Thank you all for joining me here today. I wanted to bring you all together tonight because we are part of a common struggle: the fight against corruption. I and my staff wanted an opportunity to hear from you how you are fighting corruption and building a culture of accountability in Armenia.
I know each of you would agree that no matter the county we are talking about, it can be easy to ignore the problem of corruption. I’m sure we’ve heard all the excuses: it is how things done, it’s cultural, no one gets hurt, everyone does it. But such thinking is wrong. Seriously, morally, economically wrong. But, sadly, corruption remains one of the most challenging issues facing Armenia today. It is a challenge faced by all nations – including the United States.
Through this event, I also wanted to take a moment to commend all of you here today for choosing to fight against corruption and to bring a spotlight to your work. Rather than fall prey to cynicism or apathy, you have chosen optimism and found the courage to constructively fight corruption. And winning this fight against corruption is a key to Armenia’s future success.
Having spoken with many of you one-on-one, I know there are many reasons you choose to fight against corruption. Corruption fuels inequality. It undermines the rule of law. It hinders fair competition. It breeds instability, violence, and human rights abuse. Where there is corruption, we also will find widespread apathy and mistrust in institutions. We see a people that no longer believe in the future – their future or that of their country.
The U.S. Government stands firm in its commitment to assist the Armenian people and our partners in government to fight against corruption through a variety of initiatives and programs. Over the past month, I met with the individuals involved in some of these programs and seen their work first-hand. I wanted to assess the effectiveness of these programs and get a better understanding of what works, what concrete steps can limit the corruption that Armenian citizens – and potential U.S. investors here – face in their daily lives. I would like to share with you two quick examples of the success of our partnerships with two Armenian ministries and what I learned from these programs.
Last month I visited an Armenian tax service center in Zeytun. The Embassy supported the computerization and automation of Armenia’s major tax systems. We did this in part because it would decrease the direct interaction between taxpayers and tax officials, reducing the opportunity for corruption. And as a result of this computerization, now businesses spend less time and money on tax issues, which has reduced costs for the private sector in Armenia.
No one likes paying taxes, but as a U.S. Supreme Court Justice once said, “taxes are the price we pay for civilization. ”What taxpayers around the world want and have the right to demand is a tax system that treats all fairly and is transparent to all taxpayers. I believe our automation initiative helped the Armenian system meet those goals. We commend this progress, but I note the Ministry of Finance, our partner in the project, believes that more remains to be done to reduce opportunities for corruption and make the system more transparent.
I also visited one of the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs’ “one-stop” social services centers. During my visit I saw first-hand how, with help from the Embassy and the World Bank, the Ministry has transformed how it talks with citizens. Their new 114 hotline originally provided only pension related information and but now responds to calls about all types of social services. And through the hotline they also take in reports from individual citizens of corrupt officials. The hotline and other technological changes greatly improved services for over 210,000 Armenian citizens, while increasing the transparency of these social programs. In addition, updating the list of pensioners to remove those not entitled to receive pension payments, and often still receiving benefits because of corrupt actions, resulted in budget savings that made possible a 15% annual increase of pension benefits for two consecutive years.
I learned several things from these two visits, among others I carried out, but three key facts I took away. First, Armenians do not accept corruption in their public services as “part of the culture” and will report specific examples, if given the right tools to do so, such as the 114 hotline. Second, there has to be a personal commitment from the top of the relevant ministry – whether it is social services, or the tax authorities, to aggressively address reports of corruption and take action. Third, it does not require wholesale changes in organizations or removal of staffs to make change. We have the tools now – whether it be use of the internet, social media, call centers, or automation – to make it much harder for corruption to flourish and to bring transparency to government services. There needs to be the political will and public push to use those tools and creative thinking, like the kind many of you are engaged in, about how to use these tools to increase fairness and accountability.
We will continue to work with any Armenian government institution which demonstrates a true commitment to fight corruption and which takes measurable action. That includes the Anti-Corruption Council. Our financial assistance to the Council will support concrete and necessary activities, such as the continued development of the anti-corruption strategy and the establishment of an action plan. We have conditioned our support to the Council on measurable achievements. If the Council does not deliver measurable achievements, our engagement will end. Words are not enough, we need to see deeds
The United States government and other donors have supported and will continue to aid in Armenia’s fight against corruption, but ultimately Armenia’s civil society must take the lead in pushing for the reforms that they want to see in their own country. Civil society support is critical to the success of governmental efforts to curb corruption. Thus, we welcome the opportunity for non-governmental organizations to serve on the Anti-Corruption Council. This is an important opportunity for civil society members to constructively engage in a direct dialogue with the government. Together they will strengthen citizens’ rights.
Thank you again for joining us tonight. I look forward to our continued engagement and cooperation. Please enjoy the refreshments and the company. I and my staff look forward to continuing the dialogue tonight and in the future.