Guest Post: A Defense of Anticorruption Orthodoxy

Robert Barrington, Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at the University of Sussex’s Centre for the Study of Corruption, contributes today’s guest post.

The international anticorruption movement, which has been so successful over the last 25 years in putting this once-taboo issue squarely at the forefront of the international agenda, is suffering a crisis of confidence. The aspiration to eliminate corruption now seems to many like a fantasy from the dreamy era of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And what had appeared to be an emerging consensus about how to diagnose corruption, and how to respond, is fracturing. There has long been a lively debate within the anticorruption community about the best ways to understand and respond to corruption; and likewise, a growing challenge from several different quarters (including governments, businesses, journalists, and academics) on areas such as measurement, what has been successful, and whether the evidence matches the theory for fundamental approaches such as transparency. The debate and challenge have been broadly healthy, and have led to sharper thinking and improved approaches. But some criticism has veered towards attacking simplistic caricatures of the perceived orthodoxy, or launching broad-brush critiques that, intentionally or not, serve to undermine the anticorruption movement and provide nourishment for those that would prefer to see the anticorruption movement diminished or fail.

Take, for example, two common lines of attack against the “orthodox” approach to tackling corruption, one concerning the diagnosis of the problem and the other concerning appropriate responses:

  • Attack #1: “Standard measures of corruption are fundamentally flawed and hypocritical, whitewashing the corruption of the Global North and placing blame on the Global South.” Indices like the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) published by Transparency International (TI), which attempt to measure and compare perceived levels of corruption in the public sector at the country level, are the subject of long-standing academic debates and critiques, and many of the criticisms are fair and worth considering. But it has become fashionable to denounce the CPI and similar indices for allegedly “blaming” the global South for corruption, and for failing to capture the fact that the global North is (allegedly) just as corrupt as the South—because Northern entities facilitate grand corruption in the South, or because political corruption in the North has been “legalized.” Some of this criticism verges on the absurd. The CPI is certainly imperfect; TI knows this and has developed a family of more nuanced indices to complement it. But let’s not pretend that corruption in Denmark, however measured, is as widespread or severe as corruption in Russia. And let’s not pretend that concerns about excessive private money in US or UK election campaigns, serious as those problem may be, are on the same order of magnitude as the outright kleptocracy in places like Equatorial Guinea. Furthermore, the idea that the CPI is somehow unfairly biased against the countries of the Global South is not, by and large, shared by the citizens of those countries, who are well aware of their governments’ corruption and can point to the CPI to support their demands for reform. The CPI’s most vehement critics in the South are not ordinary people, but rather the governments that perform badly; those governments welcome the chance to quote respectable commentators who suggest that the North is as corrupt as the South and therefore the CPI does not show anything. As for the idea that the CPI doesn’t capture the extent to which citizens of some countries (often those in the North) cause or facilitate corruption in other countries (often those in the South): this is self-evidently true. But it’s also a bit beside the point, because the CPI is not about assigning moral blame for corruption, but about measuring (perceptions of) the prevalence of public sector corruption. Far from using the CPI to absolve Northern countries of blame, organizations like TI have been at the forefront of the movement to highlight how global financial centers facilitate global corruption, and have pressured those Northern governments to take action.
  • Attack #2: “The anticorruption efforts of the past generation have failed to lead to substantial improvements, and this failure demonstrates that the accepted approaches to addressing corruption, including the most widely used analytical techniques and assumptions, are fundamentally flawed and must be re-thought.” I can certainly understand the frustration that gives rise to this view. While there have been a number of success stories in tackling corruption, it is hard for the anticorruption movement to point to an overwhelming global improvement over the past 25 years. But this does not mean that the movement has had no successes, or that the whole enterprise is built on faulty foundations. Part of the problem is unrealistic expectations, or perhaps straw-man versions of the objective. Rhetoric aside, nobody should realistically be expecting corruption to be wiped out in the space of a couple of decades. As in other fields—like environmental protection and human rights—progress will be slow, halting, and insufficient. But that does not make every success a failure because it is localized or incomplete. Speaking of straw men, a cluster of arguments one often hears from those who say the “orthodox” anticorruption approach is fundamentally flawed emphasizes that there is no “one-size-fits-all” global solution to corruption. That’s true, but no serious anticorruption advocate says otherwise. Although it has long been clear that sectoral and jurisdictional tailoring is a necessary part of a multi-pronged anti-corruption strategy, that does not render all global approaches without merit. For all their flaws, we would be worse off without the UN Convention Against Corruption, the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, the global campaign for beneficial ownership transparency, and other global anticorruption efforts. Critics seem particularly exercised by the past generation’s enthusiasm for specialized anti-corruption agencies (ACAs), another alleged example of failed orthodoxy. It’s true that many countries have not been able to replicate the successes of ACAs in places like Hong Kong and Singapore. But do we really think that a world without ACAs would actually be better at tackling corruption? Like so much in the anticorruption sphere, ACAs are imperfect, they clearly need to be tailored to the local context, and we’re still learning about the conditions under which they can succeed. But the impulse to write off the entire idea as a proven failure is unjustified and unhealthy.

Many of these flawed critiques of the anticorruption movement grow out of valid concerns. The countries of the global North really do need to get their act together to tackle their own corruption and the ways in which they contribute to corruption elsewhere. The anticorruption movement does need to recognize and learn from the failures of the approaches that have been tried over the last generation, and need to do more than pay lip service to the need for localized and sectoral approaches to complement higher-profile global initiatives. And nothing I’ve said here should be misinterpreted as opposing critique and debate.

But this is a serious world with serious problems, and it is important to remember that we’re not just playing intellectual games or trying to score debating points. The world looks darker in terms of corruption than it has for a long while. Highly corrupt governments like those of Russia, China, and Iran are strutting the world stage with renewed confidence. The traditional supporters of the anticorruption agenda, including the US and UK, are going through a period of weakness. In an era of fake news and shrinking civil society space, a growing number of governments have both an interest and the resources to push back against the hard-won gains of the anticorruption movement over the last generation. There is nothing inherently permanent about the FCPA or the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, let alone national initiatives like CICIG in Guatemala or MACIH in Honduras. Civil society is in retreat, and the anticorruption movement is feeling that pressure.

Despite the attacks and the setbacks, this is not the time for the anticorruption movement to have a crisis of confidence. There have been some wrong turns, and there will inevitably be more in the future, but the overall direction of the movement is right. It is always more tempting to offer an iconoclastic critique than to defend an orthodoxy. A generation ago, the founders of the modern anticorruption movement were themselves the iconoclasts. That their radical analysis and solutions so rapidly became a global orthodoxy was because they got a lot right. In an era of pushback, this orthodoxy now deserves a defense.

Of course, a great deal needs to change and improve: but rather than being blown off course by vehement opposition, the anticorruption movement needs to be prepared to defend the intellectual territory it had won. To do that, those who want the next generation to succeed as well as the previous generation need to find a way to revitalize the consensus on some fundamentals.

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: A Defense of Anticorruption Orthodoxy

  1. Some flaws I have observed included:
    1. Is corruption a problem or a solution? Corruption is generally assumed as a problem but when a society takes it as a solution, anti-corruption drive is destined to fail.
    2. Corruption could be an immediate problem demanding quick solutions but there are “no quick fixes or one-size fits all solutions.” Moreover, corruption problem can be recurring often demanding tailor made solutions.
    3. When you fight corruption, it fights back. One pathetic situation with anti-corruption drive is that corruption is very much organized while anti-corruption is disorganized, ad-hoc and, in developing countries, a pure donor driven activity. Corruption can easily sip into anti-corruption activities or bodies making difficult to discern remedy from malady.
    4. Corruption at cross border level should be treated differently from a localized, national level corruption without ignoring the possible links between the two.
    5. There could be a sea difference between perception of corruption and reality. Like sex corruption is a clandestine activity often taking place in privacy, dark situation between two consenting adults. Like sex, children do not engage in corruption.

  2. My pet peeve about one strand of orthodox anti-corruption thinking is that it routinely and unthinkingly places “civil society” at the centre of anti-corruption efforts, as in “To combat corruption, a strong civil society is essential blah blah”.

    The most successful anti-corruption story in recent times was in Georgia after the Rose Revolution. I worked in Georgia at the time, and later wrote my PhD on it. The approaches taken were very much top-down. Key elements:

    1. Paying living salaries. Hordes of lazy and useless bureaucrats were laid off. (The entire traffic police were fired overnight – and good riddance to them.) Those remaining received living wages. Before, it was literally impossible to survive off a state salary.

    2. Administrative reform: streamlining the state, decreasing officials’ discretion, digitisation, transparent procedures. This WB report provides a good (if sanitised) summary:

    3. Building a police state. Incarceration without evidence, rampant surveillance, and a climate of fear where nobody dared take bribes any longer. Thousands of people lost their government jobs but there were no protests. Rule of law and human rights were disregarded.

    Georgian “civil society” (= donor-dependent NGOs) played a role in the revolution, but absolutely no role in any of the ensuing anti-corruption successes apart from – and this is a *big* contribution – being a source of uncorrupted talent for the new government and administration. In fact, “civil society” was as weak as never before in the years immediately following the revolution, and freedom of the press declined.

    I do think there is a role for “civil society” in anti-corruption (else I wouldn’t have worked for several anti-corruption NGOs), but we would be well advised to relegate NGOs to the minor role that they occupy compared to the state and private sector, in any country.

    Remember, the strength of “civil society” cannot explain why Equatorial Guinea is more corrupt than China, or why Bangladesh is more corrupt than Bhutan.

    As long as we focus on the wrong problem, and the wrong vehicles for change, we will not achieve impactful solutions. Abandoning NGO-centricity in anti-corruption would be a good first step. As for the second step, I don’t know.

    Till Bruckner

  3. Thank you Professor Barrington for your post. I generally agree with you that we shouldn’t throw the foundational anti-corruption playbook out the window but do think the anticorruption community needs to adapt its strategies to changing political landscapes. Politicians are increasingly emboldened to use undemocratic and even authoritarian tactics and civil society spaces are shrinking rapidly in both the Global North and South, making anticorruption work even more difficult than before. I know this is a tough question but what do you think are the most critical thematic areas of concern that anticorruption practitioners should turn their attention to in 2020? If it’s easier focus on a specific country, say the UK where you currently work, what kind of direction should we take in this localized context? A major challenge for so many anticorruption professionals is trying not to feel overwhelmed or fatigued by the enormity of addressing corruption. I am curious to hear your thoughts on either areas that need more attention or even specific initiatives that have gained traction in recent years which could be replicated more systematically.

  4. Dr. Barrington,

    Thank you for your powerful post. I share similar instincts regarding the two attacks you raise. That said, I still struggle to grasp what the so-called corruption “orthodoxy” necessarily entails? Relatedly, what are the anti-corruption “fundamentals” on which you suggest we all converge? While I agree that we’re better with, than without, major anti-corruption conventions—I do not think many people would contest that—even if they call for more localized approaches. But perhaps I’m wrong? Is there a sizable community calling for the erasure of major anti-corruption conventions?

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