Last week, I got an email alert from Transparency International asking me to sign (and publicize) TI’s new “Declaration Against Corruption.” The declaration is short and sweet:
I will not pay bribes
I will not seek bribes
I will work with others to campaign against corruption
I will speak out against corruption and report on abuse
I will only support candidates for public office who say no to corruption and demonstrate transparency, integrity and accountability
On reading the declaration, I had two thoughts. The first thought was, “Yes, of course I agree with all that, I’m happy to add my name to the list” (which I did). I’m also happy to use this blog post in part to help publicize the declaration in case some of you out there haven’t already heard about this and would like to sign on as well.
My second thought, though, was along the lines of “What’s the point?”
I ask that question with all due respect to TI. I want to pose this as a substantive, serious question about anticorruption campaign strategy: What is a “Declaration Against Corruption” like this supposed to accomplish? It certainly doesn’t do any harm, but what good do TI and other anticorruption campaigners think will come of this?
I have a few hypotheses about why one might think that calling on as many people as possible to sign onto a Declaration Against Corruption might be a useful and meaningful (as opposed to symbolic but ultimately trivial) element of an anticorruption campaign:
First, perhaps we might hope that those who sign the declaration will change their own behavior, because the Declaration will have made them more uncomfortable with engaging in corrupt acts. I could see how this might work in the case of petty bribery. I’m lucky enough to live in a place where I’m basically never solicited for bribes when I visit, say, a government office or a hospital. But others are not so lucky. Maybe the hope is that the act of signing onto the Declaration will make at least some people who are regularly hit up for bribes more likely to resist, because they will have signed (electronically) their names to a promise never to pay bribes. Or maybe the last part of the Declaration will induce at least some voters to think twice before voting to re-elect an incumbent dogged by credible corruption allegations.
Maybe — I don’t want to dismiss this out of hand. But boy, I’m really skeptical that signing a declaration like this will cause any individuals to change their behavior. It’s not like those people who end up paying petty bribes, or voting for a politician tainted by scandal, are unaware that corruption is bad, or that they like it. It’s just that other factors tend to outweigh their opposition to corruption. I have trouble believing that signing a pledge like this would change that calculation when it comes down to it. As for the idea that signing a declaration will change the behavior of, say, the government officials who are embezzling money or taking bribes or what have you, I’m even more skeptical.
Second, maybe the point of the Declaration Against Corruption isn’t so much that it will change the behavior of individual signatories, but that it will serve to help raise awareness about corruption. I’m sympathetic to that objective, and I can see how a Declaration like this–shared on the internet and social media and what have you–might be a sensible component of an awareness-raising campaign. But I’m less convinced that there’s much added value, at this point, from this sort of awarness-raising, for the simple reason that TI and other organizations have already done such a fantastic job of raising awareness of corruption. I made this point a couple years back in a post I did about the UN’s designation of an “International Anti-Corruption Day” (December 9, if you were wondering). I’ll just repeat here the same thing I said then, with only one small tweak needed:
I think it’s fair to raise the question whether publicity gambits like this are starting to outlive their usefulness. Many in the anticorruption community–particularly those who started working on these topics in the 1990s or earlier, when it was definitely treated as marginal in many quarters–have spent a lot of time and energy trying to raise awareness about the issue. And the thing is, they’ve succeeded. The international community is aware of the problem, and takes it seriously (at least in the sense of acknowledging corruption as a legitimate concern). As I see it, the anticorruption movement is now in a tricky transitional phase: The first generation won an important battle, by getting corruption on the international agenda. The new generation needs to make more progress on figuring out what exactly to do about it. So by all means, use the [Declaration Against Corruption] as a way to raise awareness. But at the same time, let’s recognize that we’re reaching the point where raising awareness isn’t really a central issue anymore.
Third, maybe the point of the declaration is to help build more political pressure by showing just how widespread public opposition to corruption is around the world. When I added my name to the declaration last week, the website told me that there were 388 other signatories. This morning, the number was up to 1,000. If the number of signatories gets really big (say, if 200,000 people across 80 different countries), that might increase the amount of leverage that TI and other groups have to say to governments, international organizations, and others: “Look, this issue has broad public support, there’s great pent-up demand for more action, it’s not something that most ordinary people basically accept, etc., etc.”
I totally see that, and if this is the plan, and it works, great. That’s one of the reasons why I was happy to add my name, and why I’m encouraging my readers to do likewise. But I guess I can’t shake my skeptical instincts. If this is the goal, I feel like it’s an attempt to generate something that basically already exists: At least publicly, most governments and international organizations have articulated strong opposition to corruption. And we have public opinion polls that include questions about corruption, and which are much more valid and persuasive indicators of how much citizens care about (and dislike) corruption than the number of signatories on an on-line declaration.
Fourth, maybe the point of the Declaration is more about expanding TI’s network–getting more people on the mailing list, whom TI can provide with news and information. (And also fundraising solicitations: As soon as I singed the Declaration, I got an automatic email welcoming me to the global anticorruption movement, and asking me to “Donate Now!”) To be clear, this is not meant to be cynical, or any knock on TI. This is exactly what advocacy organizations must and should do. So if that’s really what this is all about, most of my discussion above is beside the point. I’d still encourage others to sign the Declaration, get on TI’s mailing list (among other things, they have a great daily news roundup email service) and support them or other anticorruption NGOs if you are in a position to do so. But I did think it was interesting to ask the more general question about whether there was any broader purpose of this sort of Declaration. Perhaps some of my readers with more experience in public advocacy might have a different and better-informed view of how something this helps advance the anticorruption agenda.