What is ‘lobbying’ and its link to corruption?

Back-corridor negotiation on proposed legislation is a practice that runs from Brasília to Washington, Bruxelles to ar-Rabāṭ. However, the relationships between policy-makers and interest groups walk a fine ethical line that separates participatory democracy from state capture.

Striking legislative deals are generally considered to be just one part of broader lobbying efforts undertaken by groups advocating for their interests to be represented in the policy-making process. Lobbyists can work in a variety of organisations, such as public affairs and law firms, ‘think tanks’, in-house units of corporations, trade associations or non-governmental organisations. For example, Transparency International (TI) regularly lobbies at G8 meetings for the enforcement of anti-corruption conventions. Gaining access to decision-makers and helping to shape the political developments in a country are just two objectives of an ambitious lobbyist.

Lobbying has experienced remarkable growth in recent years. There are now an estimated 15,000 lobbyists who have put down their roots in Brussels, striving for their voice to be heard by the EU. In the US, American lobbying expenses have almost doubled over the last decade, reaching US$ 2.8 billion in 2007.

Yet when large business interests and corporations become involved, there is a danger that the tenuous balance between legitimate and illegitimate lobbying activities will be quickly lost and that the scales can tip towards undue influence gained through corrupt practices.

This problem is reflected in the definition of lobbying, as set forth in TI’s ‘Anti-Corruption Plain Language Guide’:

“Any activity carried out to influence a government or institution’s policies and decisions in favour of a specific cause or outcome. Even when allowed by law, these acts can become distortive if disproportionate levels of influence exist — by companies, associations, organisations and individuals.”

But how does lobbying cross the line to become corruption? TI’s Global Corruption Report 2009: Corruption and the Private Sector takes this question to task. The report breaks down the issue of lobbying, explaining how businesses with extensive funds to back their lobbying activities and close relationships with lawmakers can gain disproportionate access to the policy-making process in ways that are unavailable to the common citizen. When safeguards for transparency and accountability are limited, this can lead to illegal, undue and unfair influence in a country’s policies and politics.

So what does lobbying mean to you?

Do you agree with the TI definition? How should the definition be changed to capture the problems we have witnessed in the public and private sectors? We want to hear from you – so please post your comments.

Help us improve our understanding of the words used to describe what’s happening in our world.

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