In a new report on U.S. foreign assistance, To Fight Corruption, Localize Aid, OxFam America urges radical changes in the way the United States helps developing nations combat corruption. Providing funds to strengthen anticorruption agencies, write new laws, and other traditional “top-down, donor-driven methods of fighting corruption” have had little impact on corruption the American member of the international Oxfam confederation asserts. U.S. aid should thus be redirected to “locally driven approaches” to fighting corruption. By this the report means U.S. assistance would go directly to “local change agents” so that they could “tackle institutional challenges, including corruption, in their towns, cities, and countries.”
The rhetoric of a community-based, “bottom up” approach to fighting corruption has an appealing ring, and the report showcases successful efforts to combat corruption at the local level in Guatemala, Liberia, and the Philippines to support its claims. But a closer reading of these stories, and of the report itself, shows that the rhetoric outstrips the reality.
The report describes how citizens of Chinique de las Flores, a small town in western Guatemala, mobilized to have a corrupt mayor removed from office, how in Liberia a citizen found a way to deliver information that bolstered government accountability, and how in the Philippines citizen oversight curbed corruption in the provision of textbooks to primary school students. Each of these cases shows that citizen activism was essential, but in each that was only half the story. In Guatemala removal of the mayor required an agency of the central government to charge him with corruption and the courts to convict him. In Liberia it was the office of the President that used the information to enhance accountability, and in the Philippines text book theft was ended only because the citizen group worked closely with the ministry of education.
At various place in the text the report’s authors acknowledge that the battle against corruption requires that at least some government agencies function effectively: “a locally driven approach empowers citizens and their state to collaboratively . . . reduce corruption” (p. 8); “locally driven efforts involved a combination of citizen activism with a willing government to respond to the needs of citizen voices” (p. 10); “great example of how the civil society activism and oversight combined with willing and effective government leadership” (p. 19). What the report’s authors don’t say is that a collaborative or “willing government” must be an able one as well and that that ability is often the product of the “top-down, donor-driven methods of fighting corruption” it derides. Methods that have included, for example, providing training to Guatemalan investigators, prosecutors, and judges to successfully pursue cases against corrupt officials, that have funded the automation of Philippine audit agencies so they can track payment for textbooks, and that provided training and equipment to senior officials in Liberia so they could hold bureaucracies to account.
On the other hand, if the “locally driven” rhetoric draws attention to the many sensible recommendations the report advances, that’s fine. Among the best are:
- Get Congress to stop micromanaging U.S. foreign assistance by earmarking so much of the aid budget for pet projects. (Note to OxFam: Congressmen Gerald Connolly and Chris Van Holland should be enlisted in this fight. Both served on the Senate Foreign Relations the last time that committee wrote a foreign assistance bill and have first-hand knowledge of how the foreign aid pork barrel defeats aid effectiveness.)
- Invest more in preparatory studies to understand local context and thus how aid can best support citizen efforts and the government agencies that must work in tandem with citizens. Note of course that this will result in greater expenditures on consultants, both international and local, who know the country and its institutions. Aid proponents often look askance at such expenditures but greater appreciation of local conditions is essential and thus higher overhead costs cannot be avoided.
- Stop relying on the TI Corruption Perceptions Index and other aggregate measures of corruption perceptions to evaluate program success. Readers of this blog know how welcome this recommendation is (doubters should click here, here, and here).
- Make aid more transparent. Governments receiving assistance and their citizens should have easy access to readily understandable data showing which agencies, NGOs. and so forth are getting how much and for what.
Successful efforts to combat corruption require an engaged, active citizenry and a willing, capable government. Stripped of the rhetoric, the new OxFam report makes a powerful case for why U.S. foreign assistance should advance both objectives.