Video: “The Global Fight Against Corruption: What We’ve Learned and Where We’re Going”

One year ago (in December 2017) I was invited to give a talk at the University of Indonesia on “The Global Fight Against Corruption: What We’ve Learned and Where We’re Going.” I recently learned that the video of the lecture and the Q&A that followed it is up on YouTube here. Because this lecture was a variant on a “stump speech” that I’ve given to various audiences—a talk that tries to hit on some big-picture themes about the fight against corruption that I think are important—I thought that perhaps some of our readers out there might find some or all of the video useful. (I hope this doesn’t come off too much as shameless self-promotion!) For what it’s worth, here are a few of the topics/themes that came up in the talk, with associated time markers for the video:

  • There are some introductions at the beginning; the actual speech begins at the 8:30 mark. The opening chunk of the speech, from about 8:30-12:54, provides some general introduction, including some discussion of why corruption seems like such an intractable problem and why, despite this, there are reasons for cautious optimism.
  • The more substantive portion of the speech begins around 12:54, where I lay out what I describe as three “quasi-myths” about corruption: widely-held views that have a kernel of truth, but that are mostly false (or at least misleading), and are too often invoked as rationalizations for inaction against corruption.
    • Quasi-myth #1 (discussed starting around 13:57) is the idea that “corruption” is a Western concept, and that practices like bribery, nepotism, etc. are culturally acceptable in other, non-Western societies.
    • Quasi-myth #2 (discussed starting around 17:03) is that corruption (even if considered immoral in most or all cultures) can be economically beneficial—an “efficient grease”—in developing countries.
    • Quasi-myth #3 (discussed starting around 20:07) is in those societies characterized by endemic corruption, this corruption is so deeply ingrained in the culture or social/political practices that there’s nothing that can be done about it.
  • After describing these views as quasi-myths that should not be used to justify passivity or fatalism, even in the face of even widespread corruption, I argue (starting around 25:30) that the fight against corruption is nonetheless especially challenging because corruption is a self-reinforcing (or self-perpetuating) phenomenon, that can give rise to vicious cycles. I then proceed to highlight four of the many possible mechanisms that can give rise to corruption’s self-reinforcing property:
    • Mechanism #1 (starting at 26:10) is economic: corruption can lower per capita income and reduce government revenue, and it’s harder to fight corruption when poverty is higher and government revenues are lower.
    • Mechanism #2 (starting at 29:28) is related to the effectiveness of law enforcement: more pervasive corruption reduces deterrence (because the ratio of law enforcement resources to malfeasants is higher), and lower deterrence engenders more widespread corruption.
    • Mechanism #3 (starting at 32:19) is grounded in social norms and morality: The more widespread corrupt conduct is, the lower the shame, guilt, or social opprobrium that will attach to corrupt behavior, which has a disinhibiting effect that produces more corruption.
    • Mechanism #4 (starting at 36:13) focuses on the kinds of people who choose to pursue careers in public service: a corrupt bureaucracy will attract more corrupt individuals, and drive honest people away, which further entrenches corruption in that bureaucracy.
  • The next question is what the implications are for anticorruption reform strategy. The speech turns to this issue starting around 39:59. The first point I make here is that, contrary to some of the discussion in the academic literature and policy discourse, corruption’s self-reinforcing nature does not imply that a “big bang” approach to reform is necessary. Incremental reforms can make a difference, but it’s important that they are sustained over time and accumulate, in order to push society past the “tipping point.” They key to fighting corruption effectively, I argue here, is not the magnitude of reforms but their sustainability.
  • Furthermore, starting around 41:40, I argue that despite the emphasis in some quarters on the need for “game-changing” reforms or “outside-the-box thinking,” in fact the main challenges in fighting corruption are not really issues of the toolkit or techniques, but rather the political problem that those with the power to do something to address corruption often don’t have much incentive to do so (because they benefit from the status quo), while those with the strongest incentive to do something about endemic corruption lack the power to effect change. The question then becomes how to make progress despite this problem. I the last part of the speech, I outline four possible models (all with historical precedents) for producing politically feasible and sustainable anticorruption reform.
    • Model #1 (discussed starting at 47:34) is the powerful leader with few checks on her power, who is public-spirited and far-sighted enough to make fighting corruption a priority, and can implement sweeping changes more or less unilaterally. But, though some countries might conform to this model (such as Singapore), it’s quite dangerous, because concentrating great powers in a single leader can be a disaster if the leader is selfish or foolish.
    • Model #2 (discussed at 49:49) is the moment of crisis or disruption in the political status quo, which creates a narrow window of political opportunity to implement dramatic reforms. (Indonesia in the late 1990s may be a good example.) That possibility, means that reformers shouldn’t give up even if the current political situation seems hopeless, because they’ll need to be prepared—armed with a set of reform proposals—should the opportunity arise. Still, this isn’t a very satisfying model in many countries, because moments of dramatic political reform are rare (and dangerous).
    • Model #3 (starting at 52:02) entails the advocacy and implementation of reforms the consequences of which are not obvious to those in power, or have sufficiently long-term effects that current power-holders don’t feel directly threatened by them. That can work in some areas, though the applications may be limited.
    • Model #4 (starting at 55:00), discussion of which concludes the talk, emphasizes the importance of pressure from below—citizens and civil society groups who demand significant reform, changing the calculus of those in power. Here I emphasize that role and function of the universities that train the next generation of elites, because graduates of such institutions will (often) have more social, economic, and political power to change their society for the better, and (hopefully) will also have the moral commitment to change their countries for the better.

There’s also a Q&A , starting around 1:00:44. I won’t try to summarize all the exchanges that took place. I will note, however, that two of the questioners asked for my response to the argument (which both questioners seemed to endorse) that in a country like Indonesia, due to its history and political culture, the only way to get corruption under control is to have a “strongman” type leader, along the lines of Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore. I expressed skepticism. The first exchange starts around 1:08:27, while the second starts at 1:29:45. (The latter questioner asked three separate questions; my answer specifically to the question about whether Indonesia needs a strongman starts at 1:37:46.)

Again, I hope that this post doesn’t come off as excessively self-indulgent. Since I’m often asked for some general overview thoughts regarding anticorruption reform strategy, I thought that perhaps the most efficient way to share those thoughts would be to post this video. I would, it should go without saying, welcome comments, criticisms, pushback, additional observations, etc.

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