At the IACC: setting the scene

Shaazka Beyerle
31 October 2008

The setting - the Megaron Athens International Conference Centre - is majestic, the weather is balmy, the cafes are full day and night, and the halls are smoky - this being Greece, where lighting up is considered a fundamental human right. Even before the 13th International Anti-Corruption Conference officially started, hundreds of people had already gathered and special sessions and workshops were under way. There was energy and, dare I say it, anticipation in the air. 

The IACC, as it's known in the anti-corruption community, is held in a different city every two years. Over a thousand people from around the world - who managed to get Greek visas, for some Herculean feat - have gathered here. One could say this is a Who's-Who of the anti-corruption realm - from modest, every day heroes in the trenches to researchers, lawyers tracing stolen assets, trade unionists, NGO'ers, brave journalists, representatives of multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and United Nations, to senior development and foreign aid agency officers, and dedicated, often courageous, officials and judges. Interestingly, some of the best-dressed delegates happen to be government representatives from some of the poorest African countries. 

This year's IACC may well mark two significant developments in the anti-corruption struggle. First, the conference is focusing on the inter-related nature of corruption and other global challenges, including climate change, sustainable development, human security and peacebuilding. As activists in the grass-roots know, corruption does not occur in a vacuum. One can meet many from civil society here who have to wear multiple hats. Fighting corruption invariably also involves working around issues of human rights, economic justice, land reform, democratic governance, environmental protection, free and open media, independent judiciaries, organized violence and extortion, and so forth. One activist half-joked that she was disappointed she hadn't yet been arrested. Another said that, in her country, they feared going to prison more than being killed, though the latter outcome was not hypothetical. 

The IACC's programme reflects the shifting landscape of the anti-corruption realm. There is a growing recognition that fighting corruption is a human enterprise as much as it is an institutional and legislative effort. A relatively new World Bank report lauds "efforts to increase the citizens' capability to monitor and challenge abuses of the system and to inform the citizens about their rights and entitlements." In the first plenary today, Amnesty International's Secretary General, Irene Khan, set the stage by pointing to the importance of citizen participation. 

How that is translated into practical measures - may be less clear. One reason is because civil society is not a monolithic entity. Civil society is organic. It encompasses the collective, bottom-up initiatives in which activists, their allies and ordinary citizens are involved. Hand-in-hand with citizen participation goes something even more fundamental - civic empowerment and action, such as noncooperation, civil disobedience, protests, digital technology communications, and low risk mass actions.  

As always, real life precedes analysis. For example, today an overflowing room learned how a Filipino public services trade union together with teachers and civic organizations organized over one million boy and girl scouts to count textbooks and monitor deliveries of supplies. Another campaign in Egypt also gave attendees a vivid glimpse at civic empowerment on the ground. Founded by outraged women, Shayfeen.com (meaning "we see you") mobilized volunteers and ordinary citizens to document election fraud in real time using mobile phone SMS and video, and YouTube. Stay tuned for more details about these and other civic campaigns to fight corruption.  


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