Civil Society Combats Corruption: A Review of Shaazka Beyerle’s Curtailing Corruption: People Power for Accountability & Justice

The now worldwide anticorruption movement remains a creature of its origins:  civil society.  It was Transparency International, a nongovernmental organization, that first gave voice to citizen demands for honest government,  and it is thousands of national and local groups that have put their own “boots on the ground” to demand public officials do something.  Now comes Shaazka Beyerle, Visiting Scholar at Johns Hopkins Center for Transatlantic Relations, to recount in fascinating and colorful detail some of the recent victories these warriors for an accountable and just government have achieved.

Curtailing Corruption: People Power for Accountability & Justice, her new book just out from Lynne Reiner Publishers, chronicles the struggle of civil society groups to combat corruption in 12 countries :  Afghanistan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brazil, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, Korea, Turkey, and Uganda.  And quite the stories she tells.  They range from Integrity Watch Afghanistan’s development of a community monitoring program to oversee local reconstruction projects to the Citizens Alliance for the General Elections 2000 successful efforts to drive corrupt Korean politician from office to the  campaign by the National Foundation for Democracy and Human Rights in Uganda to build a culture of integrity in the police in southwestern Uganda.

One of my favorites is how Indonesian civil society rose to the defense of the government’s own Corruption Eradication Commission, known by its Bahasa initials KPK.  Senior police officers and prosecutors had fabricated charges against two commissioners to derail a KPK investigation of a politically-connected businessman.  Within days of the commissioners’ arrest on the trumped up charges, a Facebook page supporting them had garnered over a million followers, and singers were recording anti-corruption songs with lyrics like “KPK in my heart” and “Gecko eats crocodile.”  The massive show of support for the commission forced the government not only to drop the charges against the two commissioners but to investigate the fabricators.  That turn of events is not only a marker of strength of the anticorruption sentiment in Indonesia but will surely be remembered as a landmark in the consolidation of democracy in the archipelago.

A common weakness of collections of case studies is their author’s failure to make any sense of them.  Not so with Curtailing Corruption.  It is loaded with efforts to distill lessons for those wanting to ape the successes it chronicles.  Each chapter ends with a section that steps back from the particulars to discuss what the experience teaches, and solid introductory and concluding chapters offer broader lessons: for citizens fed up with corruption in their town, district, province or nation; for government officials looking for allies in their sometimes lonely fight for ethics and integrity; and for those in the international community who want to help both.

To this reader, the most important “takeaway” is that combating requires discarding any and all preconceived notions of how a war against corruption is likely to unfold.  There are the paradigmatic, inspirational cases where an indigenous movement with no international support forces a recalcitrant government to change through heroic acts of resistance.  Far more common, as the case studies show, are alliances of convenience, or more accurately, alliances of like-minded idealists in civil society, the bureaucracy, and the international community who work together to defeat perhaps the oldest scourge of government.  These alliances come in all shapes and sizes;  the most important lesson the book teaches is that those who would wage war on corruption err when they put limits on their strategic imagination.

A colleague who teaches a course on corruption spoke recently about the cynicism his student were voicing about the anticorruption movement.  Most press accounts, and many academic papers, tell of setbacks and defeats.  Curtailing Corruption is a welcome tonic, one guaranteed to give even the most hard-bitten, cynical anticorruption fighter a lift.

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