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Successful strategies for combating corruption profiled at IDB seminar on transparency and development

Public access to information about government activities such as procurement, public finances and the legislative process, including on-line access to such information, is one of several measures that can effectively reduce the risk of public sector corruption, according to participants at the Conference on Transparency and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The three-day event, organized by the Inter-American Development Bank at its Washington, D.C., headquarters, gathered this week experts from across the region to discuss national and regional case studies of legal, institutional and technological strategies for increasing transparency and efficiency in public administration. Attendees included government officials from the Bank's member countries, representatives from civil society, non-governmental organizations and foundations, scholars and private sector officials.

"The IDB is concerned about corruption because we see that it undermines people's confidence in public institutions and in democracy as a whole," IDB President Enrique V. Iglesias said during opening remarks.

"Today the Bank's efforts to prevent this problem cut across increasingly varied areas of activity," Iglesias added. In addition to continually updating its own internal ethical guidelines and requiring transparent accounting practices in projects that it finances, the IDB is underwriting a wide array of reform projects in the areas justice, tax administration, customs and legislative institutions, among others. He stressed that corruption involves not only governments but also citizens and the private sector, and he emphasized the need for collaboration among all these groups in crafting possible solutions.

Iglesias also praised the role of the Organization of American States in crafting and promoting the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption. During remarks at the conference, OAS Secretary General César Gaviria said his organization, in conjunction with the IDB, is working with 12 of the region's countries to update their legislation as a step towards implementing the convention, which calls for criminalizing corruption domestically and for international cooperation to enforce relevant laws. "The fight against corruption is a fight for social justice," he said, "because the poor continue to be corruption's biggest victims."

In addition to examining the status of the Convention, panels at the conference focused on national and regional case studies in the areas of procurement, the legislative process, money laundering, financial management and so-called "Integrity Pacts." The latter consist of written agreements between government institutions, civil society organizations and private companies to abstain from bribery and take specific transparency measures during the course of an individual public sector project or contract.

Rosa Inés Ospina, executive secretary of Transparencia Internacional Colombia, a non-governmental organization, described how her organization has helped to broker 51 such pacts in Colombia. Although they do not guarantee the absence of corruption, she said the agreements create a powerful incentive for probity among the participants and help make the financial aspects of public procurement accessible to the general public.

At another panel, representatives from Mexico, Chile and Canada described how their governments are using the Internet to increase transparency in the area public procurement. Antonio Schleske, head of procurement policy for Mexico's federal government, described how more than 3.5 million individuals have used the on-line Compranet service to purchase bid documents, track procurements, look up contract awards and compare prices, to name just a few of the resources available on the site. Representatives from Chile and Canada explained how their governments have opted to outsource their procurement websites to private companies who provide a fee-based intermediary service at no cost to the government.

In all three countries, the Internet was described as vastly increasing the visibility of purchasing processes that were previously difficult to track, especially for smaller companies with limited resources. Gastón Concha, coordinator of Chile's federal procurement program, said this greater accessibility has led to a sharp increase in the number of companies bidding for government contracts, with a concurrent drop in average prices.

The Internet has also emerged as a cost-effective way of increasing citizens' access to the legislative process. Regina Celia Peres Borges, head of information management in the Brazilian Senate, reported on how INTERLEGIS, an on-line legislative information system partly financed by a $25 million IDB loan, has ended the former isolation of federal, provincial and municipal legislatures. In addition to increasing cooperation among legislators, the system has made it easier for ordinary citizens reach their representatives and intervene in the law-making process.

Several panelists warned that technology on its own does not increase transparency and foster greater public confidence in government. Reforms on many fronts, including clear conflict-of-interest rules, stronger and more autonomous auditing bodies, and updated legislation in the areas of procurement and public finances, must go hand-in-hand with greater public access to information.

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