Integrity: what we have learned and what we still need to learn

20 June 2017
By Kunio Mikuriya, WCO Secretary General

By the very nature of their activities, Customs administrations are vulnerable to various sorts of corruption – from the payment of a bribe to large-scale fraud. Since the adoption of the Arusha Declaration in 1993, which was later revised in 2003, the WCO has developed several tools to help its Members identify or monitor corruption risks, implement relevant measures, and develop anti-corruption strategies.

Moreover, the WCO also carries out various types of missions at the request of its Members, such as integrity assessment missions, missions to provide guidance on the introduction of performance measurement systems, or ad hoc missions to provide support in revising a code of conduct, an integrity strategy, a training plan or the mapping of corruption risks.

In the dossier section of this edition of the magazine, we have chosen to focus on the use of ‘collective action’ to fight corruption, an expression which arose out of a concern to find an innovative approach to address integrity-related issues.

But before looking in more detail at what collective action is all about, I would like to share the results of the analysis carried out by WCO experts who have been providing assistance over the last five years to 26 countries around the world, in order to help them combat corruption and enhance integrity.

Identified trends

Before looking at the new approach, let’s have a look at some of the ‘traditional’ measures aimed at fighting corruption. The WCO experts have reported several trends, remarks and thoughts on critical practices and policies, such as automation, performance measurement or clearance procedures, which are summarized below.


Despite the establishment of automated Customs clearance systems in all the administrations visited, in most cases the automation is not complete: certain tasks are still being carried out manually, and many paper documents continue to circulate, since the technology in use does not allow them to be submitted electronically. This slows the process down, and increases contact between officials and users.

The other negative aspect is that all stages of a Customs clearance that do not leave a trail in the system cannot be verified or measured in the case of performance measurement projects. In certain administrations, two automated Customs clearance computer systems work in parallel, making controls more difficult, and an analysis virtually impossible. This also raises integrity and security problems.

Performance measurement

It has been found that following missions providing performance measurement support, the behaviour of some officials very quickly changes irremediably when the hierarchy takes measures to stop certain identified bad practices.

However, even after years of implementing this approach, it is necessary to take stock and assess the situation constantly, in order to identify persistent problems and review the indicators in practice, as a means of rectifying the behaviour of individuals who seek to manipulate them in order to reinstate the bad practices. On this very subject, I invite you to read the article by Cameroon Customs on page 52 of this magazine.

What is interesting, though, is that, even when an administration does not regularly analyse data from the automated Customs clearance system in the context of performance measurement, data analysis can be used to inspect the services and to ensure internal auditing, thereby allowing behaviour and procedures to be analysed.


During visits to Customs offices at land or sea borders where WCO teams have monitored the Customs clearance process, it has been noted that certain stages of the Customs clearance are superfluous, and add nothing to the process other than an additional stage.

Sometimes for social reasons, certain obsolete duties are maintained so that jobs do not have to be cut, since the officials who perform these duties are not always capable of carrying out others. These additional stages or this multiplicity of border controls may help to generate opportunities for corruption.

Communication policy

There is, in most administrations that have asked the WCO for assistance, an absence of a communication policy designed to ensure internal and external communication on decisions taken by the administration in connection with integrity building, particularly in relation to the sanctions taken and progress made in this area.


Out of the 26 countries covered by the analysis, only four have indicated that they have a Communications Service. A communication policy for the purposes of transparency, as recommended by the Revised Arusha Declaration, is useful, notably for giving users a positive image of Customs, and for providing information to staff.

Whistle blowing mechanism

Most administrations have introduced a mechanism allowing officials and users to report acts of corruption. However, fear of reprisals and lack of (legal) protection has deterred whistle blowers from coming forward, even when anonymity can be guaranteed.


As the WCO has often pointed out in its publications, increases in salaries are not necessarily a guarantee of respect for integrity unless they are accompanied by other reform measures. However, providing acceptable working conditions which foster ethical behaviour and do not place officials in extremely precarious circumstances is critical. Yet in some of the countries visited by a WCO mission, political changes have often resulted in Customs officials’ salaries being reduced by half or even two thirds, which is not helpful.


Even in cases where an administration has a recruitment system built, among other things, on job profiles that meet international standards, it is very often subject to political interference. This jeopardizes recruitment based on integrity tests, and can provoke frustration and conflicts within an administration.

Rotation system

The absence of a transparent and balanced rotation system, designed to support human resource management, is a recurring theme, which more or less has a serious impact on integrity within an administration according to the extent of corruption in the country concerned.


Although most administrations have introduced anti-corruption measures, the absence of an anti-corruption strategy is common to 90% of the countries that the experts studied.


When administrations have an integrity awareness-raising or training programme – which, in most cases, amounts merely to an induction session for new recruits – the emphasis is almost always placed on the implementation of the code of conduct, specific rules existing in this area, and penalties incurred in the event of non-compliance.

The incentives and explanations offered to persuade officials to respect integrity should not be restricted solely to the fear of penalties. It is just as important to highlight the advantages that exist for individuals and for an administration in demonstrating respect for integrity. An objective and wellfounded performance measurement policy and forums for exchanging views on integrity and corruption issues may be useful in this area. The objective should be to nurture a culture of integrity, supported by the provision of well-established career paths for Customs officers.

Relationship between Customs and the private sector

Eighty per cent of the countries visited by the experts have provisions for meeting and communicating with the private sector, which are more or less effective, but not always official, which results in a lack of rigour.

However, a clear improvement in the climate of confidence between the private sector and Customs has been noticeable over the years, particularly with the signature of individual memoranda of understanding with private sector partnerships in several Latin American countries, and also in relations between Customs and its partners, which the experts have witnessed.

Collective action

The WCO has always advocated partnerships to combat corruption and enhance integrity, particularly with the private sector, as set out in Principle 10 of the Revised Arusha Declaration. One of the trends identified by an expert is the building of new or innovative partnerships with the private sector, which can fit into what is today referred to as ‘anti-corrupion collective action.’

Collective action refers to the actions undertaken by individuals and/or groups towards a collective purpose or goal. As I explained at the beginning of this article, international organizations, the private sector and the civil society are now using the term “anti-corruption collective action” as an approach that seeks to combat corruption ‘differently’ – a measure referred to in response to the failure of certain piecemeal anti-corruption approaches. Such initiatives can include industry standards, multi-stakeholder initiatives and public-private partnerships.

You will learn from the selection of articles making up the dossier how collective action to combat corruption may apply in the Customs context. I hope it will inspire some WCO Members to look at the relevance and possibility of engaging in such forms of relationships or schemes. Unfortunately, there are still very few examples of Customs administrations having done much work in this field, meaning that we still have a lot to learn.

As WCO documents often stress, an imaginative multi-faceted approach must be adopted to enhance anti-corruption initiatives, rather than standard approaches alone. So, collective action may represent a broader application of the partnerships that Customs generally seeks, and which the WCO has long promoted.

By extending our multi-faceted approach to collective action, Customs will take the lead and strengthen its image in combating corruption. Even if such actions are launched by another party, such as representatives of the industry or another governmental agency, Customs administrations will, nevertheless, have every interest in taking part in such initiatives.