Walter S. Sutton Ethics Lecture
Corruption in business and in governance is not unlike abusing powerful narcotics.
"Corruption is a terrible thing," said Peter Eigen, an international ethics expert and activist. "Like a drug addiction."
The most effective way to kick the habit of international corruption, Eigen says, is the use of civil society organizations such as Transparency International, an organization he founded in 1993.
"The potential of these organizations to help create a better governance that will lead a world where globalization is not in the interests of a few rich and powerful but to the billions of people who seem to be left out," Eigen told a crowd of about 300 at the Spencer Museum of Art on Friday evening.
The German-born Eigen made his first trip back to the Kansas University campus since 1963, which was when the then-Fulbright Fellow studied political science and economics.
In the 44 years since he last visited Lawrence, Eigen has become among the higher-profile activists promoting transparency in international business and politics in an effort to curtail corruption.
Transparency International, or TI, assembles and publishes the Corruption Perceptions Index, a survey that ranks 163 nations on the perception of political corruption.
In 2006, the United States was ranked 20 spots below Finland, which had the least perception of political corruption; Haiti ranked last among the 163 nations.
Eigen said that while many people accept corruption as a cost of doing business or government, what it actually does is stunt development in other countries.
When Eigen and TI first started confronting businesses about unscrupulous practices, they often received shrugged shoulders in response.
"They very often said they would love to stop but cannot because their competitors are bribed," Eigen said.
On a political and governance level, the consequences can be more severe.
Eigen pointed out that many of the nations that produce the most petroleum should be among the wealthiest nations, but instead are among the poorest.
"They are hell, they are the worst countries," Eigen said. "Many people in Nigeria live below the poverty line. Why? Because of corruption."
Another example he cited in an interview was the case of Angola.
The southern African nation received more than $2 billion in oil revenues last year, but about 40 percent was never accounted for in the national budget.
That's why Eigen, TI and the newly formed Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative have pushed for oil-trading nations and oil companies to publish what they pay for oil.
Predictably, Eigen and his organizations were greeted with skepticism.
"When we started to try and change this, people thought we were naive do-gooders," Eigen said.
Among those early critics was the World Bank, which is now one of their supporters and what Eigen said is now a partner in fighting corruption.
Eigen was brought to Lawrence as a speaker in part because of the efforts of the KU International Center for Ethics.
"What I love about his organization, and the reason why he's here, is he's all about trying to promote information accessibility," said Douglas May, business professor and co-director of the center.
He said that KU's business school has been adding emphasis on teaching business ethics but still had room to stress it more.
Ric Rosenfield, a master's of business administration candidate at KU, agreed that more could be done to teach students about business ethics.
Eigen advised students on hand for the lecture against the temptation of succumbing to bribes and corruption in the business world.
Those words resonated with Rosenfield, who said he planned on using his business education to encourage better environmental practices in other businesses.
"(Eigen) is inspiring," said Rosenfield, who earlier in the night received the 2007 positive code of conduct award from the KU business school, "because it comes down to the core of what I'd like to do."