20 years ago: “And let’s not mince words: we need to deal with the cancer of corruption…”

An anniversary seems to have slipped by unnoticed, at least by me. On October 1, 1996 the World Bank’s President James D. Wolfensohn delivered what came to be known as the “Cancer of Corruption” speech at the annual meetings of the World Bank and the IMF.

He was not the first to use the term, although it doubled in popularity after his speech, compared to the decade before.

He was not the first to highlight the problem of corruption. Transparency International was founded in 1993 and has been advocating about and researching corruption ever since. Robert Klitgaard’s “Controlling Corruption” came out in 1988, followed by “Tropical Gangsters”, which also dealt with corruption, a couple years later. (The latter helped inspire my interest in development, a topic for a future blog, perhaps.)

The speech was, however, an important milestone in that it put the problems surrounding corruption, and the governance reforms needed to reduce corruption, firmly on the development agenda of the World Bank.

As it turned out, this shift in agenda also had an impact on me after I joined the World Bank in 1997. Some earlier work in Mongolia on surveys of privatized firms and a study of the Mongolia’s informal sector led naturally to an interest in empirical tools for understanding corruption and governance challenges. From a 1998 empirical study of corruption in Latvia, to a 2014 study of transparency in land administration in Vietnam, such empirical tools were a core interest of mine–and, ultimately, the reason I remembered this anniversary, even if a few weeks late.

The Cancer of Corruption speech dealt with many issues, among them finance, civil society, legal systems, the private sector, and others, but it remains known as the Cancer of Corruption speech. The challenges surrounding corruption have not been “solved”, but then neither have the challenges of legal systems, health care delivery, education, transportation, or any others. Development is a process, and the public recognition of the pernicious effects corruption poses for development by the head of the largest development institution was an important step in moving that process forward.

“And let’s not mince words: we need to deal with the cancer of corruption…”

TEMP - cancer of corruption graphic

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