Pattern number within this pattern set: 
John B. Adams
Public Sphere Project
Douglas Schuler

The lack of authentic and principled accountability of corporations, government, political processes, and the media provides irresistable opportunities for corruption. Unfortunately this most often deprives whole societies and the world's poorest people of their right to an equitable sense of well-being and opportunity.


Corruption, although illegitimate, is a common mechanism of social domination. In one basic form it exacts a price from people with little power in exchange for a "favor" from someone with more power. In another form, two or more people or organizations with power swap "favors" for mutual advantage. The "favor" can be large or small and it can be granted or denied at the pleasure of the power-holder, whose criteria, rationale, and legitimacy for the decision is hidden and, therefore, unavailable for review or criticism. Although the degree of corruption varies from place to place, everybody at one time or another can be a victim, however indirectly. Journalists, business people, government officials, activists, educators as well as "ordinary" people - citizens - are affected by corruption and can play a role in its prevention.


At its most basic level, "Transparency" is "the quality of being able to be seen through." When used in a social context it means "easily detected, understood: obvious, evident." To exhibit transparency means that the reality of how things actually work is not occluded by false or misleading layers of artifice. Transparency thus helps shed light on corrupt practices that thrive on secrecy.

At a time when concern is mounting over the seemingly overwhelming range of problems facing our world, the principle and initiatives of transparency advocates are gaining momentum and significant interest within a broadening global discourse. While rights to privacy and protection are critical benchmarks in evaluating the relative health of a democracy, deterrents and penalties to corruption are essential if efforts designed to invigorate social justice are to become more successful.

It turns out that the relatively simple approach of making transactions — both monetarily and information-based — of the powerful visible has the desired effect of discouraging corruption and encouraging good works. Learning about corruption is a first step towards rooting it out — but it's only the initial step. Rooting out corruption is often a long, frustrating, thankless and sometimes dangerous enterprise. A corrupt court system, for example, is likely to free guilty people in certain instances, and non-corrupt judges may pay with their lives when they act to convict guilty people.

Niccolo Machiavelli introduced the familiar social equation, "Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely" that asserts that corruption is an inevitable consequence of power, and that the greater the power - the greater the resultant corruption. Machiavelli's perspective reminds us why citizens are naturally suspicious, for example, of secret meetings between government officials and corporate executives. For example, when Bush administration officials met behind closed doors with executives from the world's biggest energy corporations to discuss U.S. energy policy.

In truth, Machiavelli's wisdom provides governments with ample incentive for making such meetings more open or "transparent." Corruption is not intrinsically the province of one political party or another. It does thrive, however, in situations where secrecy and fear are prevalent. The Enron and WorldCom scandals certainly provided lessons that were largely responsible for the whistleblower protection provisions of the "Sarbanes-Oxley Act" in the U.S.

On the international front, groups that adopt transparency as a prerequisite to their work while providing expert advice, include IISD (International Institute for Sustainable Development), whose model "Multilateral Agreement on Investment for Sustainable Development" brought the convention of sustainability to influence within OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) — by helping design both legal and policy instruments on foreign investment.

While numerous projects and symposia have focused on transparency, two relatively recent events are especially relevant to this pattern's "big picture" at a most sensitive time in human history. They are the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) and the ongoing, USC (Union of Concerned Scientists) Transparency Project (2000-2001) that has been working for over a decade to foster the "intellectual and institutional capacity to increase transparency through participation in international arms control negotiations".

The Transparency pattern is very general and can be applied in various cultures and in various situations that include the following:

  • Disaster aid and reconstruction, such as that related to the Southeast Asian tsunami
  • Decisions about what articles to run in newspapers or on television news shows
  • Source of funding for columnists
  • Decisions about corporate executive salaries and severance packages
  • Inspectors of new construction, fish harvests, food quality, tax returns
  • Building permits and other land-use decisions
  • "Revolving door" between executives in weapons corporations and government officials who buy from them
  • Lobbying government officials (versus bribes for legislative support)
  • Welfare systems
  • Judicial systems
  • Money laundering, or support or opposition to banking transparency legislation
  • Attendance at government meetings by corporate executives to decide policies where they are the direct beneficiaries

One of the greatest strengths of transparency as a social pattern can be found in its inclusiveness. Highlighting this point are grassroots activists who are elevating public awareness and forming alliances with many types of people and groups. As a result the 'practice of transparency' is becoming a model of increasingly influence.

For instance, in 1999 the Poder Ciudadano (Citizen Power) an NGO group based in Argentina "negotiated an integrity pact with the city government of Buenos Aires", to monitor a 1.2 billion dollar subway construction project to "root out corruption". Across political, economic, industrial, scientific, legal, and civic sectors numerous reform initiatives are being coordinated providing benchmarks for accountability and success that are being applauded. These evolving strategies have resulted in a holistic "integrity approach" towards waging a unified struggle against corruption. The resulting 'victories' provide a great ray of hope for countries and peoples ravaged by decades — or centuries — of tyranny. Hence, 'transparency' is now poised to have a greater and greater influence on enforcing Civil Society values over time.

Transparency International was launched by people who shared a "common experience of having witnessed first hand the devastating effects of cross-border corruption" and is now providing leadership in the battle against corruption worldwide. Over the years Transparency International has developed a wide range of useful tools and information resources. These include:

  • TI Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), the best known of TI's tools. It has been credited with putting the issue of corruption on the international policy agenda. The CPI ranks more than 150 countries in terms of perceived levels of corruption, as determined by expert assessments and opinion surveys.
  • Global Corruption Barometer: A survey that assesses general public attitudes toward and experience of corruption in dozens of countries around the world.
  • Global Corruption Report: 2006 focuses on the health sector, where lack of integrity can be a matter of life and death.
  • TI Integrity Pact (IP): A tool aimed at preventing corruption in public contracting; consisting of a process that includes an agreement between a government department (at the federal, national or local level) and all bidders for a public contract. The IP also introduces a monitoring system that provides for independent oversight and accountability.
  • TI Bribe Payers Surveys: Annual tool that evaluates the supply side of corruption - the propensity of firms from industrialized countries to bribe abroad.
  • Business Principles: This comprehensive reference aims to provide a practical tool to which companies can look for a comprehensive reference to good practice to counter bribery. Designed as a starting point for businesses to develop their own anti-bribery systems or as a benchmark.
  • TI Integrity Pact (IP) is a tool aimed at preventing corruption in public contracting.

Transparency is fundamental to the evolution of a just and humane civil society. Focusing on transparency should help thwart corruption at the root(s) and help create new solutions to age-old problems stemming from greed, fear, anger and stupidity.

A concentrated effort to foster visibility is fundamental for the success of this project. Humanity has much to learn from the many tangible gains and policy shifts that are taking effect. As stated at the beginning of this pattern, corruption in its various guises can deprive whole societies of opportunity and a sense of well-being. This reality beckons us to develop constructive innovations that stand at the vortex of change. If we are successful, this work holds the promise of “giving new life” to the testimony and values of peace, justice and solidarity for generations to come.


Using traditional, as well as new forms of on-line media and ICT, we can continue to raise public awareness about specific struggles over transparency while exposing, protesting and defying corruption at all levels. It is important at the same time to continue to broaden the support for transparency initiatives and enforcement. In this way, more accountability can be demanded which can be translated into the development of equitable practices and policies.

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