Guest Post: The Finnish Paradox–Anticorruption Success Without Anticorruption Policy

GAB is pleased to welcome back Alan Doig, Visiting Professor at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University, who contributes the following guest post:

In its January 2017 Inclusive Growth and Development report, the World Economic Forum listed five countries as the best of the advanced economies in addressing corruption: New Zealand, Singapore, Sweden, Norway, and–heading the list–Finland. Finland, along with its fellow Scandinavian countries, is often held out as a model of clean and effective government, toward which other countries should aspire. Yet 50 years ago, Finland’s reputation was quite different. As Niklas Jensen-Eriksen has documented, for example, senior British policymakers in the 1950s and 1960s viewed corruption in the upper strata of Finnish politics as an issue, and warned that it might not be possible for British companies to do business there without paying bribes. What changed over the course of that half-century? The Finnish Ministry of Justice’s delightfully-smug official report, as well as a limited number of other similar publications, suggest a number of micro- and macro-level changes, some planned for and some accidents of social and political evolution, that are assumed (although there’s no real proof) to have denied the opportunity and incentive for corruption.

These include long-term and stable legal and administrative environments that also engaged members of society at all levels, the absence of strata of bureaucracy and devolved public (and public-focused) spending that promoted local engagement, transparent decisionmaking and the right of citizen redress, universal education, adequate official salaries, state funding of political parties, access to all public records (including tax records), access to funds (legal aid) to challenge state decisions. Yet among these changes Finland never did much of anything specifically about corruption (and indeed the country still attracts disapproving comments from GRECO and the OECD for not doing more even now).

This, then, is the Finnish Paradox: a country that didn’t decide to “fight corruption” over the last 50 years is now held up as an exemplar of effective anticorruption control. It is a model to which other countries should aspire (and that donors should have in mind as a target) when designing anticorruption strategies and interventions.

This Finnish paradox highlights two possible lessons that challenge much of the thinking behind current approaches championed by the “anticorruption industry” (including many donors, activists, and other reformers):

  • First, one lesson from Finland is that a focus on corruption specifically might be misguided. The Finland example reminds us that we must ask whether corruption is itself the main factor that inhibits progress, or whether corruption is a consequence of other reform failures. Relatedly, Finland’s high levels of corruption in the 1950s and 1960s did not appear to hold back its general development, and yet it would be difficult to pinpoint exactly which changes, or permutations of changes, facilitated both that development and a diminution of corruption. So, we might want to think about the need for broader, evolutionary reforms, focusing less on corruption than on the larger developmental process, and thinking through what this could mean for corruption.
  • Second, Finland illustrates the need to think about reasonable timeframes for progress on these issues. Fifty years is not long in the lifespan of a country’s development, but it is a lot longer than the increasingly short time horizons of donors and others who to seek to (in the words of my colleague David Watt) carpet-bomb lesser developing countries with laws, institutions, and procedures (including some they themselves don’t have back home) that the donors think (or hope) will catapult the recipient toward “Finland” (or Denmark or Sweden or whatever other Western country is held up as a model). We should not demand too much too quickly, but should be willing (to note another of David’s insights) to accept a “good enough reality,” coupled with uneven and incremental development.

Of course there are countries where corruption is systemic and entrenched, and that might require a very different approach, but it would appear to me that the lessons of the Finnish paradox reminds us that by focusing too much on just figuring out “what works in fighting corruption” or how we can measure a country’s anti-corruption reform progress, we may not be asking the right questions.

2 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Finnish Paradox–Anticorruption Success Without Anticorruption Policy

  1. Interesting, debatable observations Alan. However, one of the first things I tell my students is that one must distinguish between countries where systemic corruption exists at all levels of society — which is endemic in much of the developing world — from periodic, institutional or sectoral or grand corruption — which unfortunately exists in much of the developed world. I also tell them, as you also note, that one must have a long-term strategy, since there are no short-term fixes when corruption is systemic and where there are no stable predictable laws or institutions, particularly the justice system. Fortunately, Finland has been a rule of law and open society for many generations. In my mind this reality made all of the difference and largely explains her success and global standing on this front. A valuable lesson learned for all countries.

    For me it does not really matter whether you call many of the reforms you outlined anti-corruption reforms or not. In essence they are or could be. My view is what you want to call them is more of a strategic call, not a technical one, and that call will vary from country-to-country. But they are all no doubt important and inextricably linked reforms.

  2. Pingback: The Finnish Paradox–Anticorruption Success Without Anticorruption Policy | Anti Corruption Digest

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