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Fighting corruption with transparency

When my predecessor and I counted the silverware in the residence as part of the handing over, one of the small teaspoons could not be found. My predecessor immediately reported the case to Copenhagen and offered to pay with her own means for the missing teaspoon.

To some this may seem odd. It may be argued that we are all doing our best to perform our functions and mistakes happen despite the best of intensions. This is generally true, and the reason for mentioning the example is not to show that the Danish public administration is characterised by merciless prosecution of even small mistakes. Instead my point is to highlight the adherence to accountability and transparency as core values in Denmark. My predecessor’s reaction was a beautiful illustration of this.

Danish politicians and civil servants, who are dealing with taxpayers’ money, are held accountable for their actions. Most people pay about 50% of their income in tax, and when handling public resources, politicians and civil servants are aware that other people worked hard to earn the money and then contributed to our common coffer.

Every year, Transparency International publishes a Corruption Perception Index, which provides an indication of the extent of corruption in 176 countries as perceived by business people and experts. The 2016 index was recently published, and Denmark was ranked first as it has been the case every year during the past 10 years with two exceptions in 2011 and 2009. During the same years, Ghana has been moving a bit up and down around rank 61 to 69. From an improvement to rank 56 in 2015, Ghana was ranked 70 in 2016. Somalia and North Korea are consistently found in the bottom of the table.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectants”
I do not think that the human nature differs much across countries, and when we see large deviations in the extent of corruption across countries, it mainly reflects differences in institutions, traditions, mechanisms for accountability, and not least in the degree of transparency. In the words of Louise Brandeis, an American lawyer and associate justice on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1916 to 1939, “Sunlight is the best of disinfectants”. It is difficult to get away with mismanagement when a high degree of transparency is required.     

Denmark applies the principles of accountability and transparency to all aspects of our cooperation in Ghana. Whenever we discover a case where Danish public funds may have been used for other purposes than those agreed, we are obliged to report it to the Danish Auditor General and to publish the report on the webpage of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs so Danish taxpayers can see what happened (see http://um.dk/da/danida/oplysning/bekaempelse-af-svindel/omfanget/rapportering/rapporteringer/?start=1). In Ghana, 13 such cases have been opened in less than 1 ½ year, and each case has been thoroughly investigated to establish the amount involved. A case cannot be closed until the money has been refunded by those responsible. So far, we have not had to give up on a case but have been able to get the funds back. 

We are also applying the same principles to our business cooperation in Ghana. Danish companies are reporting that they often find it difficult to do business in Ghana because they are confronted with requests for illegal payment of services or ‘facilitation money’. At the Embassy, we are proud when companies tell us that they would rather lose an order than become involved in the endless game of paying and being required to pay even more. Together with a group of Danish companies and their Ghanaian partners we have recently embarked upon an exercise to map out the situations where the risk of corruption is experienced to be large. We do so with a view to engage relevant authorities in a dialogue on how best corruption can be curbed.

Corruption is a canker on a society and a burden on its citizen. We all have a responsibility to combat corruption and contribute to improving the general business environment with a view to increasing investments, developing domestic industries, and creating more jobs. Accountability and transparency (“sunlight”) are two key means to fight it.

Read Business & Financial Times' article with the Danish Ambassador on this subject: Corruption driving investors away