Frank Vogl has spent more than half his life exposing and fighting corruption — first as a journalist, then with the World Bank, and finally with Transparency International, which he cofounded. His book about his experiences, Waging War on Corruption, does not disappoint.
The book is a history of both those who have fought corruption — the dangers they faced and the obstacles they overcame — and of the people exposed. From Watergate to the Arab Spring, Vogl was either directly writing about or otherwise exposing the corruption involved.
Vogl explains the problem thus:
Corruption is not a single event, but a continuum, perpetrated day in and day out against citizens by crooked politicians and civil servants who enjoy positions of power. They can be heads of state who demand a payoff of millions of dollars on major government contracts. Or they can be lowly civil servants in small towns who have the power to grant building permits or allow access for children to schools or reserve hospital beds, and who use such powers to extort cash payments from poor people.
In any book where the author has so much knowledge, there is a risk that the numerous stories and examples of gross and petty corruption will become tedious, since so many of the cases follow the same lines. But before one is about to think “enough already,” each chapter concludes with some general insight on the problems and how they were overcome.
Under the broad heading of “Villains Everywhere,” Vogl traces corruption in locations such as Chicago, Cuba, China, Indonesia, and Russia. The historical explanation of the early stalling and eventual advance of anti-corruption is the most intellectually satisfying part of the book. During the Cold War, neither the Soviets nor the Americans cared at all about the corruption of the dictators they supported. With the Third World carved up, we had our dictators and they had theirs. Preventing any country from falling under the clutches of communism was enough — worrying about the actions of “our” dictators was never much of a consideration, even when monsters like Mobutu Sese Seko of the Congo essentially impoverished his people.
Only the fall of the Berlin Wall led to the end of the practice and the beginning of real advances against corruption. The origin and advance of Vogl’s obviously beloved Transparency International is also a powerful story, since TI started not that long after the fall of the Wall and could never have succeeded before.