This is a "what if" story. What if engineers working in design or construction at home or abroad had whistles in their pockets and a hotline to call when they saw instances of corruption? What if members of a hundred engineering societies and construction organizations around the world were empowered by new codes of ethics to be whistleblowers? What if all those scores of engineering and construction-related organizations espoused zero tolerance for bribery, fraud and corruption in design and construction? And what if all their ethics codes required reporting violations?

Might Transparency International then rate construction as the most improved industry instead of the most corrupt? Might engineering and construction become the industry you and I can be fully proud to serve? Might there be a dent put in the humongous flow of dollars into pockets instead of into projects?

Total global construction in 2004 was estimated at $3.9 trillion. Transparency International estimates a 10% loss to corruption globally and much higher in the most corrupt countries. That’s $390 billion in a single year, which is more than enough to solve the world hunger problem.

In the developing world, stolen money comes out of needed housing, schools, roads or clean water supplies. Graft is the foundation of corrupt totalitarian regimes. World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz has called corruption a greater deterrent to the spread of democracy than communism.

In developed countries, a less frequent and flagrant but more sophisticated corruption sullies the reputation of the industry. Deals have sent a U.S. vice president to political oblivion and more than a few state governors to prison.

In 40 years on ENR’s editorial staff, I saw a lot of it reported. I was ASCE president about the time when Spiro Agnew was vice president and contractor cash would be delivered to the White House in a paper bag. I had the unpleasant duty of telling members charged with breaching the society’s ethics code that they had been expelled from ASCE. And if you think that is just a slap on the wrist, their reaction was: "There goes my career."

Stanching the Flow

I am convinced that the industry’s losses to bribery and corruption can be stanched. I am now working with an ASCE committee that has become the focal point–a secretariat of sorts–for the world’s engineering societies to cooperate in writing principles, guidelines, policies and even An Engineer’s Charter: Combating Corruption in Engineering and Construction for leaders of every engineering society out there to sign.

Outgoing ASCE President Bill Henry launched this global initiative. He has promoted the charter in Cairo, Warsaw and Rome. He also has taken the message to Latin America and Asia.

A lot is happening. The World Bank, which once virtually condoned corruption, now is prosecuting cases and barring corrupt firms from bank-financed projects. Large engineering and construction companies that are part of the World Economic Forum have written zero tolerance for bribery and corruption into a Partnership Against Corruption Initiative (PACI). More than 80 big international firms so far have signed on.
Clauses now are being written into contracts certifying that no bribery or other corruption will happen on the project. AIA standard contract forms need to add this language and the engineers joint committee on contract documents is favorably considering it.

In the U.K., a forum has been established to bring contractor, engineer and consultant groups together with the Institution of Civil Engineers in an industry-wide fight against corruption. That collaboration is in the future for the U.S. It must be.
I am an optimist. As word of these efforts spreads at home and abroad, there is a good chance that a dent will be made in today’s losses to corruption. We never will stamp out crime or sin or greed, but millions of professionals in design and construction can act individually and in concert to clean up the industry. And you can enlist in the fight.

Arthur J. Fox Jr. is Editor Emeritus of ENR and past president of ASCE. He can be reached at 301-983-1164 or