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At nearly 80 years of age and standing less than five feet tall, Le Hien Duc is not what you expect when you hear the words “corruption fighter”. But the retired school teacher has an impressive record for pursuing corrupt officials in her native Vietnam.
I met Madame Duc attending a global conference on corruption in Bangkok last November. It was the day before Transparency International (TI) presented its Integrity Awards to three exceptional individuals for their efforts in tackling graft, including Sergei Magnitsky, who died in prison because he blew the whistle on tax fraud. Madame Duc was a recipient of the award in 2007.
Despite me not speaking a word of Vietnamese, the vivacious Le chatted away with warmth and enthusiasm, and it was easy to imagine her phoning high- and low-level authorities repeatedly, even tracking them down at their homes, to make sure they act on complaints of corruption, as she describes elsewhere.
In a country where police are seen as the most corrupt institution and almost half the people paid a bribe in the last year according to TI’s Global Corruption Barometer, Madame Duc says she’s “not afraid at all”, despite receiving warnings in the form of an empty coffin delivered to her doorstep.
Le uses much of her US $80 a month pension to finance her anti-corruption activities and continues to help citizens in addressing their concerns to this day. Part of the problem is that people don’t know where to take their grievances, she says in a recent article. People are clearly extremely concerned but are not aware of the proper procedures for filing complaints, she explains.
3000 kilometres away in Delhi, another anti-corruption activist and previous Integrity Awards winner has been making international headlines recently. In April, community leader Anna Hazare began a hunger strike to demand an effective and independent Ombudsman’s bill in India and called for civil society to be involved in its drafting. Thousands of people across India and overseas gathered publicly to support Hazare in his four-day fast, and the frenzy it created on social media sites was spectacular to watch (#Hazare was the top trending twitter hash tag in India at the time). Hazare ended his fast when the government agreed to set up a panel with civil society representatives to draft the anti-graft law and introduce it in Parliament this year.
But corruption fighters do not always come in the form of grassroots campaigners like Madame Duc and Hazare. In 2003 UK journalist David Leigh broke a story which led to the exposure of secret payments by arms giant BAE Systems. The scale of the investigation was huge, and Leigh says that he and his colleagues cooperated with journalists in other countries, like Sweden, Romania and Chile, where the alleged misconduct took place.
A formal investigation into the case by the Serious Fraud Office was initially blocked by the Blair administration but was allowed to continue following public pressure. The Guardian keeps an impressive timeline of the ongoing case here.
Despite their diverse backgrounds, corruption fighters have one crucial trait in common: when they’re faced with the choice of turning a blind-eye to wrongdoing or speaking out, they take the high road. Too often they pay for their choice dearly - risking their jobs, health, and homes - but their belief that bad behaviour in their countries should not go unpunished and that corruption is an injustice against humanity drives them to tackle a menace that fuels poverty, exploits the vulnerable and distorts economic markets.
This past year we have seen long-time campaigners continue their fight and many more people join the call to end impunity for the first time. Who will be this year’s anti-corruption heroes?
Sophie Brown is a Communications Assistant at Transparency International. Nominations for the 2011 Integrity Awards are open to the public and can be made by 30 June at www.transparency.org/integrityawards.