Large-Scale Land Acquisitions: Opportunities for Corruption

Recent years have seen a significant rise in large-scale land acquisitions by foreign investors, generally for agricultural or extractive purposes. Many of these land deals, termed “land grabs,” have had injurious effects on local populations who are often pushed off of their land without their informed consent. (For a description of contemporary land grabs and a land grab bibliography, see here.) Foreign companies and governments secure the majority of these land deals in poorer countries, where large tracts of land can be purchased cheaply, and where many of the local inhabitants do not have the means to contest the deals through the legal system. The land is frequently used for agriculture or production of “flex crops” (such as soy or palm oil), which are then sold abroad, rather than to the host country. Therefore, land grabs can result in not only the displacement of local communities, but also the reallocation of these vital resources to external actors, rather than to the inhabitants of the host country.

Large-scale land deals are often facilitated by corrupt practices perpetrated by the foreign purchaser and/or the host government, through the transactions themselves or through weak institutions. Last November, the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable (ICAR) and Global Witness released a report that details the opportunities for corruption at each stage of large-scale land acquisitions, as well as the current legal frameworks for addressing this corruption. As noted in the report, corruption can occur in each of the six phases of a land deal: Continue reading

Guest Post: Using Animated Videos to Change Children’s Attitude Toward Corruption

Robert Clark, Legal Research Manager at TRACE International, contributes today’s guest post:

Although corruption is a broadly entrenched social ill, each corrupt act is a decision made in its own specific place and time. To address the global problem of corruption, we need to focus our attention locally and join together in our individual acts of resistance. That dynamic is concisely expressed in the phrase “United Against Corruption”—the official slogan of 2016’s International Anti-Corruption Day (officially observed this past December 9th). The associated “United Against Corruption” campaign focuses on corruption as an impediment to development, and offers a wide range of suggestions for what governments, media, businesses, and individuals can do to participate in the ongoing struggle. The campaign’s website includes a series of powerful videos illustrating the dire effects of corruption.

Children are often the ones that suffer the effects of corruption, but they can also play a key role in changing a society’s tolerance of it. The United Against Corruption campaign encourages individuals to “[e]ngage the youth of your country about what ethical behavior is, what corruption is and how to fight it.” In that spirit, TRACE International has created a series of short animated stories featuring the “Bribe Busters”—an elite young team of corruption fighters who fight corruption around the world with the help of a time travel teleportation super-computer. Their mission: to ensure that children everywhere have a fair future. Each episode focuses on a different aspect of corruption, and shows the viewer that although the world is full of unfairness, things don’t have to be that way. (For example, in episode two, the team is able to convince a government safety inspector not to look the other way at building code violations by showing him—with the help of their time-traveling computer friend—the devastation of a consequent building collapse. In another episode, the team helps an underserved remote village organize to get rid of a kleptocrat whose greed has prevented an important road project from being completed.) These videos, which have already been viewed in 44 different countries, are available on YouTube in EnglishFrench, and Spanish, with Arabic coming soon. Additionally, comic versions of the episodes (in PDF form) can be downloaded here.

TRACE is working with anti-corruption networks around the world–including Anti-Corruption International (ACI), the Economic and Financial Crimes commission (EFCC) / Creative Youth Initiative against Corruption, the Global Youth Anti-Corruption Network (GYAC), and ZERO Tolerance-Wise Youth Trust –to distribute the videos. If you are interested in distributing the Bribe Busters series in your anticorruption network, please contact us here. We hope that this series can not only help teach children about the harms of corruption (as if they didn’t already know), but also help them develop a sense that they can do something about it. We believe that’s also the basic message of the United Against Corruption campaign, and it’s one we are happy to endorse.

The Purity Potlatch and Conflict of Interest Revisited

A potlatch is a competition once found among tribes in the American Northwest.  Contestants took turns destroying things of value to them to demonstrate their wealth and status in the community, and overtime the combat escalated until eventually the only way to win was to reduce oneself to material ruin.  In a 1964 essay Stanford Law School Dean Bayless Manning, a member of the President’s Advisory Panel on Ethics and Conflicts of Interest in Government, compared the then current race in Washington, D.C., to condemn conflicts of interest to a potlatch – with similar unfortunate consequences.  Given the conflict of interest mania now gripping Washington, D.C., the time seems right to resurrect Dean Manning’s largely forgotten classic on the perils of ethics overstretch.  “The Purity Potlatch: An Essay on Conflicts of Interest, American Government, and Moral Escalation” appeared in volume 24 of the Federal Bar Journal. Available nowhere online, excerpts follow. The emphasis are as in the original:

“Something dramatic has happened of late to the subject of conflicts of interest.  This formerly obscure topic has become front page news and Big Politics. . . .

“The significant feature of these nation-rocking exposes is that, so far as is known from the record, none of the men involved actually did anything demonstrably injurious to the public treasury or the public interest.  None figured in an alleged Teapot Dome or anything resembling it.  The charge was only that the combination of their economics circumstances and their offices did not look just right.  The worst allegation that could be made against them was that they held an economic interest or received gifts that might, upon a certain set of assumptions about the conduct of their office and about human nature generally, tempt them in the future to act contrarily to the public interest in certain limited situations. Continue reading

Guest Post: Why Disclosures in Foreign Settlements Don’t Spur Domestic Prosecutions in Argentina

Natalia Volosin, a doctoral candidate at Yale Law School and clerk in the Asset Recovery Unit at Argentina’s Attorney General’s Office, contributes the following guest post (adapted and from an op-ed previously published in Spanish in the Argentine newspaper Infobae):

The so-called “Lavo Jato” investigation into bribery and money laundering at Brazil’s state-owned oil company Petrobras led to the biggest transnational bribery settlement in history: In December 2016, the Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht reached a settlement with law enforcement authorities in the United States, Brazil, and Switzerland; in exchange for its guilty plea, Odebrecht and its affiliate Braskem agreed to pay the three countries a total of $3.5 billion, of which the first firm alone will pay $2.6 billion. (Odebrecht agreed that the total criminal penalty amounts to $4.5 billion, but the final number will be determined according to its ability to pay, though it will be no less than $2.6 billion.) According to the agreement, Brazil will get 80 per cent of the penalty, while the United States and Switzerland will get 10 per cent each.

Some hope that the Odebrecht settlement will provide a boost to anticorruption investigations in other countries. After all, in the settlement documents, the firm acknowledged to having made illegal payments worth $788 million between 2001 and 2016, not only in Brazil, but in a dozen countries including Angola, Argentina, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela. In Argentina specifically, Odebrecht admitted that between 2007 and 2014, in three separate infrastructure projects, it paid intermediaries a total of $35 million knowing that they would be partially transferred to government officials. These criminal practices earned the company a $278 million benefit—a return on “investment” of over 694% (the highest among all the recipient countries). Will these revelations have significant consequences for the prosecution of corruption cases in Argentina?

The answer is probably no, at least not in the short term. Continue reading

The Aid-Corruption Paradox: How Should the U.S. Allocate Foreign Aid?

The United States spends about $34 billion annually on foreign aid, frequently to countries that have abysmal corruption track records (see the exact allocations here). Although a portion of that money, almost $6 billion, goes to humanitarian aid, the remainder is intended for development purposes. There has been a great deal of discussion about whether the United States should continue giving this aid, exemplified by the debate between Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly: Professor Sachs argues that the West can eliminate African poverty if it increases the amount of aid, while Professor Easterly insists that foreign aid thus far has not only been ineffective, but has actually caused greater harm to aid-receiving countries, in part due to corruption. Easterly-like skepticism of foreign aid due to corruption (a topic that has been discussed previously on this blog) seems to have permeated public opinion, resulting in what has been labeled “aid fatigue.” Such fatigue endangers the foreign aid system, as taxpayer support is necessary if the U.S. hopes to continue or increase its aid programs.

Unfortunately, choosing to withhold aid from corrupt countries altogether would be to deny aid from the majority of the world’s poorest countries. Corruption and poverty are correlated, resulting in an “aid-corruption paradox”: often the countries that are in the greatest need of foreign aid also have extremely corrupt governments. Thus there will inevitably be a trade-off when giving development aid: either we will be ignoring the countries in greatest need, or we will give to those countries but accept that a portion of the funds may not serve their intended purposes. How then should countries such as the United States determine where to allocate their development aid? Continue reading

Guest Post: The US and Afghanistan Need a New, Long-Term Anticorruption Strategy

Ahmad Shah Katawazai, Defense Liaison at the Embassy of Afghanistan to the United States, contributes the following guest post:

President-elect Trump has declared that he will stop American taxpayers’ money from being squandered abroad. This position poses a threat to a continued US presence in Afghanistan, in light of Afghanistan’s endemic corruption. Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President-Elect Trump’s pick to be National Security Advisor, has been arguing from a long time that abetting corrupt officials–“backing thugs”–would tarnish the U.S. military’s reputation. Thus Trump might threaten Afghan officials that the US will cut off foreign aid if the Afghan government fails to crack down on corruption.

The U.S.-led coalition mission in Afghanistan laid the foundations for systemic corruption right from the start of the war in 2001. The U.S. provided millions of dollars in cash to the so-called warlords, as well as opium and arms smugglers. These warlords and criminals needed to protect themselves, and they found that the best way to do so was to secure high-level governmental positions. It is these people who are mainly responsible for running the mafia-style corruption machine in Afghanistan.

Yet Western policymakers neglected this problem, largely because they were focusing more on security as their top priority. What these policymakers failed to grasp was the fact that corruption could turn into a serious security threat in Afghanistan. For too long the focus was solely on fighting the insurgents, but corruption undermined this fight by fueling grievances against the Afghan government and the West. Corruption, including the diversion of Afghan resources and donor aid for the private gain of the political elite, impoverished and alienated the common people. Public anger over massive graft and corruption in the country turned people against the government and the West, thus strengthening the ranks of Taliban. Moreover, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR)‘s recent report, “U.S. money was flowing to the insurgency via corruption.” Corruption in Afghanistan cuts across all aspects of the society, with 90% of Afghans saying that corruption is a problem in their daily lives, and this endemic corruption threatens the legitimacy of Afghanistan’s government.

What has been achieved in the past 15 years in Afghanistan—at the cost of billions of dollars and the sacrifices of thousands of lives—today remains at jeopardy. The country is in a fragile and vulnerable position. Yet it would be shortsighted for the US to simply disengage, or threaten to cut off aid if the Afghan government fails to crack down sufficiently. What is needed both from the Afghan government and the new U.S. administration is a unified, long-term, practical, results-oriented strategy that could produce solid outcomes. It would be wise for the Trump administration to come up with such a strategy. Afghanistan should remain a priority because of its geo-strategic location and an important U.S. ally in the region. Given the existing circumstances and the need to bolster Afghanistan’s security and economy, and to prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for terrorists and insurgents, a long-term commitment and a coherent strategy to get corruption under control would be in the interests of both the U.S. and Afghan governments.