A couple weeks back I posted some brief reflections that alluded to the possibility of the tension, between academics and advocates. I asserted this tension was something I’d observed, but I didn’t give any specific examples. Partly because of that weakness in the original post, I thought I’d follow up on this topic, using a concrete example of the tension I had in mind.
That example is drawn from a debate I’ve engaged in elsewhere on this blog with Maud Perdriel-Vaissiere, an advisor to the UNCAC Coalition. In brief, the substantive issue that she and I (and others) have been arguing about is the extent to which the UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) obligates law enforcement agencies that recover judgments or settlements against bribe-paying firms to share those proceeds with the governments of the countries where the bribes were paid. I won’t go into all the details here. (For those who are interested, some of my earlier posts on the topic can be found here and here, and other contributors to this blog have discussed related issues here, here, here, and here.) In my most recent post on the subject, I specifically criticized Ms. Perdriel-Vaissiere’s discussion of the issue in a post she published on the UNCAC Coalition’s blog. Among other criticisms, I accused Ms. Perdriel-Vaissiere of failing to make basic distinctions between different types of legal recovery, of failing to acknowledge their different treatment under UNCAC, and of citing misleading statistics that conflated these different forms of recovery. I described the legal analysis in the post as “sloppy” and concluded with some harsh words: “The anticorruption community can and should do better.”
Ms. Perdriel-Vaissiere submitted a lengthy, detailed, and thoughtful rebuttal, which you can read in the comments section for the original post. Much of her response focuses on substantive matters where she and I respectfully disagree, and I leave it to interested readers to make their own determinations on those issues. But part of her reply caught my attention because it so nicely illustrates, in a much more concrete form, the “analyst vs. advocate tension” I alluded to generally in my post on the role of academics. Here’s what Ms. Perdriel-Vaissiere has to say in my response to my criticism that she cites misleading statistics that don’t take into account the differences between distinct forms of recovery:
Being a lawyer, I have a passion for strong legal analysis; at the same time, I know that governments only take action when pressur[ed] by the general public (through media awareness) and that to raise such awareness sometimes requires [one] to distance oneself from strict accuracy; i.e. to “make a long story short.” I don’t like it any more than you do, but that’s the way it works in the real world.
And she goes on to offer another example, which (coincidentally) is very closely related to criticisms I’ve made elsewhere about dubious statistics on the magnitude of global bribery (see here and here):
[T]he “$20-to-$40-billion-is-stolen-from-developing-countries-each-year” estimate used by the [World Bank] and many others is totally outdated and yet everybody uses it because it works: indeed, thanks to this eye-catching estimate, people do realize the importance of the issues at stake.
She sums this all up quite nicely as follows:
While I am very happy to debate these issues with you, Professor, they (sometimes – depending on the audience one is targeting) have to be framed in an easy-to-understand way so that we can reach out [to] as many people as possible.
And then she gets in a nice parting shot, turning my “the anticorruption community can do better” line on its head: she cites some of the recent work by academics outlining ways to promote more effective implementation of UNCAC (noting especially Andy Spalding’s posts on this blog, particularly this one), and concludes that these contributions:
show that the academic world can (and should) do better than rebutting “sloppy” blog posts from civil society.
Despite the barbed language that Ms. Perdriel-Vaissiere and I deployed in our respective posts, I actually think she and I agree on a great deal, at least on the substantive issues. And, at least for my part, I’ve found the exchange productive, in large part because it has helped me realize that our dispute really does have less to do with the substantive issues than with the fundamental tensions I raised in my earlier post about academics (and presumably others) struggling to balance their role as analysts/researchers with their interest in promoting positive change through advocacy and education.
At least, that’s how I read at least this aspect of our debate:
- She wrote a post declaring that UNCAC imposes an obligation on countries to share foreign bribery settlements with host countries, and cited in the first paragraph of her post a statistic saying that only 3% of those settlements were in fact shared, strongly suggesting widespread noncompliance with this legal obligation.
- I replied that this analysis is incorrect, or at least misleading, because UNCAC does not require that punitive fines be shared, and the 3% statistic is based on calculations including such fines in the denominator, and that when one focuses on the actual UNCAC obligations there’s no strong evidence that the main enforcing jurisdictions are not in fact in compliance.
- In her response she concedes, at least on this point, that I’m correct about the substantive legal issue — but she says that for advocacy purposes, (over-)simplification is justified as a way to pressure governments to take more constructive action to help the victims of bribery. And she argues further that academics should be doing more to help promote constructive action rather than engaging in excessively negative criticism of those who are pushing for positive change.
So there you have it: The debate over the academic’s role in anticorruption work, in a nutshell. I obviously disagree with Ms. Perdriel-Vaissiere, but I understand and respect her position on this. I’m curious how others out there (in both the academic and advocate communities) would address these questions.
- When is it acceptable to use inaccurate, outdated, or otherwise misleading statistics?
- When (if ever) is it OK to obscure legal or other analytically important distinctions, to raise awareness of an issue or press governments for a policy change?
- Is it ever acceptable to imply that the law imposes obligations that it does not, strictly speaking, actually impose, in order to press governments to take actions that, while perhaps not legally obligatory in the narrow sense, are desirable, and perhaps in keeping with the larger spirit of the legal instrument in question?
My knee-jerk answers would be: “Not without explicitly acknowledging the uncertainty”, “Never”, and “No.” What do others think?