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Group Works to Promote Transparency in Government and Business

Corrupt individuals seek to deny open access to information. Such access in English is often termed "transparency," which inspired the name of an anti-corruption organization in Germany, Transparency International.

The word transparency is derived from the Latin, transparere, which means to appear or to become visible. Today, it is used figuratively in reference to open government and honest business.

Many voices are calling for greater transparency: the Head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, a World Health Organization inspector, the president of Microsoft Corporation, and the attorney general of the state of Kansas.

Whether the issue is nuclear proliferation, bird flu, business practice, or government accountability at any level, the freedom to give and receive information is considered vital.

"Transparency can have a major impact on poverty reduction," said Charles McPherson, a senior advisor at the World Bank. "If the public knows what the numbers are and how much money has been received, they can enter into the debate on how the money ought to be spent and put pressure on government and politicians to spend the money in priority areas. And the poor will be given a voice in a sense by having transparency," he said.

Transparency International-USA is one of about 90 affiliates of the parent organization in Germany. The global organization rates degrees of corruption in each nation with an annual list known as the Corruption Perception Index. Iceland is currently ranked as least corrupt. Chad is last among 159 nations on the survey.

The president of Transparency-USA, Nancy Boswell, says the more corrupt a country, the more it conceals information about government activities, which hurts average citizens.

"If those individuals don't get a school, don't get a hospital, don't get the kind of care that they need, because the deal went to somebody who paid a higher bribe, then it's more than the cost of lost business, it's actually a cost in lives," said Boswell.

She adds that transparency is also essential in business. She points to the collapse of America's Enron Corporation as an example of business fraud in which employees and investors lost billions of dollars because managers concealed crucial information.

"Transparency is fundamental in the marketplace from many different perspectives. The reliability of financial information is critical, for example, for investors," she continued. "It's impossible to know the worth of a company and whether you should invest in it, if you can't really rely on the financials."

The chairman of Transparency International, Peter Eigen, says there is a particular risk of corruption in countries with vast deposits of natural resources.

"Very high oil prices mean that the need to introduce a transparency system for the extractive industries is even more urgent because the amounts of money which will change hands, that comes into countries where petroleum is produced, are increasing," noted Eigen.

Nancy Boswell of Transparency-USA says strong public and private institutions are needed in the struggle against corruption. They include free media and independent courts.

"You also have to have a change in our education. Corruption is not necessarily part of the status quo," she explained. "Children need to be taught from an early age [that] you can expect more from society, that you can expect an honest government and honest business."

Boswell says one of Transparency International's main accomplishments has been to advance corruption as a central issue for discussion among the leaders of nations, development institutions, the United Nations and private business. She notes that keeping corruption levels to a minimum is essential if ordinary people are to enjoy global economic development.