Integrity: Wholeness is Essential

Kitty Arambula, Integrity Consultant of Anticorruption and Integrity Office (OAI) at Asian Development Bank

The word “integrity” derives from the Latin integritas or integer, which means intact or whole. Integrity is defined, in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, as follows:

– The quality of being honest and having strong moral principles

– The state of being whole and not divided

In current parlance, integrity, when applied to people, their attitude and behavior, has primarily come to be understood as only the first definition. However, I believe that it would serve humanity well, if we all remember and consider the second, and original, definition, as doing so may in fact help us to understand and act with more integrity in everyday life.

Sadly, in our age of unprecedented abundance and access to information, we are confronted with daily reports of dishonesty of varying forms and scale. The news media- on the internet, television or in the papers – increasingly appear to report cases of fraud and corruption across all sectors of society, from governments and intergovernmental institutions, to the corporate world and the non-governmental sector, and committed by a wide range of actors.

Corruption has been identified by some as the cause and result of poverty and an important element in perpetuating inequality. It disproportionally affects the poorest of the poor and the otherwise marginalized, and has been found to be an undermining factor in all aspects of society: economic, social, political, environmental and even cultural.

Two main underlying elements are drivers of corruption. For the haves, it is greed, an intense and selfish desire to amass or obtain something, either material goods, or immaterial things such as power. For the have-nots, it is a desperate tool to fulfill a legitimate need. Research has shown a positive correlation between the perception of systematic corruption on the one hand, and high poverty rate and low-income levels on the other, in many developing countries.

In industrialized countries, corruption appears to be more prevalent where people have access to considerable resources. In both situations, a sense of “not having”, whether driven by real or perceived need, lead to the act of trying to get what is not rightfully or lawfully theirs.

The corollary of this increased (visibility of) corruption is the upsurge of protests against corrupt acts and behavior, the adoption of systems to prevent or curb such acts and behavior. Systems of control and audits, measures of surveillance, checks and balances, as well as investigations processes, coupled with the increased use of concomitant jargon – such as compliance, ethics and integrity -, are on the rise in intergovernmental, government and private sectors alike, as a result.

However, the long-term solution to problem of corruption cannot only be a “stick”, such as external structures and systems, which force people to behave in certain ways, and hollow phrases. The human mind, the world’s most sophisticated computer, will find a way to circumvent boundaries and limits, much like guerrilla warfare. These measures have to be accompanied by acts that give back to the word integrity its true meaning.

Such strengthening of the internal framework can be encouraged in two ways: first, by offering an external carrot to reduce the incentive for dishonesty, which, for example, is what Singapore has done – its government officials are paid high wages for precisely that reason.

Second, efforts can be made to build and strengthen people’s internal normative and value framework, to ensure that the desire to act in a wrongful matter is strongly diminished or even completely suppressed within the individual.

This is where the original definition of integrity comes into play: an individual who is “whole”, i.e. in unison with her or himself – mind, head and body aligned-, is possibly in a better position to act with integrity than someone who is not.

Such wholeness is attained through various means, depending on factors, such as culture, religion, population group and country, but the ultimate goal is to attain a unity of person, which is invariably accompanied by inner peace, contentment,
a sense of well-being, and a disinclination to do bad things.

With such an attitude and outlook, an individual, be it on her or his own, or as part of a group, will be, more often than not, inclined to do the right thing. And the more one does a good thing, the more they will be disposed to do it again.

And, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you want to see in this world.” It is from the wholeness of the individual that real change can be made, through her or his own personal actions, through actions in groups, actions by organizations, and even nations.

Even though international systems are created with the best intentions, and generally equipped with principles, policies and procedures that are conducive to beneficial actions – like the United Nations, the integrity of these systems depends wholly on the actions of the individuals of which the system is composed. If each person working in an international organization behaves with complete integrity, the organization will naturally function likewise at all levels: with integrity.

And so the virtual circle goes: from whole individuals, to whole organization, to whole society, which in turn ensures whole individuals. Let us begin, shall we?


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