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Corruption not in the culture

Caroline Freund's picture
Also available in: Français | العربية
President Mikhail Saakashvili recently addressed a standing-room-only crowd at a book launch for Fighting Corruption in Public Services, a case study of Georgia’s reforms.  This short book provides a timely account on the “how to” of eliminating corruption, which all new government officials seeking to redesign the system should read.   At the time of the Rose Revolution, Georgia was known as one of the most corrupt and crime ridden nations of the former Soviet Union.  Police were thugs that harassed citizens for bribes instead of protecting them; criminal groups ruled the city of Tbilisi using suitcases full of hard cash to purchase companies, luxury apartments, and black Mercedes.  But Georgia beat the odds and reduced corruption substantially in just a few years.  

In 2002, before the revolution, Georgia was in the 83rd percentile on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, just after Venezuela and well below all of the countries in North Africa.  Zoom out to 2011, Georgia is in the 35th percentile, leapfrogging all of the North African states. Georgia is now ranked second among the countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

How did Georgia do it?  Three lessons stand out:

  • Political will and quick wins.  The party’s slogan was “Georgia without corruption”.  High profile arrests of officials and criminals followed elections.  Billboards were plastered  along highways with a phone number to call in case of corruption.
  • Change the environment.  They fired the entire police force (crime and accidents declined!) and trained a new one.  Ministries were filled with young educated people, with energy and will for change.   External assistance was used provide a decent salaries and bonuses to government officials.
  • Lean government, with transparency and accountability.  They simplified regulations, limiting opportunity and incentive for graft.  Taking transparency to a new extreme, they housed the interior ministry and police stations in glass!  They used technology effectively, to restrict contact between official and citizens and also for monitoring to ensure accountability. 

    Success requires taking risks and of course a bit of luck.  In addition, the President highlighted the importance of beauty in everyday life, including government buildings, public parks, schools, and hospitals.  Odd to talk about beauty in the midst of reform, but a new and improved setting changes people’s mindset and goals and they behave differently.  It provides hope for a better future and builds trust in the government as a provider.

    Emerging immediately after the revolution offered the government a unique opportunity for major reforms because of the overwhelming popular support for change.  This experience provides important lessons for new governments in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya.  Georgia’s success proves that corruption is not in the culture, but simply a response to poor governance.   

    What does Mr. Saakashvili wish he’d done differently?  Compromised less and moved faster.   

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