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Helping heroes fight for change

Speaking out about corruption is not easy. It often means fighting against the powerful, against entrenched practices and in many cases against state institutions. It requires courage, persistence and strength; and it can also be dangerous because in many countries there is no legal protection for whistleblowers.

Despite this, there are “heroes that nobody knows”, people who speak up and fight for justice and a world free of corruption even when they and their families’ security is threatened. And there are those who help them do this; often also putting themselves at risk in the process.

A decade ago Transparency International opened its first anti-corruption legal advice centres to help these heroes. Today we have centres in more than 60 countries where people can report corruption and get practical advice from experts.

In July this year in Buenos Aires we brought together activists working in centres across Europe and Latin America to share their expertise about data protection, building legal cases, cooperations with investigative journalists, working towards legal reforms in their countries to protect whistleblowers, and also how to protect themselves.

Taking on anti-corruption complaints is difficult, it requires very specialised capacities.”

– Jorge Romero Leon, an independent consultant who assessed centres in nine different countries

Activists from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Czech Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, Ireland, Peru and Venezuela share their experiences in Buenos Aires.

Supporting individual whistleblowers

In many countries around the world, people face corruption daily: they are asked to pay a bribe to get licences and permits, or to access education and health services that are meant to be free. Evidence provided by whistleblowers is one of the most powerful tools to promote real policy changes in the public and private sectors and stop corruption.

When the phone rang, it was clear the caller was scared. He worked in the government, he said. He had information on a huge public tender that he needed to share. Read more here.

It was thanks to this whistleblower in the Czech Republic and our chapter there, that a flawed public contract to clean up pollution across the country was stopped, saving 1.2 billion euro in taxpayers’ money.

Empowering vulnerable groups

Vulnerable and marginalised groups often suffer most from corruption. Our centres reach out to them by providing “mobile services” and partnering with grassroots organisations.

For the past two years, our centre in Argentina has provided assistance to the informal settlement La Palangana, where 7,000 people live in unsanitary conditions near a huge body of polluted floodwater. The centre helped residents lodge a complaint with authorities to force them to remove the contaminated water, but the government didn’t respond so neighbours decided to organise and find their own solutions with the help and the tools provided by the centre. They’ve reduced the floodwater, but are still fighting for their rights.

A young activist distributes promotional material for anti-corruption legal advice centres.

Promoting systemic change

Fighting corruption and creating a lasting difference often involves systemic change. By linking individual cases with the bigger picture, centres uncover areas prone to corruption and promote good governance reforms. Sometimes, these reforms save lives.

In March 2013 our centre in Honduras provided proof that millions of dollars’ worth of medicine were being siphoned off from the state-controlled Almacén Central de Medicamentos (Central Medicines Warehouse), possibly to be sold on the black market. Now the government is taking action and Hondurans can buy better medicines for the right price. Read more here and here.

Lessons learned

  • Know your subject: The battleground for fighting corruption is often the courts. It is important to build legal expertise and to develop partnerships with other organisations and investigative journalists who can help research cases, provide background and support individual complaints.
  • Keep safe: Be aware of the risks to your victim and your organisation. Regularly assess the security situation to ensure the physical security of staff and the people they are helping.
  • Build up resources: It is important to find long-term funding for your activities. Cases can take time to go through the courts or arbitration. You need to finish what you start and support people over time.

The week-long workshop was sponsored by EUROsociAL Programme and the CEDDET Foundation.

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