Guest Post: The Long, Long Road from Talking Transparency to Curbing Corruption in Mauritania

GAB is delighted to welcome back Till Bruckner, an international development expert who recently spent six months living Mauritania, and contributes the following guest post based on his experience there:

What do fish and iron have in common? Answer: Mauritania, a largely desert country of less than four million people in north-western Africa, is immensely rich in both. At the same time, most Mauritanians are poor. And one of the biggest reasons is corruption and misgovernance.

Consider first fishing. Although Mauritania has some of the world’s richest fishing grounds, its marine wealth is carried away by foreign ships whose owners often bribe senior government figures to obtain fishing permits and take their catch straight to Europe or Asia. As a result, the country has failed to develop a significant fishing industry, or domestic fish processing industry, of its own, and a fishing industry that boasts an annual catch of half a million tons generates a mere 40,000 jobs inside Mauritania. Yet to the south, Senegal translates a catch of similar size into at least 130,000 jobs, while to the north, Morocco has turned its million-ton-a-year catch into a massive export industry whose turnover is projected to reach two billion dollars by the end of this decade.

Inland, deep in the Sahara, some mountains contain more metal than rock, consisting of up to 75% iron, one of the highest concentrations in the world. Mauritania nationalized its iron mines in 1974, creating the state-owned monopoly company SNIM. Its workers blast the slopes to rubble, and conveyor belts transport the rubble into waiting railway waggons. The longest train in the world then chugs its way across 700 kilometres of desert, loads its cargo onto giant foreign freighters—and neither the ore nor most of the money paid for it are ever seen again. The looting dynamics in Mauritania’s mining sector are illustrated by the stark contrast between Zouerate, the town in the Sahara where the iron is mined—which looks like a dystopian hellhole straight out of a Mad Max film—and the rich suburbs of the capital city of Nouakchott (which produces virtually nothing), where giant villas rise out of the sand, and oversized SUVs cruise the streets. And in Nouakchott itself, in the poor suburbs, families living five to a windowless room have to pay for their drinking water by the barrel.

The preferred prescription in a situation like this (from the usual suspects: development professionals, anticorruption activists, etc.) is a combination of transparency, accountability, and civil society monitoring. But Mauritania is actually doing well on those dimensions. Continue reading

A Global Stocktaking on This First International Right to Know Day

GAB is pleased to welcome this guest post by the Centre for Law and Democracy:

Today marks the first of what will be an annual recognition and celebration of citizens’ right to access information held by their governments.  Making September 28 International Day for Universal Access to Information will, as the UNESCO resolution establishing it explains, help make governments and citizens alike aware that an “open and transparent government is a fundamental component of a democratic and developed state,” that all natural and legal persons have a “right to seek, access and receive information from public bodies and private bodies performing a public function,” and that it is “the duty of the state to prove such information.”

For the past five years the Centre for Law and Democracy and Access Info Europe have been tracking nations’ efforts in fulfilling this duty, and we are pleased to note that substantial progress has been made.  There are now 112 countries with some form of right to information or freedom of information legislation on the books with six nations enacting a new law this year alone.  Not all RTI laws meet the minimum criteria for granting citizens the right to information, and even those laws that do are not always enforced effectively.  To keep watch over developments, our two organizations annually produce an RTI Rating reporting legal changes and assessing their compliance with international norms.  This year’s report has a number of surprising findings.    Continue reading

The Level-of-Aggregation Question in Corruption Measurement

Recently I learned that CDA Collaborative (a nonprofit organization that works on a variety of development and conflict-resolution projects) has launched a new blog on corruption. Though it’s a new platform, they already have a few of interesting posts up, and it’s worth a look.

While I’m always happy to advertise new platforms in the anticorruption blogosphere, in this post I mostly want to focus on the first entry in the CDA’s new blog, a post by Professor Michael Johnston entitled “Breaking Out of the Methodological Cage.” It’s basically a critique of the anticorruption research literature’s alleged (over-)reliance on quantitative methods, in particular cross-national regression analyses using country-level corruption indices (such at the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) or Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) graft index). There are some things in Professor Johnston’s post that I agree with, and much that I disagree with. I want to focus on one issue in particular: the question of the right unit of analysis, or level of aggregation, to use when attempting to measure corruption.

Professor Johnston has two related complaints (or maybe two variants on the same underlying complaint) regarding these national-level perceived corruption measures. First, he complains these “[o]ne dimensional indices tell us … that corruption is the same thing everywhere, varying only in amount[.]”  In other words, corruption indices lump a whole bunch of disparate phenomena together under the same umbrella term “corruption,” ignoring the internal diversity of that category. Second, he contends that “relying … on country-level data is to assume that corruption is a national attribute, like GDP per capita” when in fact “corruption arises in highly specific processes, structural niches, and relationships.” Corruption, he explains, is not an attribute of countries, but of more specific contexts, involving “real people … in complex situations[.]”

Respectfully, I think that these points are either wrong or irrelevant, depending on how they are framed. Continue reading

Guest Post: 43 Government Reps Walked Into a Summit…. What Next?

Maggie Murphy, Senior Global Advocacy Manager for Transparency International, contributes the following guest post:

International summits come and go, and all too often the promises made at these summits are quickly forgotten, lost in an online catacomb or otherwise hard to track. We at Transparency International are determined that the commitments made by government representatives at last May’s London Anticorruption Summit (648 total commitments by 41 of the 43 participating governments) must not slide into oblivion in this way. That’s why, as Matthew announced in a post earlier this month, we’ve gone through every single country statement and compiled all commitments into one central database, sortable by country, theme, and region. Our goal is for this database to be used by anticorruption advocates and activists to monitor what their countries have committed to, and whether and where they are making progress.

We’ve done our own preliminary analysis of the commitments, assessing the extent to which each commitment is (1) “concrete” (i.e measurable), (2) “new” (i.e., generated by the Summit), and (3) “ambitious” (according to country partners). We found that more than half of the commitments were concrete, about a third were brand new, and about a third seen to be ambitious by our country partners. That’s encouraging, and certainly better than I would have expected.

We’ve put together a more formal analysis here, including a description of how we came to our conclusions. Let me highlight some of the most interesting ones: Continue reading

Guest Post: Is Sunlight Really the Best Disinfectant? Evidence on Procurement Transparency from Europe

GAB is delighted to welcome back Mihály Fazekas, of the University of Cambridge and the Government Transparency Institute, who contributes the following guest post:

Public procurement, which accounts for roughly one-third of government spending in OECD countries and up to 50% in developing economies, is well-known as an area associated with high corruption risk. Hence, it is hardly a surprise that a range of policy recommendations from international organizations (such as the OECD), civil society networks (such as the Open Contracting Data Standard), and research projects (e.g. Digiwhist) have emerged to promote anticorruption in public procurement. And one of the most popular prescriptions for achieving this goal is increased transparency. Transparency, of course, can mean different things. For purposes of the discussion here, we will follow the OECD and World Bank in defining “public procurement transparency” as entailing the timely, free, and accurate publication of public procurement documents in a central e-procurement portal in a machine-readable format, with this publication requirement applying to every major step of the contracting process, and disclosing all key characteristics of the tender and contract. (For a comprehensive data template see here).

Research suggests that this sort of transparency does make a difference in terms of bidder numbers and composition. Yet it remains an open question whether public procurement transparency is necessary or sufficient for controlling corruption in public procurement. Indeed, if one looks at a sample of European countries’ public procurement transparency and their suspected corruption risks, one finds a surprising result: the best governed countries in Europe have the lowest levels of transparency in public procurement. Continue reading

Anticorruption Investigators and Prosecutors: Bookmark this Web Site!

The International Anticorruption Resource Center, a Washington-based group of American investigators and former prosecutors, has developed a first-class web site on how to investigate and prosecute corruption crimes that everyone in the business of investigating or prosecuting corruption crimes should bookmark.  Divided into three main sections – Detection, Proof, and Evidence – the site guides the reader through the entire process of developing and presenting a corruption case: from the first interview with a whistleblower through assembling the facts to proving them in a court of law.  While there are any number of Web sites with material useful for investigators and prosecutors (here and here for examples), this is the only I have found that pulls together in one place the basics that every anticorruption investigator or prosecutor needs.

Although clearly aimed at those in the early stages of their career, I recommend that even the most harden veterans peruse the site.  They will find it a valuable refresher and may well find some helpful tips.  Two pages I particularly liked were – Continue reading

Against Alarmism: Frank Vogl’s Misguided Critique of the DOJ’s Decision Not To Re-Try Bob McDonnell

Earlier this month, the ongoing saga of the bribery charges against former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell came to an end—not with a bang but a whimper—when the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it would not seek a re-trial in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision to vacate McDonnell’s original conviction. Given that we’ve already had plenty of discussion of the McDonnell case on GAB (including commentary on the Supreme Court’s decision here and here), I wasn’t planning to say more about this.

But then I read Frank Vogl’s blog post on The Globalist. Mr. Vogl’s view is that the DOJ’s decision shows that, with respect to corruption, it’s now the case that “[a]nything goes in America, third-world style” and that “[t]he United States, once an admirable leader on combatting political corruption, has now fallen into line with the lax standards of business-political relationships that pervade many other countries.” (He later refers to the U.S. “a stinking city on the Hill.”) Mr. Vogl also declares that the “core message” of the DOJ’s decision not to re-try McDonnell is that the DOJ has “accepted an increasingly narrow definition of corruption,” and he further insinuates that Hillary Clinton and the mainstream Democratic Party (as well as the Republican Party) are “content to accept money in politics in all its forms.”

This is histrionic nonsense. The core arguments are so obviously flawed that at first I didn’t think it was worth writing a rebuttal. But Mr. Vogl is an influential voice in the world of anticorruption advocacy, given that he’s one of the 852 co-founders of Transparency International. (OK, OK, that’s an exaggeration. But if I had a quarter for every person I’ve heard claim to have been one of the founders of TI, I’d be able to buy myself a Grande Frappuccino at my local Starbucks, maybe even a Venti.) So I thought it would be worthwhile to explain why I had such a negative reaction to his piece. Here goes: Continue reading