is transparency international corrupt?

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by jason brown, editor, avaiki nius agency

 Avaiki top 10 issues for the Pacific Islands, lead by global warming, may cause large ripples in small ponds, such is the nature of the region.

To catch global attention, commentators must globalise local concerns. For this infant organisation, no greater issue requires more attention than global warming.


In identifying global warming as the leading issue, however, this agency can be accused of failing its own test for reporting on causes, not symptoms of global and regional crisis.

Many problems, from hiv.aids to global warming, have the same root cause.



Not “ethnic tensions” or any of the other corporately correct jargon terms in common use among mainstream media reporting symptoms of corruption.

Perhaps the world’s leading ‘brand’ in the fight against corruption is Transparency International, a non-governmental organisation of long standing.

Few other organisations put as much daily effort into guiding countries away from corruption as Transparency International, at least at the policy level.


Transparency International needs to be accountable for their efforts.

To learn how to be accountable when watchdogs in the media start barking.

Case in point comes from within the region – and so far – this is the only case in point known to this agency. A country report on the Cook Islands neglects to mention the fact that the biggest corruption scandal – the so-called Sheraton hotel project – was disastrously mishandled by a brother of one of two report authors.


For many journalists, it is easier to evade controversy in a small community where drinks and laughs are shared with people in power and influence.

Games, but no names.

It is a matter of public record however that Dr. Takiora Ingram is sister of Vincent Ingram, a man who left for a luxurious post in Canberra after running the state hotel venture company millions of dollars into debt. 

Little more was built than some hotel-like concrete shells and a few holes in the ground. 


In the report by Dr Ingram, only one reference is made to the “defunct hotel” – and only to highlight the case of suspected drug importer Mark Lyons, granted then denied residency after he offered to finish the project, taken over by Ingram in 1989 as government's "chief negotiator."

She says nothing more about the project, at one stage loaded with more than US$90 million in debt. 

Instead of rulers, Dr Ingram chose to blame “traditional practice” - reluctance to question elders - among the ruled.


This is disturbing enough, but wait, there is more.

More disturbing than the undeclared conflict of interest by Dr Ingram in her report is the complete lack of response by the agency that commissioned it.

Transparency International made no response to local media coverage highlighting the conflict of interest, soon after the country report was released in 2004.


A year later, the report was still on the site as being a transparent and true account of causes of corruption in the Cook Islands.

Instead of criticising Transparency International, this agency tried some constructive behind-the-scenes suggestions as to how to handle this conflict of interest.

Including the claim that we were not seeking to embarrass Transparency International unnecessarily, or the authors for that matter.


Some nice words of appreciation were emailed in return. 

The report stayed, unchanged, on the site.

Finally, in February 2005, this agency tried some direct questions to the head of public relations.


No response.

And a full two and a half years after the report was first published, Transparency International remains strangely silent on questions of conflict of interest, how it chooses its authors, and whether the report would be changed, along with its selection criteria for authors.

Perhaps Transparency International assumed this news agency is like most media – notoriously short in memory. Headlines today. Fish and chip wrapper tomorrow. Just ignore the questions and they’ll go away.


Perhaps a country report on a tiny Pacific nation is small fry compared to work being done by Transparency International in other countries.

Billions of dollars and millions of lives are at stake, not just a handful of reputations.

Transparency International can claim credit for getting corruption onto the table in many reluctant countries around the globe, including in the Pacific Islands. 

But forget accountability.


Transparency International is not even being transparent on basic issues of due process, of proper procedure.

Of governance, in other words, an area any critic might expect Transparency International to excel at, with ease, rather than this strange and by now smouldering silence.

Senior officials in Transparency International might care to read up on Dan Rather, the famous US news anchor brought down by right-wing bloggers, then read Time magazine’s person of the year – “you” – recognition of the new and historic power of citizen media.


Examining reasons for silence must include the uncomfortable fact that bigger conflicts of interest exist.

Much of the policies and practice that Transparency International is supposed to keep an eye on is written by the same powerful elites.

Thousands of lawyers, professors, doctors and business leaders spend millions of dollars a year supporting organisations like Transparency International, attending conferences and writing reports that expose bad policy but achieve little to put bad politicians behind bars, or their crony mates. 


Under such a perspective, conflicts of interest might be soup of the day for officials working hard to engage corrupt governments in even the basics of governance.

An explanation, but not good enough, especially when many governments have been badly corrupted by the same business elites, as it happens.

The same business elites busily funding powerful lobby groups that lunch, golf and debauch corrupt officials, delaying consensus over solutions as the globe lurches towards disaster in every area from genetically engineered food to human development.


In the interests of transparency, these comments have been forwarded for response from Transparency International, with a request that they also be forwarded to the report authors for possible comment. 

Any received will be posted to this site, and packaged with this opinion piece.

Since first writing about concerns over the country report, however, additional worries have come to light.


Co-author Mathilda Uhrle might want to take opportunity to defend her own conflict of interest – as the former state commissioner of the country’s unconstitutionally secretive offshore banks.

Her former office had its own built-in conflict-of-interest – promotion as well as policing. This fact was recognised much later with the establishment of a separate Financial Intelligence Unit, but only after pressure from OECD finance officials.


No banker or anyone else connected with the industry has ever been prosecuted in the Cook Islands for failing supposedly strict controls.

In fact, even after all the controversy of being one of the last on the OECD “black list” there is nothing in law that requires offshore bankers to declare suspicious clients – organised crime, corrupt corporates, or even terrorists. Laws still only require voluntary disclosure. No evidence has publicly emerged of any bank ever doing so.

Once infamous as a tax haven, the Cook Islands offshore finance centre now distances itself from the Winebox years. But the industry still enjoys the same levels of secrecy and protection as it did quarter of a century ago, when tax haven laws were first introduced by a citizen of the United States, the world’s leading user of offshore finance centres.


After Sir Thomas Davis gave his blessing, and an industry was born, all manner of shelf banks, shelf companies and shelf scum registered with Cook Islands offshore banks.

The Cook Islands was one of the last half dozen nations to give into global pressure and supposedly make itself more transparent, perhaps hinting at the size of the stakes involved.

After Sir Thomas was sacked, the same industry privately praised another Cook Islands prime minister, Sir Geoffrey Henry, for his “extraordinary” cooperation in assisting the industry during the early nineties. And, to offend everyone equally, the offshore industry is said to have also helped finance the political party that replaced Sir Geoffrey in late 1999.


In 2000, in one of their first acts in Parliament, the new government of Dr Terepai Maoate overturned good governance law changes introduced by Sir Geoffrey.

The amendment to the Electoral Act required parties to file their funding sources with Justice or risk being fined or even barred as an organisation from elections. Had Sir Geoffrey become not so friendly to offshore bankers?

A secretive industry used to “extraordinary” cooperation from political leaders might not like the idea of requiring political parties to declare party donations. Loss of such a crucial reform might show just how big a part supposedly "offshore" bankers play in local politics.


Privately, Ms. Uhrle is said to have been driven to despair by the lack of forward thinking displayed in the industry. Publicly, however, little of these concerns made it into the country report on the Cook Islands co-authored by Ms. Uhrle.

As close as she can come to is to suggest “further research” is needed to examine links between business and corruption.

Try Google.


More than the two authors, however, bigger answers are due from Transparency International.

Failure to do so, as it has failed for more than two years, will see Transparency International face risks of its own: that of credibility loss as more cases like this one came to light.

New Zealand, for example, might bear closer scrutiny.


Its world ranking is strangely high for a country that holds multimillion inquiries into offshore finance scams involving captains of industry.

The Winebox inquiry even records a senior official as lying to the same inquiry. He was not prosecuted.

How many linkages, direct or otherwise, can be drawn between actors in the Winebox saga and membership of Transparency International ?

SLOPPY None, perhaps, but if author selection and report auditing systems are as sloppy as the Cook Islands example suggests, then no doubt there are other cases, maybe even many.

In their report, Dr Ingram and Ms. Uhrle make many logical points, strong comments and good suggestions. However, their failure is not talking about the 800 pound gorilla in the corner, as the Americans say.

Both authors failed to alert readers to their conflicts of interest, with the more experienced Dr. Ingram perhaps more questionable.


How were two authors allowed to report on areas they were linked to personally and professionally – without any disclaimers to alert readers? 

Transparency International may not suffer endemic, high-level corruption. Responses to these questions so far – or their lack – suggest otherwise.

At bedrock here is the fact that no organisation can avoid being tainted with corruption, at least at some stage or another.


Explaining publicly – accountably – how they deal with threats of corruption must take a higher priority at Transparency International.

Members might be wise to descend from lofty clouds of policy debate and attend to their own backyards.

Transparency International only serves to undermine its own credibility and confuse public confidence by staying silent.

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Guy Barry said...

Don't you think making local issues into global issues is a good strategy?

MrNemo said...

Touche'! You make a good point.

But I think everything is caused because of El Nino, but thats just me.

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