil.

Denmark has had few cases of corruption in the true sense of the word, and the major corruption cases we’ve had haven’t touched off widespread public debate, the way they have in other countries. Nor have they led to significant changes to anti-corruption legislation.

That isn’t to say that we are immune to corruption – the 3 billion kroner Nordic Feather scandal of the 1990s, the Oil-for-Food scandal of the First Iraq War, and the 800 million kroner IT-Factory swindle in 2008 are just three that spring to mind.

We too need to accept that with a large, hierarchical public sector, increasing liberalisation and the increasing internationalisation of commerce – often according to entirely different practices than our own – come new challenges. The OECD and the Council of Europe have made it clear that if being be able to deal with these challenges will require other regulations and institutions.

We too are vulnerable to human weakness and greed and must constantly be prepared to defend against them.

We too need to recognise that we must constantly evaluate whether our regulations are good enough. And even if they are, we need to ask whether they are enforced strictly enough.

We too need to consider whether we can always use homogeneity, social cohesion and mutual trust to justify our general tendency to rely on informal norms and predictable practices. Historically, our society has not always been this way, and we have no guarantee that it will continue to be like this unless we make an active effort to support the strengths of our integrity system.

Maybe the consequence of our apparently carefree approach to fighting corruption should be to include not just corruption in the strict sense of the word, but also transparency and integrity in broad terms at all levels of society.

It’s important to note that our repeatedly high ranking in the annual Corruption Perceptions Index is due to other countries’ opinion of us, and that this is not necessarily a true reflection of reality. We should also ask whether regulations are being enforced the way legislators envisioned.

The assessment of the national integrity system will be released as part of a public event today  (read more at transparency.dk, in Danish only). During the event, a panel of leading politicians will discuss the challenges faced by the political system, focusing on the financial support for political parties, lobbying and public records of the financial activities of members of parliament.

The discussion will take the political parties to task on the pre-election promises to put stricter regulations for donations into place in order to make it crystal clear that the democratic duty to inform voters weighs far heavier than protecting donor anonymity. What is the point anonymity in the first place, other than to be able to influence lawmakers? Or, if this is a myth, then what’s the problem with debunking it? Hopefully, we’re not far from making a breakthrough.

Seen from a wider perspective, political parties are only a part of the topic, and we need to be careful not to make matters worse by demonising politicians based on a destructive populist current that has been churned up by all manner of scandal. The private sector, the financial sector and the public sector all deserve the same scrutiny, and we’re prepared to extend our assessment into these areas.

But even though we should look beyond the political sphere, politicians should be required to live up to a higher standard of integrity, since the electorate entrusts them with the authority to make decisions that affect their lives. Transparency International’s role is to serve as a watchdog that, working on the national and international levels, can ensure the continued development of collaboration and regulations targeted at preventing corruption. Even if that means having to learn from others.

The author is the chair of the Danish chapter of Transparency International.