What do Corruption and Anti-Corruption Mean?

Por: Michel Levien González | Posted on June 14, 2019

We briefly broach the definition of Corruption and address what Anti-Corruption is.

There’s no denying it; everybody knows it’s hard to know -unequivocally- what corruption is. It is even harder to listen to others discuss and weigh in on corruption when one is not entirely clear on what exactly it is. Am I really following what’s being said when I hear the president and other public officials speak about “the fight against corruption”? It’s not that simple.

Well, today we will reveal to you a secret many ignore: there is no single definition of “corruption”. None. We mean it; the foremost authorities and leading experts on the topic have yet to reach an agreement on how to define corruption. Of course, there are several definitions of corruption, each providing some guidance and each giving some clarity, but there is no one definition.

This might seem unrealistic or exaggerated, but it is true; no matter that this issue spans the world and costs staggering amounts of money to the governments of all countries, an unequivocal definition of the phenomenon does not yet exist. This is not a novel finding; legal texts from different countries, as well as international treaties and conventions dealing with the topic address the issue of “corruption” presuming that the term has already been clearly defined, when in reality is everything but. Mexican laws, for instance, are surprisingly silent on the matter of defining this concept. This phenomenon repeats itself in the foreign and international arena.

In general, it has proven extremely difficult to have the foremost international authorities to set a legal definition of the notion of “corruption”. Even international treaties like the United Nations Convention Against Corruption or the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions -to cite two examples- fail to set forth a clear and unequivocal definition of the word “corruption”. Internationally renowned Anti-Corruption experts acknowledge the difficulty in establishing a sole definition, yet opine that this difficulty is not especially important. For instance, Dr. Lucas Rocha Furtado, former prosecutor of the Brazil Accounts Tribunal (Tribunal de Contas da União) has stated that:

“[Perhaps] it is not possible to find a precise definition of corruption, [because] it is very difficult to identify all the key ways in which it presents itself […] [However, perhaps] knowing how to identify corruption the harmful effects it has on [the] collective, and repressing it more efficiently is more important than defining it”[1]

How can we know who is an expert or an authority on the matter?

When we say “experts and authorities” we mean something very specific: the people and organizations that know the topic better than anyone else and which -largely- set the pace for all of us who work in the field.

Here is our shortest explanation: At Streiner we use two types of supporting material; Rules (treaties, laws, regulation, etc.); and Authoritative Research (academic research, soft law, specialized writings, etc.). It greatly helps to think of Rules as “that which can compel”, and of Authoritative Research as “that which can persuade”.

Experts and authorities are those that produce rules and authoritative research; largely academics, attorneys, auditors, accountants, compliance officers, faculty, international organizations, NGOs, universities, chambers, bar associations, etc.

Why can’t they agree?

Essentially because they perceive corruption from differing points of view, and address the phenomenon from different legal and social traditions.

Then, which definition is best?

At Streiner we employ the definition that we deem broadest, and which does not exclude others that may be more sophisticated or specific.

Briefly, corruption is:

“The abuse of entrusted power for improper gain” [2]

What, then, is Anti-Corruption?

It is the fight against corruption by all legitimate means; every thing that allows us to prevent, detect, investigate and correct this abuse and its consequences.

Contrary to popular belief, Anti-Corruption is not just integrity and good intentions. It is the deliberate and calculated use of authoritative research, of rules and of different professional techniques to prevent, to detect, to investigate and to resolve any act of corruption.

Only government fghts corruption?

No. Private outfits (NGOs, companies, bureaus like Streiner, etc.) can also fight corruption. They do so through guidelines for prevention (e.g. policies, rules, oversight systems), detection systems (e.g. whistle-blowing hotlines, audits, accountability), investigations (e.g. due diligence/KYC, internal audits, interviews, preventative opinions) and corrective measures (e.g. sanctions, criminal reports, self-reporting, etc.).

Government also must do its part, but let no one fool you; the government fights corruption with systems and techniques at least as advanced as those used in the private sector. To put it differently, anyone who believes corruption is combatted with good intentions quite simply does not understand the corruption phenomenon.

Anything else I should know?

In as few words as possible, the key issue to remember is that corruption is a complex phenomenon that necessitates punctual, sophisticated solutions. If you wish to know if someone claiming to fight corruption actually knows how to do it, any solutions she proposes must (A) address corruption as a phenomenon composed of several well-identified elements; (B) follow a recognized methodology; (C) address causes and effects; (D) mitigate damages; and (F) prevent future corrupt acts.

As you can see, having a clear conscience is not nearly enough.


When Blowing the Whistle, Safety Comes First
All corruption should be denounced, but please stay safe. If you are unsure that (A) what you are facing actually constitutes an act of corruption; or (B) you are not in any type of danger, don’t blow the whistle; reach out to professionals who can help you before you take action. If you need our help, we are at your service at info@streiner.mx.


[1] Rocha Furtado, Lucas (Durham, 2015), «Brazil; Fighting Corruption in the XXI Century» (Brasil, Combatiendo la Corrupción en el Siglo XXI), Lecture, Material available with autor;

[2] Paráfrasis de la definición brindada por Transparencia Internacional (https://www.transparency.org/what-is-corruption#define);

To cite this content, we ask that you please use this format:

"What do Corruption and Anti-Corruption Mean?"; Michel Levien González, México, 2019.