Asset Recovery and the Department of Justice’s Discretion to Return

The U.S. Department of Justice’ trumpets its so-called “Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative,” which seeks to freeze and seize illicit assets stashed by corrupt foreign leaders in the United States. When Attorney General Eric Holder had introduced the Initiative before the African Union in 2010, he described it as a program for recovering public funds for “their intended – and proper use”. For his audience, “proper use” was no doubt understood as implying return of the looted assets to the victim countries. Yet over the past few years, these expectations have been eroded, as the US has proved reluctant to turn over seized asses, and the DOJ’s public statements regarding asset return now increasingly incorporate qualifying language to the effect that forfeited assets will be returned to the originating jurisdiction “where appropriate“. This is inequitable and harmful to global anticorruption efforts. Continue reading

The Social Psychology of Corruption

There are many theories about the causes of corruption, ranging cultural explanations to economic models. But relatively little attention has been paid to the social-psychological causes of corruption, especially at the individual level. Yet as the sociologist Marina Zaloznaya persuasively argues in a recent paper, we need to pay more attention to the individual social psychology of corrupt behavior if we are to combat it effectively. And indeed, there is a small but growing number of empirical studies (including some discussed previously on this blog) that have investigated why a person might act dishonestly, and in particular consider how an individual’s tendency to commit corrupt acts may depend on both the person’s moral identity and the surrounding circumstances. Although there is still much we do not understand, this research offers some revealing insights. Continue reading

Do We Need an “ASEAN Integrity Community”?

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is taking a major step toward greater regional economic integration at the end of this year, with the long-awaited launch of the “ASEAN Economic Community”, a region-wide agreement designed (among other things) to promote the freer movement of goods, capital, and labor throughout the region. Yet many worry that this greater economic integration might exacerbate the region’s already serious struggles with corruption, especially cross-border corruption. Largely in response to that concern, last April Transparency International published a report calling for the creation of an “ASEAN Integrity Community” (AIC) that would, in the words of the report, “create a coherent regional anti-corruption strategy” and “provide space for civil society and the business sector to be able to have input into and shape this regional anti-corruption agenda.”

It’s an intriguing idea, and the report is worth reading. (Full disclosure: I wrote a background paper for one of the meetings TI organized last September to discuss corruption challenges in ASEAN. Indeed, substantial chunks of the background paper that I wrote appear – uncredited – in the TI Report on the AIC.) Certainly, there’s a good case to be made for greater regional cooperation on anticorruption challenges within ASEAN. That said, I found the TI report on the proposed AIC frustrating in several respects, most significantly the vagueness regarding how, exactly, the AIC would operate, and how it would add value above and beyond the existing regional forms and groupings that address corruption issues. I realize that this is an early-stage proposal, designed to generate political momentum for greater action and political buy-in (particularly in advance of the International Anti-Corruption Conference in Malaysia next week), so it may not really fair to criticize the report for being a bit light on specifics. Still, it’s worth reflecting a bit more on what we might hope to get out of something like an AIC, and whether this is the right way to go about tackling what most experts would agree is a genuine and serious set of problems and challenges. Continue reading

How to Corrupt an Anticorruption Commission: The Case of Nepal

Narayan Manandhar, an international consultant on anticorruption, contributes the following guest post:

Nepalese lawmakers recently promulgated a draft constitution that envisages new roles and responsibilities for its anticorruption agency, the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority.  The proposed changes to the commission’s mandate shows how, if policymakers don’t have the guts to abolish an anticorruption agency, they can defang it by eroding its power and responsibilities.  This recent effort is the latest attempt by Nepal’s elite to ensure the commission cannot do what it is supposed to do: fight corruption.    Continue reading

A U.S. Court Jeopardizes Corporate Transparency Rules, in the Name of Free Speech

Transparency is often seen as an important anticorruption tool, perhaps nowhere more than in extractive industries. Notably, an international movement has called on extractive industry firms to “Publish What You Pay” (PWYP). The idea is that if it were public knowledge what these firms had paid for the concessions they receive from governments, the citizens in those countries (as well as journalists, NGOs, and others) would be better able to hold governments accountable for what they did with the money (and would make it harder for governments, or individual government officials, to lie about how much money they received). Many advocates therefore believe that it would be good public policy to enact PWYP rules that would compel these sorts of disclosures. But would such disclosure requirements violate the constitutional principle of freedom of speech? Alas, some U.S. judges seem to think so.

If the whole idea that disclosure requirements of this sort might infringe free speech rights seems bizarre, I’m with you—in my earlier post on this topic, discussing an earlier case that seemed to take this position, I used words like “absurd” and “inane.” Yet last week the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit issued a new ruling (a follow-up to the earlier decision I ranted about last year) that seemed to strongly endorse a very broad constitutional protection for corporations against “compelled commercial speech,” which bodes ill. Although the most recent opinion, like the one I posted about last year, does not directly address PWYP mandates, the larger themes of the D.C. Circuit opinion are troubling, and suggest that this court (or at least some judges) may be hostile to the whole idea of using mandatory disclosures as a way to advance important public policy goals, including the fight against corruption. Continue reading

Conflicting Philippine Identities and the Fight Against Corruption

In his book, From Third to First World, Lee Kuan Yew remarked that the Philippines has two societies, and that the “elite mestizos had the same detached attitude to the native peasants as the mestizos in their haciendas in Latin America had toward their peons.” While this analogy may be extreme, there’s hardly any denying that reforms and economic progress have done little to alleviate the socio-economic disparities entrenched in Philippine society. Even today, Philippine identity looks vastly different for the rich than it does for the poor—in terms of heritage, cultural attitudes, daily experiences, and values. In short, the class divisions that Singapore’s great leader alluded to still exist today, and contribute to a sense of alienation among the two so-called “societies” within Philippine culture.

How does this division play out when it comes to governance, and, for our purposes, anticorruption efforts? Alienation on both sides of the economic divide, and the inability of Filipinos of different classes to relate to one another, have had deleterious effects on progress in this field, and it is important that Philippine policymakers take into account the limits imposed by socioeconomic disparities when considering possible strategies to tackle corruption.

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Danger, Will Robinson: Can Robots Protect Us from Corruption?

Technology is a frequent recourse for anticorruption advocates, be it in the form of crowdsourced reporting, tree tracking, or drug verification.  To that list, one can now add one of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s recent initiatives: robots.

We may not yet be at the point where, like something out of a summer blockbuster, robots can chase down offenders or take the lead in corruption investigations. Nevertheless, building upon their earlier efforts in Kinshasha, a group of engineers has recently been hired to install a traffic robot in Lubumbashi. The robots, eight feet tall and looking like something out of the 1960s, have traffic lights embedded in their torsos and are equipped with cameras which allow them to record traffic violations. The theory behind these cybermen? Robots can’t be bribed, thereby circumventing the notoriously corrupt (human) police force of the DRC, whose officers could either baselessly stop drivers and demand money or be bought off by a driver who truly has committed an infraction.

There are many good things about this initiative. Encouraging Congolese startups (and women in business and science–the engineering team that developed the robots is all-female) seem like worthwhile goals. And if people are somehow intimidated into being better drivers, as some Congolese have claimed is occurring, then the DRC’s horrific traffic accident rate may drop. However, are these robots really effective as corruption-fighting tools? Continue reading