Cracking Down on Corruption in Haitian Customs

Billions of dollars in international aid to Haiti has been lost due to corruption, and this corruption epidemic has hindered many of the good-faith efforts to provide assistance in the wake of disasters. Of the many layers of bribery, fraud, and deceit that plague aid delivery, the one that interests me the most concerns the front-line Haitian Customs officers.

My interest stems in part from personal experience: In August 2016, I was part of a small project to engineer and build a clean water system in Haiti, which required importing equipment and supplies. As a matter of law, the items we were attempting to bring into Haiti were exempt from tax on account of their use in a non-commercial setting and our association with an NGO. Yet despite the fact that this was clearly stated on the Customs form, the Customs officials insisted that we had to pay tax on the goods, told us further that we had to pay in cash directly to the Customs officer, and reduced the tax payment we engaged in bargaining. It seemed like a bribery racket, especially with the insistence on cash payment without giving us an option to make a payment to a government agency officially. Our experience was, alas, typical: Over the past few years, there have been multiple reports of individuals being extorted for cash at Haitian Customs, with officials often unwilling to follow their own guidelines, a situation that seriously hinders the timely provision of non-profit aid.

The Haitian government is aware of the problem, and in 2013 launched a general crackdown. Yet despite a handful of successes—such as the arrest of a prominent Haitian businessman who was involved with multiple Customs officers in a corruption ring that involved contraband and trafficking—the crackdown doesn’t seem to have led to a meaningful reduction of inconsistent and corrupt Customs practices. While additional reforms to the anticorruption laws and improved internal auditing would help, there are a few other steps that the Haitian government could take that would help to combat the sort of corruption that many importers, including my own team, have encountered in Haitian Customs: Continue reading

Framing the Campus Sexual Assault Epidemic as an Issue of Systematic Corruption

Over the past few years, in the United States, the issue of sexual assault on university campuses has become increasingly prominent—the subject of student protests across the country, exposés in the mainstream press, and widely-released documentary films (see here and here). The issue is not simply that such assaults happen, but that universities are failing in their basic duties to protect students and to discipline those who commit assaults. There are many theories as to why universities are reluctant to more aggressively investigate and sanction offenders, but many assert that a root cause is the university administrators’ concern about losing public face and, worse, money. This fear is especially acute among those universities with large, renowned varsity sports teams: College athletes are disproportionately responsible for sexual assaults, but expelling or otherwise sanctioning them would cost the university money and public support.

This phenomenon—university administrators’ worries over the financial and reputational success of athletics programs leading to improper or insufficient responses to sexual assault allegations against athletes—can and should be framed as a form of systemic institutional corruption. I recognize that framing this as a problem of corruption——rather than one of negligence or callousness—is unconventional and perhaps controversial, even for people who are outraged at universities’ inadequate response to sexual assault. After all, using the language of “corruption” implies insidious motives. Yet the label is not only an apt description of the problem, but using that vocabulary, and that diagnosis, suggests alternative approaches for fixing the problem.

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Anticorruption Bibliography–March 2017 Update

An updated version of my anticorruption bibliography is available from my faculty webpage. A direct link to the pdf of the full bibliography is here, and a list of the new sources added in this update is here. As always, I welcome suggestions for other sources that are not yet included, including any papers GAB readers have written

A Sad Tale of Corruption in a World Bank Project –UPDATE

(Professor Ensminger’s testimony is here.)

Caltech Professor Jean Ensminger will today tell a Congressional panel a depressing story of corruption in a World Bank project in Kenya.  At a hearing on Bank accountability for its projects’ performance, she will document how money destined for the poorest of Kenya’s poor was siphoned off wholesale into the pockets of influential Kenyans and their cohorts.  At the same time, she will describe how, thanks to vigorous, extensive prevention measures, a similar Bank program in Indonesia brought significant benefits to those in poor communities with minimal “leakage.”

As she explained in a 2014 interview, the research underlying her testimony is the result of fortuitous circumstances.  A long-time student of the Orma, a semi-nomadic community found today in eastern Kenya, Dr. Ensminger was visiting the region shortly after several Orma villages had begun receiving funds from the World Bank’s Arid Lands Project.  Arid Lands is a “community driven development” project, meaning one where monies are distributed directly to local communities for projects they consider priorities.

Her Orma friends recounted hair-raising tales of corruption in the project, prompting her to shift focus to the impact of corruption at the village level. She presented her initial findings to the Bank’s research staff, where to protect her sources she did not reveal sufficient details to identify the project.  Bank staff determined on their own what the project was and opened an investigation.

In a brief interview before testifying Professor Ensimnger stressed that the point of her testimony is not that the Bank should refuse to fund community driven development projects. Rather it should, as was the case in the Indonesian project, provide sufficient oversight to ensure monies aren’t stolen.  And that doesn’t come cheap. While Congressional budget cutters may try to use her testimony to justify sharply reducing U.S. funding for the Bank, the real message of her testimony is that the oversight necessary to curb corruption can’t be had at bargain basement prices.

Her testimony and those of the other witnesses will be broadcast live starting 10:00 AM, US East Coast time, here.  Their written statements will likely be posted here at some point during or shortly after the hearing.  (Full disclosure: while drafting an internal “lessons learned” paper on the Arid Lands project for the World Bank, I came to know and admire Professor Ensminger and her work.)

Did the Trump Organization’s Azerbaijan Deal Violate the FCPA?

Adam Davidson’s New Yorker piece from earlier this month, “Donald Trump’s Worst Deal,” has been getting a lot of attention, and deservedly so. The article, which focuses on the Trump Organization’s involvement in a hotel deal in Baku, Azerbaijan, does a very nice job highlighting the troubling background of the Trump Organization’s Azeri business partners and the Trump Organization’s casual approach (to put it charitably) to due diligence. However, the piece also suggests that the Trump Organization’s involvement with the Baku hotel deal may have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), and many of the follow-up discussions of Mr. Davidson’s piece have repeated this claim (see, for example, here and here). On this point, not everyone agrees. Professor Mike Koehler, for example, wrote a lengthy critique of Mr. Davidson’s discussion of the FCPA issues, concluding that nothing in the facts as reported in the article suggests that the Trump Organization violated the FCPA – and that many of the article’s assertions to the contrary are based on incomplete and misleading representations of the statute and prior case law.

After having finally had a chance to read Mr. Davidson’s article carefully, it seems to me that Professor Koehler has the better of the argument—mostly. Much of the discussion of potential FCPA violations in Mr. Davidson’s article is confused and potentially misleading. That said, I do think there’s at least one plausible basis for the claim that the Trump Organization may have violated the FCPA in this case.

Here’s my take: Continue reading

Targeting Trump Businesses as a Response to Conflicts of Interest

Many people, myself included, believe Donald Trump’s failure to place his assets in a blind trust is more than just problematic. The full extent to which President Trump may be abusing public power for private gain—that is, engaging in corruption—is unknowable, so long as his business empire remains opaque and his tax returns stay buried. Even where Trump’s business interests are out in the open, a “shadow of corruption” hangs over the actions he takes as an ostensible public servant.

Some of the people who share these concerns are exploring ways in which they might engage in consumer activism as a response to Trump’s conflicts of interest. Consider two organizations that are leading broad boycotts against the Trump Administration. Don’t Pay Trump is a web browser extension that allows one to, in their words, “keep your money out of Trump’s tiny hands.” It alerts the consumer when he or she is making an online purchase from a business that sells Trump products. A second initiative, #grabyourwallet, is a more established and exceedingly low-tech enterprise which also calls for “flexing consumer power.” #grabyourwallet maintains what looks like an excel spreadsheet that displays companies ripe for a Trump boycott. It provides the necessary tools to the activist consumer: name and number of the company, reason it should be boycotted, suggested sample of what to say, and updates on successes. #grabyourwallet received credit for the recent Nordstroms decision to drop Ivanka Trump’s produces from its stores, which earned Nordstroms a Presidential tweeted complaint on February 8th.

Both of these organizations attempt to decrease the profitability of Trump businesses, albeit for different reasons. Don’t Pay Trump seeks to weaponize consumer power to affect administration policy, while #grabyourwallet is explicitly motivated by the Trump family’s conflicts. It is difficult to say how effective the anti-Trump boycotts might be, given the absence of direct analogies to the current situation. Nonetheless, we might be able to draw some lessons from past corporate boycott efforts:

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Guest Post: A Call for Higher Integrity Standards and Deeper Democratization

Jeroen Michels, Policy Analyst at the OECD, and Michael Johnston, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science at Colgate University, contribute today’s guest post:

Many of the recent woes and challenges of democracies worldwide—such as fading policy consensus, populist discontent, and widening equality gaps—have been fueled, at least in part, by corruption and unethical practices (not all of which are currently illegal). The Panama Papers and similar leaks have dented the reputation of elected politicians, established firms, and respected countries. Soon after their term in office, some public sector leaders have taken up lucrative posts and board memberships in banks, lobbying firms, and multinationals, leaving voters disillusioned about political integrity and the intertwinement of elite networks across sectors in society. Less visible but equally harmful can be the ways in which narrow interests seek to influence public decision-making for their own profit. Inequalities in access to policymaking processes, often reflecting inequalities in wealth and status, often lead to decisions that benefit and further empower those narrow interests, which exacerbates inequalities and fosters the perception of politics as unfair or illegitimate. Against the backdrop of widening income gaps between the rich and poor, the abuse of power leading to a concentration of economic resources in the hands of fewer people is a worrisome prospect.

As a result, these legal and illegal forms of influence peddling corrode the meanings and mechanisms of democracy itself. As Professor Mark Warren has argued, corruption can be described as duplicitous exclusion: corruption undermines democracy by excluding people from decisions that affect them and in which they expect to have a voice. When people lose confidence that public decisions are taken for reasons that are publicly available and justifiable, and that those in official positions take citizen views and interests seriously, they often become cynical, expecting duplicity in public speech. This tarnishes all public officials, whether or not they are corrupt. And when people are mistrustful of government, they are also cynical about their own capacities to act in favor of the public good. Elections, for too many citizens, become a way to reject traditional democratic values and practices.

There are no quick fixes or easy remedies to this dilemma, but there are two things that activists and reformers must emphasize: Continue reading