Better Training for Anticorruption Investigators: Another Dull, Boring, Humdrum, Modest, Unimaginative Proposal to Combat Corruption?

U.S. Federal Judge Mark Wolf’s proposal to create an international court for corruption crimes was recently the subject of a briefing organized by a commission of the U.S. House of Representatives.  The briefing was the latest example of the attention Judge Wolf’s recommendation for fighting corruption has garnered, attention that has included an appearance on public television where he extolled the merits of his proposal and an interview in a serious policy journal where he expanded on his idea for the court.

Given Matthew’s devastating critique of the court proposal, the attention the judge’s idea continues to attract is surprising to say the least.  What it no doubt reflects is the publicity value of an idea that, at least on its face, appears to be an innovative, imaginative, and “outside the box” way to fight corruption.  Given this media bias, it would do no good to point to further flaws in the judge’s idea (indeed one might write that it would be blogging a dead horse to do so).  What I intend here instead is to protest the media bias for headline grabbing ideas to combat corruption by advancing one that is dull, boring, humdrum, modest, and unimaginative.  The proposal is thus diametrically different in PR value from the judge’s.  It also differs in two substantive ways: it is 1) realistic and 2) will help reduce corruption if followed.

The donor community should improve the training it provides developing country anticorruption investigators: with few exceptions, the training it supplies today is mediocre.  Over the past months I have discussed the quality with the staff of developing country anticorruption agencies, reviewed training materials provided, witnessed training sessions, and conducted training sessions myself.  What I have found (names withheld to protect sources):

  • Little thought or preparation is given to the courses offered investigators.  In one country the materials on money laundering used as the basis for a week-long course for senior investigators and prosecutors had obviously been adapted from those for presentations to secondary school students in the trainers’ home country.
  • Trainers frequently do little more than recount their experience investigating or prosecuting corruption cases in their home countries (“telling war stories”).  Often entertaining, and certainly easy for an instructor to do, but rarely of value.
  • “Instruction” sometimes consists of lecturing participants on the merits of laws found in the instructor’s home country.  Trainers from one large North American country are renowned for extolling how the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act eases their task of catching corrupt officials.  That law may well make it easier for them to collar corrupt actors, but as one investigator who attended such a training told me, “I am not a Member of Parliament, don’t know anyone who is, and have no influence over what laws they pass.”  What good did spending a day learning the ins and outs of RICO do her?
  • Participants who had attended several investigator courses, including “advanced courses,” had never been taught the value of constructing a timeline or preparing interview outlines.

A quality training program takes time to develop.  Would-be trainers need to do much more than read over the anticorruption statutes of the participants’ country in the plane on the way.  They need to understand the laws governing investigators’ powers, evidence, trial procedure and the like.  It does little good to teach trainees how to covertly surveil suspects or use wiretap evidence if they do not have the power to use either technique. Trainers need also to tailor the instruction to the common problems that arise in the jurisdiction. Many common law developing states require that an elaborate foundation be laid before business records can be admitted into evidence.  Investigators and prosecutors in smaller states often find whistleblowers change their stories at trial.  How to get business records admitted and ways to corroborate a whistleblower’s testimony should be critical parts of many training program.  I have yet to see either topic covered in any training.

Better training programs should lead to higher quality investigations, and higher quality investigations will increase the odds that the guilty are convicted.  They can also help create that essential but elusive ingredient in any anticorruption policy – “political will.”  For it is much harder to sweep well constructed, well documented cases under the rug than those where the evidence is weak or poorly developed.  So maybe improving training for anticorruption investigators isn’t such a dull, boring, humdrum, modest, unimaginative proposal after all.

4 thoughts on “Better Training for Anticorruption Investigators: Another Dull, Boring, Humdrum, Modest, Unimaginative Proposal to Combat Corruption?

  1. It should come as no surprise that I’m very much in sympathy with your points here (and thanks for the kind words on my earlier critique of the International Corruption Court proposal). I don’t have anything close to your experience with anticorruption training programs, but my limited exposure to such programs is, alas, generally similar to yours, and I’ve heard plenty of other people make similar complaints. A few scattered additional thoughts:

    Much as I’m mindful of your suggestion that we should avoid “blogging dead horses,” I can’t help but come back to the recent ICAI critique of DFID’s aid program, which I criticized in a post from a couple weeks back. In addition to my other complaints, it’s worth noting that in assessing the effectiveness of DFID’s training programs, although ICAI reports surveys of participants, it doesn’t get into the kinds of issues you raise here about whether the training programs are in fact well designed and suited to the context. And I don’t think this problem is unique to ICAI — when engaging in _assessment_ of anticorruption training programs, part of that assessment should be of the curriculum itself (and the trainers), along the dimensions you laid out.

    Another issue here, one that may be slightly delicate: Your focus is on the quality of training when foreign trainers go into a developing country to provide training to law enforcement or other officials within the country. But in some training programs, the developing country officials travel for training abroad, often in a big city in a wealthy country (Washington, New York, Paris, London, Vienna, etc.). In those cases, I think we sometimes have a different problem: the people who are sent to those meetings are sometimes not the people for whom the training is designed, but rather (at the risk of being overly blunt) the people who could pull the strings to get the all-expense-paid trip to Washington or Paris or wherever. I know I’ve seen this in the academic context: sometimes you’ll have an international anticorruption conference designed for younger professors who focus on corruption in their research and teaching, but many of the people who actually show up will be bureaucrats from the university administration or the education ministry who don’t work on anticorruption directly at all, and sometimes never even see the inside of a classroom. I’ve heard that this problem crops up in other professional contexts as well.

    Finally, I want to highlight a trade-off that is implicit in your discussion, but we might want to make explicit: There’s a tension between the desire, on the one hand, to get trainers who are willing to make a long-term investment in developing a training course, learning the necessary background, devoting substantial time to the enterprise, etc., and — on the other hand — the desire to get the best, most elite people to participate as trainers. You’re just not going to be able to get a senior official at, say, the FBI, to devote a lot of time to develop a well-thought-out training course that would be tailored to the specific circumstances of, say, Gabon. On the other hand, if you want to find trainers (practitioner types, not academics) who are willing to develop those kinds of extensive training programs, you’re not going to be getting the elite people, for the most part. I take it that you think it would be better to have less-fancy/less-credentialed people who are willing to invest the time in developing a real course, and I think I agree. But I do think there’s a trade-off involved here.

  2. I’m disturbed to read that so much of anticorruption investigator training focuses on foreign legislation–as you point out, Rick, that seems like a major mis-match between subject and audience. You say that it’s incumbent upon the donor community to fix this, so I’m presuming most of these trainings are brought about and run by donor-financed NGOs–are most of the people they bring in in government still? If not–if they’re actually people working in these NGOs –making this kind of switch seems more manageable; if they are in government, though (spending most of their time on their own country’s investigations and just dropping into the world of the training for the conference), or perhaps even in bigger international institutions, Professor Stephenson’s concern about finding people willing to invest the time in familiarizing themselves with country-specific context and/or more widely applicable lessons seems particularly salient.

  3. I agree completely on what have been pointed out by Rick and Matthew and like to add one point on seemingly endless problems related to training of investigators, that is, fast turnover of trained staff members. The trained officer will have been either been retired, transferred or deputed elsewhere making training activity a mere waste of resources.

  4. Rick — I’m really happy you wrote this post because it aligned with some things I witnessed in my past life while at DOJ and working with the OECD. It seems that much of the U.S. effort to export anti-corruption strategies and efforts around the world has been to help other countries better understand how we do things. In other words, the predominant approach for U.S.-based anticorruption experts has been to try to teach other nations “how we do things,” in what I will term the “Just do what we do approach.” But as you note, that approach often ignores the legal and practical limitations faced by foreign enforcement authorities. In order to make actual progress, it would be better to focus on a “here’s how to better use what you have” approach that focuses on giving foreign enforcement authorities the skills and knowledge necessary to fully utilize the legal authority that they do have. However, as Matthew notes, this means that the NGOs or government authorities conducting the foreign training will have to set aside significant resources to develop country-specific training regimes. In other words, to ever truly be effective, we’ll need to invest heavily in a transition away from the old “one-size-fits-all” approach to training foreign anticorruption investigators.

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