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.