Published: 19 Dec 2018 | By Steve Goodrich
In whose interest? How corrupt and repressive regimes seek influence and legitimacy
At TI-UK, we regularly meet many brave and interesting people from across the world. Their backgrounds and stories vary enormously, but they are united by a common purpose: the eradication of corruption, which we define as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. Although this might sound a bit abstract, it’s a daily reality for many of those we meet – the police officer asking them for a bribe, the official embezzling public funds intended for the frontline services their families use, and the collusion between powerful interests at the highest level of government, turning their democracies into kleptocratic states.
Whilst we share this common purpose, I am acutely aware of how different our challenges are in pursuing this mission. We’re focussed on making our voice heard in policy circles; our peers abroad more concerned with avoiding arrest, or worse, when speaking truth to power. In some cases, the work of colleagues abroad – be they members of Transparency International, other NGOs or investigative journalists – is literally a matter of life and death.
Considering we operate in such different contexts, it’s perhaps counterintuitive that so many people come to the UK to learn how our democratic experience can help to end endemic corruption back in their home country. Many see the UK – despite its quirks and anachronistic idiosyncrasies – as a beacon for justice, democracy and the rule of law. And to a certain extent this is true.
The UK regularly performs well in Transparency International’s global Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), which aggregates numerous expert surveys on the level of perceived public sector corruption. And, according to Freedom House, it is one of the freest countries in the world with a ‘stable democracy’ and a ‘vibrant’ free press. This is not to say the UK has no problems of its own. TI-UK’s work regularly exposes how corruption takes a distinct form over here. While the manifestations of corruption in the UK– cronyism, nepotism, influence peddling – are seen across the globe, they are qualitatively different from what is experienced much further down the CPI league table, in countries more traditionally perceived as corrupt.
Many in the UK Parliament recognise the relatively privileged position they hold – criticism of the Government will not lead to their arrest on trumped-up charges – by helping others move towards a freer, more democratic future elsewhere in the world. Yet there are others engaging in activities that – whether through ignorance, accident or willing complicity – help legitimise the actions of corrupt regimes who trample on the freedoms they so readily enjoy here. In TI-UK’s recent publication, In Whose Interest?, we have sought to highlight what amounts to ‘reputation laundering’ in the UK through three country case studies: Azerbaijan, Russia and Bahrain.
We chose these jurisdictions because they illustrate vividly the current types of questionable engagement by some UK parliamentarians. All three also have a key commonality: they perform woefully when it comes to internationally recognised measures of corruption and human rights abuse, an image they are keen to shift. Although the report covers a wide range of activities, these can be summarised into three main categories: entertainment, employment and engagement.