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Leaders' Statement

Dr Elizabeth David-Barrett

Lecturer in Politics

University of Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption

UK, Europe


Dr Elizabeth David-Barrett is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption. She has been researching corruption, particularly the links between politics and business, for around 15 years and also teaches on Sussex’s MA in Corruption and Governance.


Professional services firms must stop facilitating corruption

In my teaching, I compare corruption to tobacco. For many years, it was common knowledge that smoking caused cancer: the US Surgeon General publicly said so in 1964. And yet smoking remained fashionable, people continued to take it up in great numbers, governments failed to legislate, and companies did not change their practices.

Growing up in the 1980s, I cast around for explanations. Maybe the addictive properties of tobacco were to blame. Maybe human nature was too weak to resist. Perhaps governments had a vested interest in tobacco tax revenues. Or the tobacco lobby was simply too powerful?

The same kinds of explanations are often given for why corruption persists: Human nature? Culture? Vested interests?

On tobacco, huge progress has been made. In many countries, smoking in public places has been banned, fewer individuals take it up, and smokers are shamed rather than admired. Admittedly, enforcement varies and tobacco companies still see developing countries as growth markets. But the trend, as my children grow up, looks radically different.

For anti-smoking campaigners, things began to change when they started to highlight the effects of passive smoking. This focused attention on the many innocent victims – children, co-workers, hospital patients (even hospitals allowed smoking!) Similarly, the world is beginning to wake up to the fact that corruption is not a victimless crime.

Greater awareness of victims made it easier to build constituencies to campaign for change. Healthcare workers got involved, as did employees of bars and restaurants, so too parents - adding their voices and resources. Employers began to ban smoking, and gradually governments woke up to their responsibility to protect vulnerable groups.

It was necessary to change both laws and norms. Laws against tobacco advertising and smoking in public places help set the standards for society, but people comply more readily - and change comes much faster - when it is driven by shifts in norms.

I urge leaders to turn the spotlight on the intermediaries who are complicit in corruption – professional services firms, banks and agents that facilitate tax avoidance, turn a blind eye to money laundering, and advise that bribery is the only way to do business. Their complicity not only facilitates corruption, but also perpetuates the sense that corruption is inevitable and here to stay. Changing their behaviour is key to changing norms – and delivering real progress for the next generation.

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