Corruption and moral renovation

When government leaders met in Monterrey, Mexico, earlier this year for the International Conference on Financing for Development, a powerful undercurrent in the speeches and discussions was the importance of combating corruption.

"We know that in countries with good governance and strong policies, aid can make an enormous difference," said James D. Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank. "Yet we know too that corruption, bad policies, and weak governance will make financial aid ineffective - even counterproductive."

At many levels, corruption is increasingly understood as a major barrier to development around the world - one that must be widely addressed if the world is to move from an era of still-too-widespread poverty to all-encompassing global prosperity.

Corruption, which is generally defined as the misuse of public office for private gain, diverts and squanders valuable resources and assistance, undermines the confidence of donors and investors, and, most important perhaps, saps the will of the people to undertake positive efforts on their own.

It encompasses abuses by government officials such as embezzlement and nepotism, as well as abuses linking public and private actors such as bribery, extortion, influence peddling, and fraud.

In the political realm, it undermines democratic processes and good governance. It erodes the institutional capacity of government as procedures are disregarded, resources are siphoned off, and officials are hired or promoted without regard to performance. At all levels, it undermines key values like trust and tolerance.

Around the world, governments, international agencies and organizations of civil society are increasingly collaborating in the fight against corruption. In broad terms, the fight is being waged on two fronts: institutional reform and, in the words of one expert, "moral renovation."

Institutional reform encompasses those structural and legal changes that make corrupt practices more difficult, that expose them to daylight, and that seek to ensure that those who subvert their office for private gain will pay a high penalty.

Transparency International (TI) has identified a range of institutional reforms under its "National Integrity System" concept. As outlined by TI, the pillars of such a system include an emphasis on free elections and equitable campaign financing, the independence and separation of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government, the establishment of independent watchdog agencies, protections for freedom of expression and the media, and a strong civil society.

Other organizations suggest similar measures. Some stress legal system reforms and stronger laws against corruption; others push for transparency and accountability in government procedures. In the end, however, there is general agreement on the actions that tend to stifle corruption.

The second direction in fighting corruption is less tangible but no less important: "moral renovation" or "cultural change" or even "an elevation of consciousness."

Creating a change in moral culture is important because there are generally ways around new laws and institutions, and as the barrier to specific illegal activities is raised, clever but corrupt individuals devise new ways to promote their own selfish interests at the expense of the public good.

However, changing a society's moral culture is widely acknowledged as more difficult than institutional reform.

It is on this point, then, that we must consider the contribution of religion, which has historically proven to be perhaps the most powerful force in promoting cultural change and ethical reform.

All of the world's great civilizations have at their heart a religious impulse. Social advancement, history tells us, arises from the ideals and shared beliefs that weld society together. Meaningful social change results as much from the development of qualities and attitudes that foster constructive patterns of human interaction as from the acquisition of technical capacities. True prosperity - a well-being founded on peace, cooperation, altruism, dignity, rectitude of conduct and justice - flows from the light of spiritual awareness and virtue as well as from material discovery and progress.

Through the teachings and moral guidance of religion, great segments of humanity have learned to discipline their baser propensities and to develop qualities that conduce to social order and cultural advancement. Such qualities as trustworthiness, compassion, forbearance, fidelity, generosity, humility, courage, and willingness to sacrifice for the common good have constituted the invisible yet essential foundation of progressive community life. Religion provides the bricks and mortar of society - the ethical precepts and vision that unite people into communities and that give tangible direction and meaning to individual and collective existence.

At the root of all forms of corruption is a certain self-centered materialism, a belief that the acquisition of power or money outweighs all other virtues. All religions teach that the opposite is true, including the Bahá'í Faith, the most recent of the world's independent religions.

Underlying the Bahá'í International Community's general support for both institutional reforms and efforts to promote moral renovation, is its view of the entire enterprise of civilization as a spiritual process involving the progressive awakening of humanity's moral and creative capacities. The creation of a "corruption-free" public milieu consequently depends on the building up of moral capacity within individuals, communities and social institutions.

In the Bahá'í writings, those individuals who are engaged in government service are exhorted to "approach their duties with entire detachment, integrity and independence of spirit, and with complete consecration and sanctity of purpose." Their personal fulfillment comes not from material reward but from "the devising of methods to insure the progress of the people," from experiencing the "delights of dispensing justice," and drinking from "the springs of a clear conscience and a sincere intent." In the end, the "happiness and greatness, the rank and station, the pleasure and peace" of the public servant does not consist in "his personal wealth, but rather in his excellent character, his high resolve, the breadth of his learning, and his ability to solve difficult problems."

The manner in which the Bahá'í community conducts its own affairs - through a broadly decentralized system of freely elected governing councils at the local, national, and international levels, with parallel advisory institutions to promote and safeguard the common good at every level - provides a model worthy of examination in the search for new institutional models.

The Bahá'í system devolves decision-making to the lowest practicable level - thereby instituting a unique vehicle for grassroots participation in governance - while at the same time providing a level of coordination and authority that allows collaboration on a global scale.

A unique feature of the Bahá'í electoral process is the maximum freedom of choice given to the electorate through the prohibition of nominations, candidature and solicitation. Election to Bahá'í administrative bodies is based not on personal ambition but rather on recognized ability, mature experience, and a commitment to service. Decision-making authority rests with corporate bodies, not individuals, thus eliminating one source of power and potential pathway to corruption.

On a practical level, the moral leadership training program of Nur University, a Bahá'í-inspired institution of higher education [see page 1], offers one concrete example of the worldwide Bahá'í community's efforts to promote a culture of morality, both inside and outside its membership.

As we consider how to combat corruption in our emerging global civilization, the spiritual and ethical teachings of the Bahá'í Faith - and the transformational power that they have been shown to possess - become especially relevant.

The Faith's main themes of human oneness, religious unity, and the creation of a united world - and supporting progressive social principles such as the equality of women and men, the elimination of prejudice and the harmony of science and religion - can be embraced entirely by modern minds. In an otherwise cynical age, the door is open for both personal transformation and social reform, suggesting new possibilities for a real change in moral culture, entirely consonant with a globalized world.

"O people of God!," wrote Bahá'u'lláh. "Do not busy yourselves in your own concerns; let your thoughts be fixed upon that which will rehabilitate the fortunes of mankind and sanctify the hearts and souls of men. This can best be achieved through pure and holy deeds, through a virtuous life and a goodly behavior."