Last weekend’s Summit of the Americas put all eyes on Colombia and, in doing so, generational change. In the sixth such meeting of regional leaders, thirty-three Heads of State met in a country that, until recently, was known for war, drugs, and kidnappings. As President Obama stated: “[T]here was a time not so long ago when few could have imagined holding a summit like this in Colombia. That we have and that the summit was such a success is a tribute to the remarkable transformation that’s occurred in this nation.”
A vibrant energy is now being unleashed in Colombia, and the generational underpinnings just might spell promise for anti-corruption reform. There are two dynamics at play. One is top-down; the other, bottom-up.
Free Trade: A whole new generation of Colombians is poised to benefit from new economic opportunity. At the Summit, agreements were made, paving the way for the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement to enter into force on May 15th, 2012. Some say that the country is even on track to be the third largest economy in Latin America by 2018. Its economy just surpassed that of Venezuela and has the potential to eventually bypass Argentina. With this economic growth and new security, Colombians now entering the workforce will find an environment much different from the one that existed just ten years ago.
What does this mean for corruption? As FCPAméricas previously noted, in the U.S.-Colombia FTA, Colombia reaffirms its commitment to international anti-corruption efforts. In that spirit, the OECD’s Working Group on Bribery formally invited Colombia to join the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention in November 2011, the first step toward becoming a signatory. After accession, Colombia will join thirty-nine of the world’s largest economies in committing to comply with OECD anti-corruption standards. An OECD Working Group of international anti-corruption experts will closely monitor and publicize Colombia’s progress on anti-corruption legal reform and enforcement. Outside watchdog groups, like Transparency International, will review its progress. We know these spotlights can drive reform. They have done so already for countries like the UK, Canada, and Brazil (see FCPAméricas discussion on Brazil).
Civil Society: At the same time, the grumblings of reform are being felt on the ground as well, driven by young Colombians. Earlier this year, the organization Transparencia Por Colombia sponsored a video contest in which Colombians in their 20s submitted short clips showing impressions of the effects of corruption on daily lives. One clip shows a boy internalizing the corrupt business dealings of his father. Another shows a young woman robbed by an armed thief while walking down a public street, then a faceless and corrupt politician, and then asks, “Do you know the difference between the two? The first chooses you, the second, you choose.” A different video, from an entirely different initiative altogether, features a young Colombian woman who launched an organization providing services to disabled children and made innovative efforts to prevent corruption from diverting funding from the project.
Why is generational change so important to addressing corruption in places like Colombia? Because it provides such a clear opportunity to change status quo behavior. As FCPAméricas discussed in a previous blog post, once a person engages in corruption, it is much easier to do so again, and then again, until it becomes a pattern. A person gets caught in a vicious cycle. The occasional bribe becomes a habit. Habits die hard.
But younger professionals, the ones who will soon be running companies and running for public office, might be positioned to break the cycle. They see the damage that corruption has done to their societies. They value integrity over improper self-enrichment. They have not yet been co-opted by the cycle. The significant advancements made of late in the international anti-corruption world are things that speak directly to them, that make them excited.
Personally, I have seen this dynamic over and over again when investigating corruption and building compliance programs throughout the world, in places as diverse as Brazil, Bulgaria, and Tajikistan. It is the younger people who tell the same stories no matter where you are: “Older generations have messed up our societies. They have let corruption become the norm. Our generation has an opportunity to stop it.” In one instance in India, an older person I was investigating actually relayed this message. He said that the only hope of stopping corruption in his country was the younger people. They were the ones, he said, who had not yet bought into the system.
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