23 February 1999
(World Bank President addresses GCA forum) (1000) By Charles W. Corey USIA Staff Writer WASHINGTON -- Bribery and corruption is "not a fringe issue" but a concern that must be dealt with openly, decisively and forthrightly by any nation that aspires to become a fully functioning member of the world economy, says World Bank President James Wolfensohn. In remarks opening a one day anti-corruption meeting co-sponsored by the Global Coalition on Africa [GCA] and the U.S. Department of State on February 23, Wolfensohn said "The very first item on the agenda, the very first issue that we address of the things that we think are needed to have an appropriate and equitable development in a state, is [attention] to governance and corruption." Second in importance, he said, is establishing a fully functioning legal and justice system. "I don't start with finance," he said. "I don't start with water. I don't start with education -- as important as all those things are.... If you cannot have in a country a sense of proper governance within a framework that is unambiguous in its opposition to corruption, and if you cannot have a justice system and the protection of rights, then general statements or even specific statements that we make will fall to the ground." For that reason, Wolfensohn told ministers representing 11 African nations, a handful of European nations, Canada, the United States and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD] and World Bank, "Our direction is very very clear here. "We believe that central to development is the issue of governance and corruption," he said. "We feel humble in the sense of how we participate and help in changing it. We are prepared to take an active role, a supportive role or no role at your request. But we feel extraordinarily comfortable that a group such as this and many groups like these are coming together so that together we can gain a sense of momentum and strength" in the fight against corruption. "I want to assure you from the point of view of this institution," he pledged, that "we are literally prepared to do anything that you would like in pursuance of your decisions today." Robert McNamara, co-chairman of the Global Coalition for Africa, a former U.S. Secretary of Defense and World Bank president, interrupted Wolfensohn to credit him with putting the corruption issue onto "the world stage." It was "absurd" that the issue could not be addressed by earlier World Bank presidents because of legal interpretations of Bank rules, McNamara said, while asking participants "What is more fundamental than economic and social advance and good governance?" Wolfensohn recalled that he first used the word corruption in a public speech in 1996. "Prior to that time," he added, "I had been told by our general consul that under...the regulations of the bank...I was not allowed to enter into political issues and that the activities of the bank were only concerned with economic issues. "We could have a social overtone but politics was not possible," he said. "So I was told literally when I got here, that the 'C word' as it was called...was not to be uttered by me because it was a transgression on political independence, and an intrusion on the ways and lives of the people who we were serving. "That seemed to me -- after having visited most of our client countries and living in a country that has Salt Lake City [site of the recent Olympic bribery scandal] -- that the issue of bribery and corruption is not an issue that can be put aside as a fringe issue, but is an issue which impacts economics and social life more than any other single issue." Wolfensohn acknowledged that confronting corruption is not easy. "I know how damned difficult it is to deal with.... I figure that we should look inside the bank and (determine) what it is that we are doing that either aids, abets or does not intrude on issues of corruption. At what level do we declare misprocurement? At what level do we pursue things that smell?" he asked rhetorically. Witney Schneideman, deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs who co-chaired the session, praised Wolfensohn for his "profound leadership" in fighting corruption. "You have definitely opened a whole new debate in the area of ethics and most importantly, in...economic development.... At the end of the day, what this group is about is trying to improve the lives of individuals. The best way to start that is in the area of waste, fraud and corruption. Without that, there is no chance for the small person, the medium person to get a leg up" and achieve economic independence, he said. Schneidman praised the 11 African countries in attendance as being at the "forefront of fighting corruption" not only in Africa but worldwide. ÿ20"We are very keen to work with everybody here at the table to ensrhine these practices to let the international community know that Africa is joining the table, is joining the group to fight corruption and is prepared to do what needs to be done," he said. [The African representatives were in Washington to attend the February 24-26 "International Conference on Fighting Corruption and Safeguarding Integrity Among Justice and Security Officials," to be hosted by Vice-President Al Gore at the State Department. The African countries represented at the GCA event included Benin, Botswana, Ethiopia, Ghana, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda.] General Amadou T. Toure, former head of state of Mali, speaking for the African delegates, praised Wolfensohn for his dedication to Africa and for battling corruption worldwide. The French-speaking Toure said the continent of Africa is "confronted with several types of diseases, including AIDS." Unfortunately, another disease, that is even more "insidious and destructive and older" known as corruption still grips the continent and must be dealt with as well, he said.