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It’s Our Money

Sabina Panth's picture

It has been argued that corruption cases are focused mostly on the offenders and retribution is calculated on material value. This leaves out the victims of corruption and the collective damage done to the society at large, especially when the malfeasance involves the misappropriation of public money.  The concept of ‘social damage’ is an emerging concept in the anti-corruption movement, which seeks to identify, quantify, and repair the impact and consequences of corruption on ordinary citizens.  It posits that citizens, as taxpayers, are entitled to a legal claim on public money and how it is spent because “every dollar lost in corruption is a dollar stolen from spending in education, social services, poverty reduction and job creation (Its Our Money)”.


The Office of Public Ethics in Costa Rica successfully applied the concept of social damage in the repatriation of $10 million from the French-American company Alacarte, for the damage inflicted on the citizens of Costa Rica in a corruption case involving a $140 million contract.  According to a Reuters report, Alacarte was accused of paying bribes to the former President, Miguel Angel Rodriquez and officials of the state-run telecommunication company in exchange for a contract to install 400,000 cell phone lines in the country.   Alacarte officials pleaded guilty to making corrupt payments and the President is scheduled to go on trial soon. 


The success of the case in Costa Rica and also of the French civil society (as mentioned in my previous blog) has triggered a determination at the international level to come up with a single definition of social damage in fighting corruption.  A session was dedicated to this topic at the recently held International Conference on Anti-Corruption (IACC) in Thailand.  Many questions were raised, including: What mechanics and measurement can be applied in claiming social damage? How can suffering be measured and proved? Should measurement be based solely on assets or also on value recovery (moral damage, violation of trust from the government, loss of honor, functionality of administration, damage of cultural heritage, and its consequential affect in shaping societal norms that nurture compliance to systemic corruption)? Issues and challenges in managing repatriation were also discussed at the session.  For example, how to ensure transparency and proper use of the money retrieved? Who decides how the money will be spent?


The IACC session expressed a need to be creative in exploring provisions in national and international laws to consider the concept of social damage in fighting corruption.  An experienced judge in attendance, however, cautioned that creativity has to comply within the existing legal framework. For instance, the prosecutors in Costa Rica used the provision in the Constitution: Rights of citizens to a healthy [institutional] environment to define and claim social damage in the Alcarte case. 


The issue of social damage has been effectively advocated and considered in environmental and social safeguards around infrastructure projects.  Though relatively new in the fight against corruption, the idea of social damage in the prosecution of corruption is likely to be utilized and refined increasingly in the days ahead. The discussion at the IACC session concluded with a proposal to form an expert group at the regional/international level to carry forward the success of Costa Rica at the international level.  The Basel Institute on Governance is taking a lead in this effort.

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Photo Credit: Stevendepolo (Flickr)