A Panel Discussion on Corruption with President Saakashvili

One of the great things about working in an international organization is all the interesting people I meet and the people that pass by my workplace. Today, I attended a presentation/panel discussion with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on Georgia’s experience in fighting corruption in public services. It was obviously really interesting to hear President Saakashvili’s own version of how his administration over night fired the entire police force and over time built glass buildings for public agencies and police offices in order to enforce transparency and accountability. Corruption is an enormous challenge for countries at all economic levels of development. Whether it is high level corruption or petty corruption, tax payers’ money is wasted and democracy is challenged.

One of the most inspiring people that I have ever met was former mayor of La Paz, Ronald MacLean Abaroa, who fought corruption in Bolivia’s capital in the 1980s. He argued that corruption can be minimized in an institutional environment of decentralized decision making, transparency, and accountability. Authoritarian governments, on the other hand, have the exact opposite structures in place, as such systems is based on centralized and discretionary decision making and there is limited accountability of public officials. Thus, when young democracies emerge from such system, the institutional structures have to be reformed or else corruption will flourish according to MacLean.

Today, President Saakashvili picked up on the same topic and emphasized that it is possible to turn the page even in a very corrupt society. When he and his administration started this fight almost ten years ago, many had raised doubts and said that it was too rooted in the culture. But, Saakashvili said today “Tyranny and corruption has no claim on any culture!” (with tyranny referring to earlier doubts about democracy ever spreading to the Arab world, that have proven wrong over the last year). I thought that was worth repeating because it is important to remember. His view was however that once corrupt, always corrupt, and that when people cross that line, they always have a justification for continuing. Harsh but maybe true?

At the end, President Saakashvili was asked where he saw Georgia in eight years. He answered that the other day he had heard one of the Republican candidates saying that in ten years, the U.S. would colonize the moon, but that he didn’t have equally high visions for Georgia. Instead, he pictured a modern economy with high-speed trains, clean energy infrastructure and transportation, and a generation of well-educated young people exiting the school system. I somehow thought that was a lot bolder a vision than anything I have heard so far from the Republican candidates!

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