Time for the U.K. to Match U.S. Ambitions in the Fight Against Corruption

GAB is pleased to welcome this guest post by Susannah Fitzgerald, Network Co-Ordinator of the UK Anti-Corruption Coalition, which brings together the UK’s leading anti-corruption organisations to tackle corruption in the UK and the UK’s role in facilitating corruption abroad.

President Biden’s June 3 commitment “to prevent and combat corruption at home and abroad” is welcome news to corruption fighters around the globe. Five years ago, then U.K. Prime Minster David Cameron outlined similar ambitions at the International Anti-Corruption Summit in London. Yet, despite a promising start in the years after the Summit, the U.K. anti-corruption agenda now looks alarmingly close to stalling.

It is time reinvigorate that agenda, and not only for the sake of British citizens. Like the United States, the United Kingdom is an important financial center, and the measures it takes to curb corruption, fight money laundering, and ease the return of stolen assets will benefit populations around the world.

Here is what the UK has done so far do to tackle corruption, why it matters, and what more the Coalition believes it needs to do.

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Guest Post: The Role of Assemblage Theory in Rethinking Anticorruption Reform

Today’s guest post is from Grant Walton, a Fellow at the Development Policy Centre at Australia National University’s Crawford School of Public Policy, and the Chair of ANU’s Transnational Research Institute on Corruption.

For more than twenty years, international donors have advocated and supported anticorruption reform programs in developing countries. While supporters of these efforts can point to some demonstrable successes (see, for example, here and here), many skeptics have questioned the effectiveness of such interventions. Indeed, the harshest critics echo Barney Warf’s assessment that many anticorruption reforms “amount to little more than hollow rhetoric, the punishment of a few sacrificial lambs, and little substantive change.”

In response to these criticisms, some academics have started to reassess the assumptions that have guided donor-supported anticorruption efforts, including how corruption and the responses to it are conceptualized. One of the most innovative strands of this burgeoning literature draws on a framework called “assemblage theory.”

This framework, devised by the philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, is complex, but to boil it down, assemblage theory attempts to describe the world by focusing on the fluid non-hierarchical relationships that form between humans, ideas, and objects. Assemblages come together at crucial moments (to design a policy for example) and then disperse. Rather than examining the role of different groups or institutions, assemblage theorists focus on the way people, ideas, and objects are connected across time and space, and how these connections help shape events, ideas, and policies.

An increasing number of scholars now draw on assemblage theory to understand the complex world of policymaking, which is rarely a linear process, and involves humans, ideas and objects that stretch across the globe. And, as I highlight in a recent article, anticorruption scholarship in particular has drawn on assemblage theory to reimagine the effectiveness of anticorruption reforms in two ways:

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Corruption Should Be a Laughing Matter

Corruption is a serious matter—it sucks away public finances, undermines good governance, ends livelihoods, and consumes lives. It’s therefore understandable that many anticorruption activists center much of their work on getting people to take corruption seriously. But despite the underlying gravity of the problem, sometimes a surprisingly effective way to fight against corruption is to make people laugh about it.

Consider Alexei Navalny, the Russian activist whose attempted assassination, arrest, and imprisonment underscore just how much Moscow has recognized his power. One of the striking things about the explosive videos that Navalny has released to expose the Putin regime’s corruption is that the videos aren’t just shocking—they’re funny. People enjoy watching them because of their biting humor—and while they’re laughing, they also learn about Putin’s siphoning of public funds for his own benefit.

There are plenty of other examples of anticorruption activists effectively using humor as part of their campaigns. To mention just a few:

  • Last summer, Lebanese activists staged a fake—and deliberately comical—“funeral” for the Lebanese currency (the lira), as a protest against the cronyism and mismanagement that “killed” the Lebanese lira and tanked the country’s economy. A video of the “funeral” gathered over 10,600 views on Twitter and brought renewed international attention to an anticorruption protest movement that at that point was approaching its seventh month without much success.
  • A Chinese artist known as Badiucao has used satirical art to bring attention to the ruling party’s political corruption, including a famous “promotional poster” for the TV series House of Cards, with Xi Jinping sitting on the throne instead of series villain Frank Underwood. His art helped spark renewed criticism of the regime and is credited with inspiring political cartoons throughout Hong Kong’s democratic uprising against China’s controversial 2019 extradition bill.
  • In Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky was elevated from comedian to President of Ukraine by campaigning on an anticorruption platform. Comedy was a key part of his 2018 campaign—instead of traditional rallies, he held performances by comedy troupes skewering the corruption of the incumbent regime.
  • Back in 2004, the then-mayor of Bogota Antanas Mockus pushed back against the city’s petty corruption through antics like inducting 150 “honest” taxi drivers into a fictional club called the “Knights of the Zebra.”

These and other examples illustrate an important lesson for anticorruption activists: Notwithstanding the seriousness of corruption and the harm that it causes, humor can be a powerful tool in spreading an anticorruption message. As a rhetorical device, humor has a few distinctive strengths:

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Small Town Corruption: The Cautionary Tale of Jasiel Correia

Elected at the age of 23 to serve as mayor of Fall River, Massachusetts, Jasiel Correia looked like a wunderkind. A tech entrepreneur who founded his own startup, Correia was the youngest-ever mayor of his hometown, the golden boy who promised to use his technological prowess and puckish energy to bring his aging town into the 21st century

Then it all came crashing down. In 2018, Correia was charged with various personal misdeeds, including tax and wire fraud, related to his tech company. A defiant Correia maintained his innocence and rejected calls for his resignation. Then, a second round of charges hit, this time alleging public corruption. Correia purportedly took over $600,000 in bribes from marijuana business license applicants—including one marijuana business owner who paid the Mayor $100,000 and promised him 2% of his future sales revenue in exchange for a lucrative operating permit. By the time Mayor Correia went to trial, he faced 24 separate criminal charges, and on May 14, 2021, the jury found him guilty of 21 of those 24 counts.

Mayor Correia’s downfall might seem like a relatively minor matter involving local corruption in one small city. (Such stories are, alas, all too common.) But this incident usefully highlights the corruption risks associated with devolving regulatory authority to local governments. While there are certainly virtues of giving local governments power over local affairs, we need to be clear-eyed about the dangers that local control can pose, particularly in the context of regulating lucrative industries like legal marijuana. The Fall River example highlights several such risks:

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Anticorruption Bibliography–June 2021 Update

An updated version of my anticorruption bibliography is available from my faculty webpage. A direct link to the pdf of the full bibliography is here, and a list of the new sources added in this update is here. Additionally, the bibliography is available in more user-friendly, searchable from at Global Integrity’s Anti-Corruption Corpus website.

As always, I welcome suggestions for other sources that are not yet included, including any papers GAB readers have written.

President Biden: Fighting Corruption Core U.S. National Security Interest

Last Thursday President Biden officially declared what corruption fighter have long known:

“Corruption corrodes public trust; hobbles effective governance; distorts markets and equitable access to services; undercuts development efforts; contributes to national fragility, extremism, and migration; and provides authoritarian leaders a means to undermine democracies worldwide.  When leaders steal from their nations’ citizens or oligarchs flout the rule of law, economic growth slows, inequality widens, and trust in government plummets.”

Memorandum on Establishing the Fight Against Corruption as a Core United States National Security Interest

Biden then did what no corruption fighter could. He issued a National Security Memorandum making “countering corruption . . . a core United States national security interest.”   To that end he pledged “to promote good governance; bring transparency to the United States and global financial systems; prevent and combat corruption at home and abroad; and make it increasingly difficult for corrupt actors to shield their activities.”

The Biden memo directs the most senior member of his government to develop a presidential strategy to fight corruption both within the United States and abroad that targets precisely the issues the global anticorruption community, including this Blog, have identified as critical. They are measures to: combat illicit financial flows; increase asset recovery efforts and the return of stolen assets to victim states; target grand corruption by leaders of foreign states; strengthen civil society, the media, and other agents of accountability; incorporate anticorruption measures into foreign assistance programs; pressure international agencies and organizations to focus on the demand side of bribery; and enhance U.S. assistance to foreign law enforcement agencies investigating and prosecuting corruption.

That the Biden memo reads like the anticorruption community’s wish list should come as no surprise. Before taking up his post as Biden’s National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan was a member of the community in good standing (some of his writings on corruption here, here, and here), and in his first interview after being named the president’s top adviser on foreign policy he said his goal was “to rally our allies to combat corruption and kleptocracy, and to hold systems of authoritarian capitalism accountable for greater transparency and participation in a rules-based system.”

The headline on a column on the prospects for success of the Biden initiative by the Washington Post’s leading foreign affairs commentator captures what I suspect are GAB readers’ sentiments: “Biden’s anti-corruption plan appears to have some teeth. Here’s hoping they bite.”

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Alice Mattoni

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, my collaborators Nils Köbis and Jonathan Kleinpass interview Alice Mattoni, Associate Professor in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the University of Bologna. Professor Mattoni is an expert both in anticorruption and in social movements more broadly, and the interview addresses several aspects of how these two topics intersect. For instance, Professor Mattoni discusses what anticorruption activists and scholars can learn from research on social movements–for example, why it makes more sense to speak in terms of outcomes rather than “successes” or “failures,” and also the importance of how issues are framed. Professor Mattoni also addresses whether (and how) it might be possible to mobilize a global anticorruption movement, in light of the very specific and different understandings of the nature of the corruption problem in different countries. Professor Mattoni also discusses some of the challenges of conducing field research on corruption, and why some people resist labeling themselves as “anticorruption activists.” The final part of the interview turns to social movement activity online, including online anticorruption activism, and whether these forms of online protest can make a positive difference, or whether online forums tend instead to produce so-called “slacktivism,” in which people post or re-post slogans and memes without effecting real change.

You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Reforming South Korea’s New Anticorruption Agency: How to Promote Independence without Inducing Paralysis

Back in December 2019, South Korean President Moon Jae-in achieved what seemed like a major victory in his anticorruption platform when the National Assembly established a new agency, the Corruption Investigation Office for High-Ranking Officials (CIO). Armed with broad investigatory authority, as well as a more limited but nonetheless important power to prosecute members of the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office (SPO), the CIO was supposed to be at the vanguard of the effort to clean up South Korean government. Yet for over a year, the CIO was unable to operate because it had no Director General. The reason for this had to do with the original design of the mechanism for selecting this official. In an effort to ensure a consensus candidate and avoid politicization of the agency, the original CIO legislation required that a Director General candidate receive the support of six out of the seven members of a Recommendation Committee composed of the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Court Administration, the President of the Korean Bar Association, two members from President Moon’s party, and two members from the opposition People Power Party (PPP). That system meant that at least one opposition party member would need to support a candidate for that candidate to be appointed, thus preventing the President from installing a crony.

The system, however, did not work as intended, because the two PPP members on the Committee refused to confirm any of the candidates put before the Committee. Finally, in December 2020, a year after the CIO’s creation, the National Assembly passed a bill that reduced the number of votes needed to recommend a candidate from six to five. This enabled the Recommendation Committee to appoint (over the opposition of the Committee’s two PPP members) the CIO’s first Director General, Kim Jin-wook, and the CIO finally began operating in January. Naturally, the PPP was outraged. This change to the appointment procedure, the PPP argued, undermines the CIO’s independence and enables the President to ensure that this powerful agency is run by a loyalist, who is likely to be unfairly biased against the opposition.

This concern is fair, up to a point. Three of the seven members of the Committee—the two members of the majority party and the Minister of Justice—are closely aligned with the President. The Minister of Court Administration is appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, not the President, but the President appoints the Chief Justice, and Korean Chief Justices have a history of colluding with presidents. A fifth member, the President of the Korean Bar Association, is elected by a vote among the local bar chapters. While this may provide some check on the President, it is a weak one, and the PPP and other critics are right to be concerned.

Nevertheless, the reduction in the required number of votes from six to five was an improvement under the circumstances. The threat of biased anticorruption investigations, though real, is not much greater with the new version of the CIO than under the status quo. And while greater safeguards would be welcome, there are better ways to promote an unbiased agency than to give the opposition a veto over its leader.

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Improving Anti-Money Laundering Models with Synthetic Data

As readers of this blog are well aware, an effective anti-money laundering (AML) regime is crucial for fighting grand corruption, as well as other organized criminal activity. A key part of the AML system is the requirement that banks and other financial institutions identify suspicious transactions and file so-called suspicious activity reports (SARs) with the appropriate government agencies. This is an enormous task, given the volume of financial transactions that banks need to monitor and the challenge of identifying which of those transactions ought to be considered suspicious. Banks spend billions on AML compliance every year, and have developed complex automated systems to assist them in flagging suspect transactions, but existing systems’ ability to efficiently sort suspicious from innocent transactions is limited by the sheer complexity of the task. (False positive rates with current systems, for example, frequently top 90%.)

Many believe that artificial intelligence (AI) systems, such as those employing machine learning (ML), hold enormous promise for improving AML compliance and reducing cost. ML algorithms scrutinize vast datasets to identify patterns that can be used to fashion predictive models. In the AML context, ML algorithms identify those transaction characteristics (or complex combinations of transaction characteristics) that are associated with money laundering, and use these patterns to more efficiently and effectively identify suspicious transactions.  

But some commentators have suggested reasons for skepticism, or at least caution. For example, Mayze Teitler recently wrote on this blog about a number of challenges to operationalizing AI-derived algorithms in the AML context, primarily those arising from limitations in the data on which those algorithms are based. As Mayze correctly pointed out, ML algorithms require vast datasets from which to learn, and the data demands are compounded by the relatively rarity of known money laundering cases in the existing datasets.

Despite these concerns, I am more bullish than Mayze regarding the promise of AI-based AML systems. Many of the challenges and concerns regarding the development of effective AI systems in the AML context can be overcome through the use of synthetic data.

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Streaming Now: Compensating Corruption Victims

Click here to join a discussion on compensating victims of corruption starting now (10:00 am U.S. East Coast time). One of the several events held as part of the UN General Assembly’s Special Session on Corruption, it is sponsored by Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC). the Asset Recovery Subcommittee of the International Bar Association, Transparency International, and World Bank-UNODC StAR initiative.  Speakers are yours truly along with –

  • Mr. Stephen Baker, English barrister and Jersey advocate, Asset Recovery Subcommittee of the International Bar Association
  • Mr. Auwal Musa Rafsanjani, Executive Director, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC)
  • Ms. Sankhitha Gunaratne, Deputy Executive Director, Transparency International Sri Lanka

The event moderator is Mr. Emile van der Does de Willebois, Coordinator, StAR Initiative.

You are asked when joining the event to use the following format for your name: Country (Or: Organization)_First name_Last name.