Action For Better Cities

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Towards Greater Transparency in Cities

We all deserve city management that is more transparent, more accountable, more efficient, more effective and more people-friendly.  Why should we put up with corruption?  Together we can change things for the better!


BAD DECISIONS ABOUT PUBLIC GOODS Often irrational and shortsighted decisions are made regarding public goods because the main criterion is a bribe.  This distortion of the decision-making process results in wrong suppliers or contractors being chosen, unnecessary and inappropriate purchases being made or projects undertaken.  At the same time, the citizen has to deal with sub-standard and over-priced goods and services, inefficiency and waste in the provision of public services.

POOR QUALITY OF GOODS AND SERVICES Bribes come with a hidden cost to society in tow ways: one, the bribe giver usually passes on the cost of the bribe by either increasing the purchase price or reducing the quality of goods or services and two, the main reason that the bribe was given was to counter-balance the poor quality of goods or services which would never have been chosen in the first place.

As it has been documented in Africa, a minister of health who is obliged to take steps necessary for the prevention, treatment and control of epidemic diseases, with a view to achieving progressively the full realisation of the right to health, knowingly, deliberately and corruptly purchased expired drugs, and when an epidemic breaks out, a whole community is wiped out.  Similarly, a senior official of the ministry of education purchases inferior materials for the construction of a school building, an essential element in realising the right to education, and the building collapses, killing hundreds of school children.

DEPLETION OF NATIONAL WEALTH Economically, corruption leads to the depletion of national wealth.  It is often responsible for the funneling of scarce public resources to uneconomic high-profile projects, such as dams, power plants, pipelines and refineries, at the expense of less spectacular but more necessary infrastructure projects such as schools, hospitals and roads, or the supply of power and water to rural areas.  Furthermore, it hinders the development of fair market structures and distorts competition, thereby deterring investment.

According to an official of the Asian Development Bank, over the past twenty years, one Asian country is estimated to have lost $48 billion due to corruption, surpassing its entire foreign debt of $40.6 billion; while the state assets of another Asian country had fallen by more than $50 billion over the past decade, primarily due to deliberate undervaluing by corrupt officials responsible for a privatisation programme.

DISCRIMINATION When a person offers a bribe to a public official (whether in the form of money or excessive "hospitality" or benefit in kind), and that bribe is accepted, he or she immediately acquires a privileged status in relation to other persons similarly placed who have not offered any such gratification and are given preferential treatment.  This difference in treatment has no reasonable or objective justification, nor does it pursue a legitimate aim.  This constitutes discrimination.

BURDENS THE DISADVANTAGED It is the socially powerless and decent people who are often short-changed by corruption, for they either cannot or will not join in playing the crooked game.  Because of their poverty or uprightness they constantly get the short end of the stick in comparison with those who have the means to influence decisions and the way things are handled to their advantage and do so.

This often means that services to which all citizens are nominally entitled by the constitution and the law are denied persons from the underclass, already under severe social duress, unless they cough up.  It starts with giving someone who needs a certificate of birth or death a hard time, continues where children are enrolled in school, testimonials are required for job applications or positions with government are filled, and does not stop even when, following a catastrophe, the state distributes free or subsidised relief goods such as food.

VIOLATES HUMAN RIGHTS If a corrupt municipality were to forcibly evict a group of pavement and slum dwellers and demolish their dwellings in order to enable a private entrepreneur to construct a shopping complex in the vicinity, thereby depriving a colony of persons who had migrated to the city in search of employment and chosen to live on a pavement or slum nearest to their place of work or a place to live in, their right to a livelihood, which is an integral component of their right to life, may be infringed.

Other examples of the impact of corruption abound: take the residents of shanty towns, who need to pay off city officials so that the little bit of living space they have built does not get torn down; or citizens harassed by police in their daily activities, having to pay left and right only to go about their business.  Some bureaucracies only work if they are enticed by additional "rewards".  In any case, grand and petty corruption is making life more difficult or outright threatens the lives of many people all over the world.

ENVIRONMENTAL DEGRADATION Environmental degradation is yet another consequence of corrupt systems.  The lack of, or non-enforcement of, environmental regulations and legislation has historically allowed the North to export its polluting industry to the South.  At the same time, careless exploitation of natural resources, from timber and minerals to elephants, by both domestic and international agents has led to ravaged natural environments.  Environmentally devastating projects are given preference in funding, because they are easy targets for siphoning off public money into private pockets.

ULTIMATELY UNDERMINES DEMOCRACY AND THE SOCIAL FABRIC On the political front, corruption constitutes a major obstacle to democracy and the rule of law.  In a democratic system, offices and institutions lose their legitimacy when they are misused fro private advantage.  Though this is harmful in the established democracies, it is even more so in newly emerging ones.  Accountable political leadership cannot develop in a corrupt climate.

The effect of corruption on the social fabric of society is the most damaging of all.  It undermines people's trust in the political system, in its institutions and its leadership.  Frustration and general apathy among a disillusioned public result in a weak civil society.  That in turn clears the way for despots as well as democratically elected yet unscrupulous leaders to turn national assets into personal wealth.  Demanding and paying bribes become the norm.


- Regular, organised and open consultations with citizens on city financial matters and other important local issues;
- Transparent tendering and procurement procedures and innovative procedures to ensure integrity in the process;
- Internal independent audit capacity and annual external audit reports;
- Regular programs of testing public officials integrity response;
- Eliminating administrative and procedural incentives for corruption, including simplification of local taxation systems and reduction of administrative discretion in permit processing;
- Swift prosecution and adjudication of corruption cases;
- Promoting an ethic of service to the public while striving to put in place adequate remuneration for public servants;
- Instituting measures to reduce nepotism and any form of unfair favouritism through fair and transparent systems of public appointments and promotions within the local government;
- Establishing codes of conduct and provision for regular disclosure of assets of public officials and elected representatives;
- Creating local coalitions of communities and organisations that can effectively monitor the operations of local government;
- Encouraging the development of standards of accountability and service delivery that will transcend the terms of political office holders;
- Creating effective public feedback mechanisms including ombudsmen, hotlines, complaints office and procedures, citizen report cards, and procedures for public petitioning and/or public interest litigation;
- Encouraging open, timely and free debate about local government and urban issues in the media.
- Have an ethics code for public servants - Public servants should have an ethics code that guide them in the process of carrying out public duties.  Amongst the points would be that public servants should be impartial, uphold human rights and freedoms, be professional, ensure transparency, maintain confidentiality, be accessible, ensure publicity, be politically neutral and be fair.


ACCESS TO INFORMATION / RIGHT TO INFORMATION Access to information is a fundamental tool and access laws play an important role in reducing corruption by making available information about procurement processes, successful bids, policy decisions, conferral or withholding of benefits by institutions.

GETTING PUBLIC SERVANTS TO DECLARE INCOMES AND ASSETS While many nations have enacted laws requiring public servants to disclose their income and assets, effective enforcement has often been a challenge.  Detecting when a public servant's lifestyle is inconsistent with his or her disclosure statement is time consuming and difficult, and public prosecutors may not have either the resources or skills to conduct such investigations.  Civil society groups and an active media can sometimes fill this gap.

ENFORCEMENT AGENCIES The success of anti-corruption legislation depends crucially on the calibre of the agency that will enforce it.  Where enforcers are themselves open to bribery or subject to political manipulation, the law should leave them little or no room to exercise discretion.

ANTI-CORRUPTION LAWS To promote compliance with new anti-corruption measures, some countries have experimented with provisions that forgive past offences.  Others have enacted new laws 1) banning money laundering, 2) requiring officials accused of corrupt behaviour to explain the sources of their wealth, and 3) protecting public servants who disclose the corrupt acts of other government workers.

FOSTERING INSTITUTIONS TO COMBAT CORRUPTION Implementing anti-corruption measures requires an institutional framework.  But endemic corruption is a systemic disease that can only be controlled with a systemic cure - no single institution will do.  Effective and durable corruption control requires multiple, reinforcing, and overlapping institutions of accountability.  And where corruption is endemic, these institutions need to be of three kinds: horizontal accountability, vertical accountability, and external accountability.

CODE OF CONDUCT FOR PUBLIC SERVANTS Code of conduct or ethics code for public servants serve a variety of purposes.  They can state norms of behaviour, such as the duty to treat citizens courteously, that enhance respect for government.  They can also ban the receipt of gifts, conflicts of interest, the hiring of relatives, or other acts that may corrupt government operations.  The legal effect of such codes can also vary.  Some are voluntary while violations of others can subject the offender to administrative or criminal penalties.  Codes of Ethics are not an isolated phenomenon.  They are part of a grown national legal system.  As such, they must be seen within their legal context.

"We need to be clear:  Corruption is not the grease that oils the economy.  Corruption undermines stability, deters foreign and domestic investments, and erodes support for development assistance.  Above all, corruption imposes a disproportionately heavy burden on the poor."  - James D. Wolfensohn,  President, World Bank.


Citizens need more discriminating instruments to enforce accountability.  Fortunately, a number of these are available.

- Political parties can be a powerful tool for accountability when they are established and vigorous at the local level, as in many Latin American countries.  They have a built-in incentive to uncover and publicise wrongdoing by the party in power and to present continuously an alternative set of public policies to voters.
- Civil society and its precursor social capital enable citizens to articulate their reaction to local government and to lobby officials to be responsive.  These representations generally come through NGOs (though spontaneous protests can also be considered civil society), which, like political parties, often have parent organisations at the provincial or national level.
- If citizens are to hold their government accountable, they must be able to find out what it is doing.  At the immediate neighborhood level, word of mouth is perhaps sufficient to transmit such information, but at any higher level some form of media becomes essential.  In some countries, print media can perform this function, but generally their coverage is minimal outside larger population centers.  A feasible substitute in many settings is low wattage AM radio, which is highly local, cheap to operate, and can offer news and talk shows addressing local issues.
- Public meetings can be an effective mechanism for encouraging citizens to express their views and obliging public officials to answer them.  The cabildos abiertos held in many Latin American countries are a good example.  In some settings, such meetings may be little more than briefing sessions, but in others they can be effective in getting public officials to defend their actions.
- Formal redress procedures have been included as an accountability mechanism in some decentralisation initiatives.  Bolivia probably has the most elaborate instrument along these lines with its municipal Vigilance Committees that are based on traditional local social structures and are charged with monitoring elected councils, encouraged to file actionable complaints with higher levels if needed.

In other systems, formal recall procedures are available to citizens dissatisfied with their officials.

- Opinion surveys have generally been considered too complex and sophisticated to use at the local level, but usable and affordable technologies are being developed in the Philippines enabling local-level NGOs to employ such polls to assess public opinion about service provision.

A recent USAID assessment of democratic local governance in six countries found that each country employed a different mix of these mechanisms, while no country had employed them all.  No one instrument proved effective in all six settings, but various combinations offered considerable promise.  Some may be able to substitute at least in part for others when weak or absent.  Civil society and the media, for example, might together be able to make up for a feeble party system at the local level.


Myth #1: Corruption is everywhere.  Japan has it, Holland has it, the US has it.  There's nothing you can do about something endemic

Fact:  Consider health.  Illness is everywhere, too.  And yet no one concludes that efforts to prevent and treat illness should therefore be curtailed.  Like illness, the levels and types of corruption vary greatly, and preventive and curative measures make a difference.

Myth #2:  Corruption has always existed.  Like sin, it's part of human nature.  You can't do anything about it.

Fact:  Because sin exists does not mean each of us sins to the same degree, and the same holds for corruption.  We can constrain opportunities for corruption, even if the tendency is perennial.

Myth #3:  The concept of corruption is vague and culturally determined.  In some cultures the behaviour that bothers you is not considered corrupt.

Fact:  Critics argue that the fight against corruption is just another case of the West trying to impose its views and values on the South.  Some go on to say that gift giving and taking in the public realm is a normal tradition in many non-Western cultures.

The debate over cultural relativism and neo-colonialism is a contested one.  Where concepts like public procurement procedures are unknown concepts, bribing public officials to secure public works does not exist.  Norms and values are context-bound and vary across cultures.  Gift-giving is part of negotiating and relationship building in some parts of the world.  But cultural relativism ends where the Swiss bank account enters the scene.  It is a matter of degree: there are limits in all cultures beyong which an action becomes corrupt and unacceptable.  When Olusegun Obasanjo, now President of Nigeria, criticised the corrupt practices of the dictatorial regime of Sani Aback, he was imprisoned.  He once commented that, in African tradition, "a gift is made in the open for all to see, never in secret.  Where a gift is excessive, it becomes an embarrassment, and is returned."  This is supported by John T. Noonan's monumental history that shows no culture condones bribery.  Anthropological studies indicate that local people are perfectly capable of distinguishing a gift and a bribe, and they condemn bribery.

Myth #4:  Cleansing our cities of corruption would require a wholesale change of attitudes and values.  This can only take place after ... (the polemicist's choice: a hundred years of education, true revolution of the proletariat, a Christian or Muslim or other religious revival of state).  Anything less will be futile.

The record of moralisation campaigns is not encouraging.  More germane to city managers are two other points.  First, engineering such massive social changes exceeds their scope of work.  Second, in the meantime there are ways to close loopholes, create incentives and deterrents, augment accountability and competition, and improve the rules of the game.

Myth #5:  In many countries, corruption is not harmful at all.  It is the grease for the wheels of the economy and the glue for the political system.

Fact:  True, corrupt equilibrants do exists.  But both theoretical and empirical models show that they are inferior to equilibrants with less corruption.  Arguing that corrupt payments have a function in a given system does not at all argue for their desirability.

Myth #6:  There's nothing that can be done if the man or woman at the top is corrupt, or if corruption is systematic.

Fact:  It is more propitious for anti-corruption efforts if leaders are clean and if corruption is episodic rather than routine.  But success stories show that improved systems lead to fewer opportunities for everyone, even the political powers, to reap corrupt rents.  Systematic corruption can be reduced.

Myth #7:  Worrying about corruption is superfluous.  With free markets and multi-party democracies, corruption will gradually disappear.

Fact:  Democracy and markets enhance competition and accountability, thereby reducing corruption.  But during transitions, corruption may increase.  In stable democracies, corruption is a chronic threat to the provision of many public goods and services which are inherently the monopoly of the state (such as justice).


Many good policy changes come about because ordinary citizens make a noise about them.  In many cities all over the world citizen action has improved transparency and curbed corruption.  Organisations around Asia have campaigned against corruption in India, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, etc.

A SUCCESS!  In March 1998 in India, a couple of civil rights NGOs frustrated by thirty years of broken promises of the part of the Indian government, took it in their own hands to establish the People's Ombudsman Commission.  transparency International India and Lok Sevak Sangh, two of the major Indian NGOs, resorted to this drastic and unprecedented move in response to the charges of corruption against elected public officials.  This might be one of the more radical examples of the power that NGOs can wield in the fight against corruption, but it does illustrate how solutions to a global problem are emerging at the local and national levels.

ANOTHER SUCCESS!  Seoul in South Korea revamped their license application system and put it online.  When the application process went online, citizens could track their application process and this reduced the amount of money that was paid under the counter to facilitate the application process.  This resulted in substantial savings for the local authorities as well as fairer services to the citizens by the means of an open transparent system.


If you are concerned about transparency issue, don't be afraid to speak up.  The bottom of this page has more information and some people to contact for help.  Here are some ideas for highlighting your issue:

Express yourself.  Write to the authorities.  Copy your letter to other relevant authorities, NGOs and the media.  Take photo and include them in the letter.

Join or form a group to work on the issue.  A lot can be done when a community of people work together.  Link up with other similar groups.

Rally public support.  Then do a small survey.  The media and politicians will take notice if you can show that many people support you.

Get informed.  Get help to prepare alternative proposals.  Present these to the authorities.

Get in the media with a media stunt or demonstration.  Have some fun.  Be creative.  These issues are serious but that doesn't mean we can't have fun as we campaign.


Do be persistent but also be flexible
- changing things is never easy.  If you are not getting your message across then find out what is going wrong and then try another method.

Don't be a NIMBY ("Not in my backyard").
Just getting the best deal for your street or area may not be the 'real' solution.  Look for solutions that benefit everybody.



Corrupt Cities: A Practical Guide to Cure and Prevention by Robert Klitgaard, Ronald Maclean-Abaroa, and H. Lindsey Parris.  ISBN: 1-55815-511-2 ICS Press, Oakland, Calif. USA  Fax: 510-238-8440

Corruption and Good Governance: Discussion paper 3 by UNDP and available through the Division of Public Affairs, United nations Development Programme, One United Nations Plaza, New York, NY 10017.

Corruption Fighters' Tool Kit by Transparency International and available at their website or by emailing

Global Corruption Report also by Transparency International and available at the website

CORIS - The Corruption Online Research InformationSystem
CORIS is Transparency International's web-based initiative to meet the research needs of anti-corruption practitioners in accessing both published and grey literature on corruption and governance.  It include the texts of law on subjects such as freedom of information and whistleblower protection lows.

Highly recommended websites to try:

Transparency International
World Bank Anti-Corruption Resource Centre
OECD Anti-Corruption Unit
International Anti-Corruption Conferences (IACC)
Council of Europe's Fight against Corruption and Organised Crime
The Global Forum on Fighting corruption
OAS Anti-corruption Information Centre
IMF's Code of Good Practices on Transparency in Monetary and Financial Policies
U.S. State Department Fight Against Bribery and Corruption
United Nations Action against corruption and Bribery
Anti-Corruption Network for Transition Economies
America's Accountability/Anti-Corruption Project
The Anti-Corruption Review


Global Campaign on Urban Governance,
UN-Habitat, P.O. Box 30030, Nairobi, Kenya.
Tel: 254-2-623216,  Fax: 254-2-624264; Email:

The Kuala Lumpur Society for Transparency and Integrity,
Unit 2-2-49 Wisma Rampai, Jalan 34/26, Taman Sri Rampai, Setapak, 53300 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Tel: 60-3-41436373, 41495576;  Fax:60-3-41435968;  email:

This publication was made possible with assistance from UNDP - The Urban Governance Initiative (TUGI).  For further information on TUGI, please contact the Programme Manager, The Urban Governance Initiative, United Nations Development Programme, P.O. Box 12544, 50782 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Tel: 60-3-2095-9122;  Fax: 60-3-2093-2361;  email  Website:

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