Some Slightly Sarcastic, Semi-Serious Suggestions for Improving Anticorruption Conferences

Over the last couple of years, I’ve attended maybe a dozen or so international anticorruption conferences—some small, some large, some focused narrowly on legal issues, others focused on broader issues of development and good governance. (Most recently, I was able to attend the International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) in Malaysia, which I hope to blog about more in a series of upcoming posts.) Overall, I’ve found these meetings to be very helpful, both in terms of useful substantive discussion and in terms of opportunities to meet people from governments, international organizations, civil society, media outlets, and research institutions who share a common interest in the fight against corruption. Nonetheless, I think there are a few ways that these conferences could be improved. So, in the spirit of constructive – if admittedly somewhat snarky – criticism, let me throw out a handful of suggestions for improvements to these meetings:

  • I propose, in the name of efficiency, that someone at the opening session of each conference declare that corruption is bad, that it’s not a victimless crime, that it contributes to lots of other problems, that there’s a lot of corruption in the world [here the speaker could throw out the usual mostly-made-up statistics about how corruption costs us a gajillion dollars annually, which is more than the total amount of yada yada yada], that governments and the international community and the private sector and civil society and media and activists and all people of goodwill must work together to fight corruption, etc., etc. After this opening declaration, NO ONE WILL BE ALLOWED TO MAKE ANY OF THESE POINTS AGAIN FOR THE DURATION OF THE CONFERENCE (unless, of course, they are directly challenged or otherwise brought into question – which they almost never are at these events). Seriously, so much time is lost at these events making these same basic, mostly banal points over and over and over again – we could get much more done if we just all agreed not to repeat them at the start of each presenation.
  • I further propose that conference organizers cut back on the role of senior political officials – unless they are going to be directly challenged and put on the spot. Look, I know there’s protocol, and I realize that every organization that co-sponsors an event might want to have a senior representative give some opening remarks. And I know that we sometimes think of senior politicians as a “draw.” But the fact of the matter is, politicians and other senior government officials hardly ever say anything useful or interesting at these conferences – and they tend to go on at great length. Yes, they attract some press coverage for the events, and there’s an argument that having these people increases the engagement of the anticorruption community with senior leaders. But the fact of the matter is, these high-level muckety-mucks almost always leave immediately after the conclusion of their long-winded speeches, taking most of the press with them. So my view is – why bother? UNLESS – and here I’m building on my recent experience at the IACC meeting – the conference is an opportunity to put these senior political figures on the spot, giving members of the activist community a chance to ask tough questions which the politicians then have to address in their speeches. (At the IACC, as you may have heard, the Malaysian Prime Minister dropped out of his planned keynote speech due to his implication in a serious corruption scandal; he was replaced by his integrity minister, Paul Low, and right before Mr. Low’s speech, Transparency International’s chairman, Jose Ugaz, declared that the Malaysian government will have no credibility on anticorruption issues until the PM gives a plausible explanation. Later in the conference, Global Witness chair Patrick Alley put the current Chief Minister of Sarawak on the spot over the apparent impunity of the Minister’s corrupt predecessor and numerous lumber companies. Both moments were high points of the conference. But the usual politician stump speech is a deadly dull collection of platitudes.)
  • If the conference does include senior political officials, cut back on the pomp and veneration. This may seem like a small thing, but it has really started to bother me how much special ceremony is showered on the senior government officials who attend these conferences. It’s not just that everyone stands when senior officials enter the room. It’s not uncommon for their entrance and exit to be accompanied by dramatic theme music and an honor guard. I’ve been at conferences where the political dignitaries not only get reserved seats at the front of the room (totally reasonable) but get a special “throne” (no other way to describe it, really). Look, I know there’s protocol. And I know about cultural differences (the special ceremony for high-level politicians is particularly pronounced in Asia). But I actually think this excessive pomp is counterproductive at an anticorruption conference. After all, one of the themes that often emerges at these meetings is that this idea that government officials are elevated above the people, that the government is like the “parent” and the citizens are the “children,” etc., is PART OF THE PROBLEM. (Indeed, I’ve heard people make this point at the very same conference where the government ministers got to sit in the special upholstered throne.) The organizers of high-profile anticorruption conferences like the IACC could send a powerful symbolic message if they insisted on cutting back on this special treatment for so-called government “VIPs”. (An aside: I also generally hate the term “VIP”. All “Ps” are equally “I”. Some just happen to have more money or power or influence than others. So can we drop the term “VIP” too?)
  • Conference discussions work better when (A) the presenters have something to present – a new research report, a new idea or proposal, etc. – and (B) there’s someone there who can provide a preliminary response that includes constructive criticisms. Maybe I’m too influenced by academic conference norms, but I really do think this is the best way to generate useful discussion. It’s not all that interesting to hear people just describe what their organizations do, or to tell “war stories” about particular cases or events, or to go over (for the umpteenth time) various problems associated with corruption (see my first snarky suggestion above). There are lots of organizations and researchers producing lots of original, interesting work on corruption-related topics – let’s put that work front-and-center, and let’s encourage serious debate by designating commentators on each panel to provide critical reactions.

[Special bonus snarky suggestions for founders of Transparency International: (1) If you’re in Southeast Asia, it’s probably best not to refer to your ideal alliance of government, the private sector, and civil society as the “Golden Triangle,” given that this term has quite a different meaning in that part of the world; (2) if you’re going to hold forth about how we need to pay more attention to how corruption affects women and girls, you might not want to do it while moderating yet another All Male Panel. Just sayin’.]

8 thoughts on “Some Slightly Sarcastic, Semi-Serious Suggestions for Improving Anticorruption Conferences

  1. Great post. I will hope conference organizers take it to heart and in the spirit of being constructive will add another point.

    * Do not have more than three speakers on a panel. Too often conference organizers pack four or even five speakers on a panel that is scheduled for an hour and one-half or two hours. Organizers think they can get away with this by telling each speaker he or she has some ridiculously short time to speak 5 or 10 minutes. Few speakers will observe such a limit, particularly if they have traveled a long way. It is simply not realistic to expect someone to speak for less than 15 minutes and most of the time speakers will run 20 minutes at the least. The result is no time for discussion or comments. Attendees leave frustrated that they couldn’t ask a question or raise a point. Speakers feel they were rushed and did not have adequate time to develop their point.

  2. I share many of of the critical remarks and suggestions made. Indeed, with few organizational “methods” a lot of the international conferences can be made more effective and more interesting, However, as regards the notion of the international conference as a forum for “putting on spot” public officials one has to be careful. Governments make and implement national laws as well as international conventions. So there must be an acceptable format found to enable a proper discussion rather than just “bashing” them, In addition, please note that within a number of UN fora the participation of the NGO and academic community is quite limited and by a number of governments not so much welcomed. This is bad and needs to be addressed in an appropriate manner. From my own experience a confrontational approach has not worked but neither the total submission to the dictates of non-transparent governments. Willy-nilly, the compromise is needed.

    Ugi Zvekic

  3. Excellent points. Can you please write a post about the US corporate FCPA conferences, which display different forms of ridiculousness where your sarcasm is equally valid!

  4. Pingback: A critic’s guide to anti-corruption conferences - Devpolicy Blog from the Development Policy Centre

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