The ugly truth is that the recent FIFA indictments will not be enough to change the epidemic of corruption that runs through soccer worldwide. As Declan Hill described in his book The Fix: Soccer and Organized Crime, corruption in the world of soccer extends beyond men in suits. Hill describes scores of strikers, fullbacks and goalies who are given bags of money in exchange for sub-par play. Sometimes, instead of money, their motivation to tank a game is the threat of physical harm to their families.
Corruption is a virus that touches everyone. I am reminded of an op-ed written several years ago by Homero Aridjis after Walmart was accused of paying $24 million in bribes for permits to open stores in Mexico. Stunningly, Aridjis writes that children in Mexico learn at an early age that corruption is a way of life. Children in his country all know the saying “El que transa, no vanza” which loosely translates to “You’re not going anywhere if you don’t cheat.”
In too many places corruption is like the natural climate. It affects every segment of society – government, business, education and religion. It’s the glue that keeps too many countries together. Consider the local policeman who shakes down a citizen because he has to pay tribute to his supervisor. And so forth up the chain of command.
Transparency International reports that corruption is a catch-all term to explain a litany of behaviors including bid-rigging, embezzlement, bribery, nepotism, extortion, protection rackets, fraud, patronage, larceny and graft.
Nigerians have coined a term for these behaviors. They call it a “419,” which refers to the section of their criminal code that describes corruption related crimes. Whether it’s paying extra money for a license, a passport, or a birth certificate, Nigerians are compelled to participate in a “419.” At what cost?
Some economists maintain that corruption hinders development. Yet how do they explain China’s impressive economic growth when nearly everything has a price in China? Getting your children into the best schools, placement in the top classes, leadership positions in Communist youth groups, even front row seats near the blackboard – all sold to the highest bidder.
I am by no means suggesting that the United States is corruption free. My son lives in New Orleans and the Bayou State was recently rated by the Justice Department as the most corrupt state in the U.S. And they call New Jersey the Soprano State for a reason, right?
But I don’t sense that people in the United States are resigned to everyday corruption. On a daily basis, U.S. citizens don’t have to tuck a $10 bill into the crease of their documents to renew their driver’s licenses. Yet in too many parts of the world, people do.
Consider this thought experiment: Can you imagine a time in the future when corruption is obsolete around the world? Most nations have eliminated slavery. We’ve eradicated smallpox. Why not corruption?
Experts frequently refer to Singapore as a shining example of what can be accomplished. Decades ago the island was awash in crime, corruption and patronage, but the nation decided enough was enough. New anti-corruption legislation was passed that gave real power to the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau. The president of the nation raised the salaries of the civil servants to minimize graft. Government employees who broke anti-corruption laws by taking bribes or kickbacks were sentenced to years in prison. Singapore set the bar on how to change the corruption climate.
Recent research suggests that leaders with integrity and political will can move the needle when it comes to reducing corruption. For example, Mayor Nutter in Philadelphia prominently appointed a chief integrity officer after being elected to office. While there is surely wisdom to the proverb that a “fish rots from the head,” there is also truth to the saying that “if the king is righteous, how could anyone dare to be crooked?” Leadership matters.
A growing number of “integrity warriors” across the globe are working tirelessly to reduce corruption worldwide. And there is a playbook to follow. In his book Controlling Corruption, Robert Klitgaard developed a corruption formula: Corruption = Power + Discretion – Accountability. According to Klitgaard, corruption is a crime of calculation. Thus, all that needs to be done is to tinker with the variables to make the calculus less desirable. The Singaporeans followed this formula by limiting the power and discretion of government officials and increasing the levers of accountability.
Corruption is not endemic to our human nature. I will never accept the perspective of a politician from one of Mexico’s provinces who once said, after being accused of corruption, “if we put everyone who’s corrupt in jail, who will close the door?”
Am I just being naïve? Let me know what you think.