Gretta Fenner

1975 - 2024

As Managing Director of the Basel Institute on Governance for nearly two decades, Gretta Fenner worked tirelessly to advance anti-corruption and governance for a more peaceful, equitable and inclusive world.

On this page we pay tribute to Gretta's extraordinary impact, both on the global fight against corruption and on the people she worked with so passionately throughout her career.

In memoriam

Born in 1975 in the Swiss lakeside town of Arbon and schooled in Zurich, Gretta Fenner blossomed academically. Her interest in the world and how it works led her to specialise in political science, obtaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the subject from the Otto-Suhr-Institute at the Freie Universität Berlin and a diploma from Sciences Po Paris.

It was in one of her first professional roles as Programme Manager for the Anti-Corruption Initiative for Asia-Pacific of the Asian Development Bank and OECD that Gretta was confronted with the reality of how corruption impacts the lives of ordinary people – how corruption kills, as she often said. In the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, she saw how corruption and poor governance risked hindering desperately needed relief efforts and post-disaster recovery.

She also knew that corruption was the kind of complex problem that needed the active participation and buy-in from all stakeholders to solve. It’s not enough just to call for change, she would say. You have to work together to find technical solutions that are politically and practically feasible in the context.

It was an experience that shaped her future career and one of many reasons that she instantly clicked with Mark Pieth, a renowned law professor at the University of Basel and Chair of the OECD Working Group on Bribery. Both knew that developing and applying impactful solutions to problems of corruption and governance required dialogue, negotiation and the building of relationships between stakeholders with often competing interests and ideas.

Shortly after they met in the early 2000s, Mark formally established the Basel Institute on Governance as a non-profit Swiss foundation associated with the University of Basel. He brought Gretta on board as the Institute’s first Managing Director, with a view to formalising the organisation's activities and putting it on a financially stable setting.

One transformative initiative was the establishment of the International Centre for Asset Recovery (ICAR) at the Basel Institute in 2006. This was a time when the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) was in its infancy and the concept of confiscating and returning proceeds of corruption to victim states was still novel. Together with colleagues, Gretta sought promising entry points to advance the Convention’s provisions on asset recovery by providing practical tools to both policymakers and practitioners. Seeking to empower those on the front lines of investigating corruption and seeking to recover stolen assets, she also supported the development of IT tools and a unique training methodology focused on helping participants work together to solve realistic cases.

The governments of Liechtenstein, Switzerland and the UK came on board as early core donors to ICAR, recognising the value of the combination of practical legal and policy advice, hands-on capacity building and technical advocacy on asset recovery. Gretta was determined that the donor relationship go beyond the financial aspect, once commenting that “without our donors – their understanding and trust and willingness to be experimental – we would never be where we are.”

By the time Jersey and Norway joined the core donor group in 2018, ICAR had become a global centre of excellence, supporting 30+ government partners in dozens of countries to build their capacity to confiscate assets, and using that hands-on experience to advocate for technical improvements to global asset recovery systems.

After three years in Australia from 2008 to 2011, where she completed an MBA at the Curtin Business School and served as an anti-corruption and governance advisor to several governments and international organisations, Gretta returned to Switzerland and to the Basel Institute.

Aligning interests, fostering relationships, finding workable and evidence-based solutions to real-world problems of corruption: these are the principles that underpinned the Basel Institute’s work under Gretta’s leadership. The organisation rapidly expanded to encompass a dedicated team for public governance research and innovation, a programme focused on strengthening public finance management in Peru and, more recently, a programme dedicated to tackling corruption that impacts the environment. By 2024, some 130 colleagues were engaged in long-term programmes in around 20 countries across Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia Pacific and Europe.

The establishment of the Green Corruption programme exemplified Gretta’s conviction that in order for the anti-corruption community to make an impact, it needed to reach out “beyond the bubble” to other fields. It also demonstrated her tenacity and creativity when she knew that her Institute could help make a tangible impact in a particular country or field – she could overcome any setbacks, piece together funding for pilot projects, and convince donors and partners to come on board with a combination of solid evidence and her personal charisma.

Driven by her belief in the power of dialogue and multi-stakeholder action, Gretta also played a pivotal role in championing Collective Action with the private sector as a crucial element in fighting corruption and fostering fair business. In the 21 years since she joined the Institute, Collective Action gradually became accepted as a global norm embedded in key international standards and corporate compliance programmes, with initiatives and communities of practice blossoming all over the world. In recent years, Gretta supported novel efforts to develop Collective Action to address challenges beyond anti-corruption compliance, such as human rights and humanitarian assistance.

Gretta was much in demand as a speaker at high-level policy events on anti-corruption and governance. But where she also excelled was in getting others talking and collaborating, from political negotiations on repatriating confiscated assets to the various networks and peer learning groups that she co-founded and encouraged. It was her dream, she told participants at the Munich Security Conference shortly before her tragic passing in a car accident in Kenya, to create a network of Heads of State committed to tackling corruption.

In all its diversity, the Basel Institute was in many ways an extension of Gretta’s passions, abilities and understanding of the world. She has left a powerful legacy – one that her two young sons Lukas and Lorenz, her partner Christian and her other family members can be immensely proud of. Colleagues recall her as “an inspiring and caring leader” with a “lightning-fast and brilliant problem-solving mind”. She was a true global ambassador for anti-corruption. The teams that Gretta so expertly nurtured will continue to develop, apply and advocate for new and better ways to counter corruption and promote good governance, guided by her vision of a more peaceful, equitable and inclusive world.