TI’s “Declaration Against Corruption” — A Plug and a Question

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.

16 thoughts on “TI’s “Declaration Against Corruption” — A Plug and a Question

  1. This posts largely reflects how I feel about these campaigns as well. I am curious whether the fact that the pledge is so broad and general affects your view on the efficacy of this type of campaign. If instead of saying “I will not pay/support the paying of bribes,” TI had focused on one specific issue of bribery or bribery in a specific country, perhaps the campaign would serve these purposes – awareness raising, behavior changing, and political pressure – in a much more effective way. Because TI’s campaign is so general, it seems unlikely that it is raising any new awareness for people (everyone knows that bribery occurs), and the fact that it could cover millions of people may result in no one feeling personally pressured to change her behavior. Therefore without any greater specificity, it seems that a campaign of this nature is simply biting off more than it can chew.

  2. I would like to suggest a fifth possible way that the signatures on the anticorruption declaration could be useful/meaningful. As noted previously on this blog, some arbitral panels, like the one confronted with World Duty Free v. Republic of Kenya, have started to cite international law when annulling contracts tainted by corruption. ((If the two countries in that case had signed onto a bilateral trade agreement (BIT) such as the TPP, the panel would likely have come to the same result, since the TPP contains the appropriate clauses.)) In the absence of relevant language in a BIT, arbiters will try to discern whether there is a binding normative rule under international law prohibiting corruption. As in World Duty Free, the arbiters might survey the international legal landscape. Since non-state actors play a role in constructing modern international law (see generally Nathaniel Berman’s work), an arbitral panel might well cite a TI declaration with a certain number of signatures from a broad array of countries when annulling a corrupt contract. The TI declaration might be an attempt to ‘legislate’ against corruption at the international level.

      • I suppose the TI declaration is superfluous. But I think some arbiters (and judges in general) like to rattle off a list of statements and agreements from various sources in order to demonstrate that the underlying norm is actually ubiquitous and broadly accepted in international law.

        • Agreed. But again, they already do this, typically citing a combination of national laws and international treaties (UNCAC, the OECD Conventions, the regional conventions, etc.). It’s hard for me to imagine they’d throw in an on-line pledge (particularly given that they typically _don’t_ cite to scientific public opinion poll data, which would be a much more reliable source of information on the same basic issue).

  3. Pingback: TI’s “Declaration Against Corruption” | Anti Corruption Digest

  4. I understand the skepticism that a pledge such as this could actually reduce corruption, but I would not completely dismiss that possibility. Simply signing a pledge has been shown in behavioral psychology research to appreciably reduce unethical behavior. (example: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3458378/). In one experiment, subjects had to self-report their scores on a game, and were given financial rewards for high scores. Something as simply as pledging to be ethical at the beginning made them more honest, even though it would result in a smaller reward.

    Given that finding, it’s not crazy to think that a pledge could help reduce corruption. The bigger concern for me is the self-selection bias. I imagine only people who already care about anticorruption will be looking at TI’s webpage. Perhaps TI would be better served to see if they could get governments to include something like this as part of their training for employees?

    • Fair enough, though in addition to your point about the self-selection issue, if I’m recalling correctly, most of the experimental psychology research about how things like signing a pledge or an honor code can reduce dishonest behavior require some kind of “priming” that’s fairly close in time to the ethical dilemma. That is, if you prime experimental subjects by having them read or sign a statement about the importance of honesty immediately before playing a game where it’s possible to cheat, they cheat less — but I’m not sure if there’s good evidence that these effects are longer-lasting.

      That said, if there’s any effect at all, it might make an initiative like this worthwhile, since it’s so low-cost to implement. But I’d be curious to know if research like the sort you describe (or a more general sense that a pledge could have these behavioral effects) was a significant part of TI’s motivation.

  5. To me , two of these claims does not fit with all the others — the last two. Depending on TI’s goal(s) (which you outline above), the last two imply significantly more action than the rest. Depending on what part of the world you live in, this could even be risky political action. Reporting abuses of power is definitely a costly action, and could put the individual in danger. “Only supporting candidates” that have anti-corruption platforms, assuming that showing support entails minor costs (signing a petition, voting, etc), may greatly reduce the pool of potential candidates and could even be asking voters to be single-issue voters.

    Don’t get me wrong, I think that in certain situations, anti-corruption activism may be worth certain costly actions, but there seems to be a disconnect between whether or not TI is wanting people to actually commit to the actions listed in the declaration (likely a smaller, more committed audience) or if they are trying to garner broad support, the 200,000+ that you mentioned. It is unclear to me as well how this may help advocacy and who exactly it is targeted to.

  6. I wonder if at some point declarations of this nature actually have a net negative impact on any attempts to push forward anticorruption goals on the international stage. As you already laid out in the post, the value of the declaration is likely negligible, but the declaration itself also seems like a way satiate both TI and the signatories’ desire to actively combat global corruption. It leads to an appearance of progress, without any meaningful change, a dangerous form of stasis especially since global anitcorruption measures are in this “tricky transitional phase.”

    It seems that potentially empty gestures could, perhaps counter-intuitively, be a hindrance on pushing forward meaningful change.

    • This is certainly a concern, though I’m not sure I’m quite that pessimistic. TI is doing plenty of other stuff, and this pledge is only a small part of its campaign, so even for TI I don’t think it would be fair to suggest that this mostly-symbolic initiative satiates the desire to feel like they’re making forward progress on this seemingly intractable issue. Still, I guess I do share a bit of your concern that the marginal value added of stuff like this is rapidly diminishing after all the awareness-raising campaigns we’ve already had.

  7. Now a few more days have passed and now the number of signatories is 1,705 – doesn’t appear to be very successful if the purpose is to build political pressure. Inspired by Jimmy’s research in storytelling approaches for anticorruption campaign, I am wondering if this declaration will be a little more effective for whatever purposes TI has in mind if it, for example, makes a compelling video ad (it has to be really good) and then shows this declaration and asks people to sign. Of course that way TI will have to spend more money to shoot the video first, raising the cost to implement.

    Another interesting point I saw is the declaration is only in three languages: English, French, and Spanish. And that potentially will further limit the impact of this declaration. I wondered why TI decided to only have these three languages. Apparently it did not aim to reach the huge population of Chinese netizens (I guess they are not TI’s primary targeted audience or TI may not be able to reach them due to political restrictions?). After all, it is not a big effort to translate a few sentences into a few more other languages.

    • Actually, I think adding another 700+ signatures in only a couple of days is pretty good. Perhaps it was GAB’s endorsement caused the surge of new endorsements? 🙂

      Your language point is really interesting, though you’re hunch is right: all of TI’s web sites are blocked in China, and while more savvy Chinese netizens can get round the firewalls, the majority cannot or do not bother. The fact that it’s not available in, say, Portuguese and Italian and German and Arabic and Bahasa and Russian does seem like a significant limitation on its global reach, though. Given that the declaration is so short and simple, and TI has such a global network, I confess I’m puzzled why they didn’t translate it into more languages. Perhaps they’re waiting to see if it takes off and then will branch out? Or maybe we’re really attaching far too much significance to this declaration, which again might be mainly a networking and fundraising device.

  8. Dear Matthew,

    Thank you for your thoughtful post on the Declaration against Corruption (and for signing it!). You were among the first people who received an invitation to sign the Declaration – and now among nearly 2,000 (and counting) people who have taken the pledge.

    You raise many excellent and helpful questions, many of which we also asked ourselves and tried to answer throughout the development of the Declaration. Some of these questions we are still seeking the answers to, but we would like to share some of our thinking with you here and also invite you to watch Cobus de Swardt’s TED Talk where he talks about the Declaration Against Corruption within the broader context of the fight against corruption.

    To address your main point: is the Declaration about awareness raising? Yes it is. But not raising awareness about corruption as a problem – that is widely acknowledged as you highlight – rather awareness of what an individual can do.

    Over the past 20 something years Transparency International has been among those pushing for new laws, improved systems and stronger institutions to fight corruption. We can celebrate many successes in these areas, but a top down approach can only ever be a part of a broader, sustainable response to corruption. Through providing free legal support to victims and witnesses (more than 250,000 people have contacted us in more than 60 countries) and running the world’s largest public opinion survey on corruption, we have learnt a lot about how corruption affects people in their every day lives. We have also seen people in countries from Armenia to Zimbabwe come out onto the street to protest against corruption. Taken together, it is clear that far from being apathetic in the fight against corruption, people will get engaged when they are provided with simple, credible and viable mechanisms to do so.

    To help with this, we could expand our support services to victims and witnesses of corruption (which we are trying to do) and we are most certainly seeking donations to help us assist more people. But we are never going to be able to provide legal support to the hundreds of millions (even billions) of people, families and communities who are personally and directly affected by corruption.

    So the issue was not just what Transparency International could do in the fight against corruption, but what people themselves can do. We wanted to come up with something which would help articulate this in a very simple way. This was actually a far from easy thing to do, and there were numerous discussions and debates about whether it was reasonable to suggest that people do this or that, is it too narrow, is it too broad, etc. This is hardly surprising considering the complexity of corruption. So, the fact that your initial response was “Yes, of course, I agree with all of that”, gives us some hope that we actually got this part right. However, the real challenge will be whether we have managed to articulate something which resonates as strongly with people living in the slums of Rio, as it does with CEOs at Davos, or indeed, with Harvard Law Professors.
    So far, when we have used the Declaration to talk to people the reaction is normally very similar: it resonates with them. People understand it and start to realise that the fight against corruption is not just “out there” or abstract, but that we are all actors. That we can all do something. The Declaration does not end with the signing, but is intended to inspire concrete action. In Cambodia, for instance, our Chapter uses it as a key instrument to engage with people around corruption and what they can do. It has even signed up retailers who give discounts to shoppers who show the declaration card. This is just the beginning, but it does show that it can become a very practical tool.

    The contents of the Declaration (rather than the Declaration itself) help turn the overwhelming sense of hopelessness that millions of people feel in the face of corruption into a framework for action. In and of itself, signing the Declaration will probably not change behaviour, but people standing together throughout the world can and will end endemic corruption. New norms are not created overnight, but then neither were the other fights of our generation like ending apartheid, gender equality and climate change.

    Corruption is far from defeated, but we are optimists at Transparency International and believe that history is on the side of those who oppose the injustice of corruption and that dramatic gains are possible. This will require people around the world to stand up and act together. We believe that the actions in the Declaration against Corruption articulate the key things that all of us can do. Think of it as the people’s equivalent of UNCAC.

    It is very early days, and we welcome any and all suggestions or support as to how the Declaration can be used, but more importantly, how all of those working to fight corruption can promote the actions contained within it. The Declaration is a tool. It is the actions it inspires which will ultimately count.

    Ben Elers
    Programmes Director
    Transparency International Secretariat

    • Wonderful, thanks so much for the thoughtful, thorough response. This is extremely interesting, and highlights aspects of anticorruption advocacy efforts that I hadn’t considered as carefully — exactly the sort of response I was hoping for when I wrote the post.

      I’ll need to think a bit more about some of the specific issues you raise. The use your Cambodian chapter is making of the Declaration is especially interesting.

      Thanks again for your response, and for your generosity in treating my expressions of skepticism as an invitation to dialogue (as they were intended).

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