The U.S. State Department’s New International Anticorruption Champions Awards Are a Winning Strategy in the Fight Against Corruption

This past February, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken launched one of the first foreign policy initiatives of the new Biden administration: the inaugural International Anticorruption Champions Awards. After receiving nominations from U.S. embassies around the world, the State Department honored a dozen individuals who made significant contributions to combatting corruption in their home countries. The recipients of the International Anticorruption Champions Awards were diverse in every sense of the word. They spanned six continents, represented national and local governments, state-owned companies, and non-governmental organizations. The awardees came from countries big and small, were young and old, and a third were women.

These awards added to a growing movement to provide formal international recognition to those who are leading the fight against corruption in their home countries. Transparency International has recognized such individuals and organizations through their Anti-Corruption Awards semi-annually since 2013, and the United Nations’ Rule of Law and Anti-Corruption Center established the annual International Anti-Corruption Excellence Award in 2016. But, importantly, the International Anticorruption Champions Awards mark the first time that one sovereign country—and a major global power at that—officially recognized and honored anticorruption advocacy in other countries.

While it might be tempting to dismiss these awards as empty symbolism (or worse), this would be a mistake. That the U.S. government has created these awards, and apparently intends to continue to issue them annually, is a significant positive contribution to the global fight against corruption, for several reasons.

  • First, by leveraging the on-the-ground knowledge and resources of U.S. embassies, the awards are an opportunity to showcase new anticorruption heroes. A few recipients were names familiar to the anticorruption community, such as Juan Francisco Sandoval Alfaro of Guatemala and Diana Salazar of Ecuador, both of whom courageously prosecuted and convicted some of the highest-profile corruption cases in their respective countries’ histories. But other recipients were less well-known internationally. These include Victor Sotto, the young Philippine mayor of a city outside of Manila, who spearheaded the implementation of landmark freedom of information legislation and established new oversight mechanisms to reduce bribery in public contracting, and Sophia Pretrick, an investigative advisor within the state public auditor in the Federated States of Micronesia, who partnered with a non-profit to produce a wildly popular pop song to educate young people about different forms of corruption and their unique role in the anticorruption movement. Not only is it refreshing to see and hear from new figures, but highlighting anticorruption success at the state and local level can potentially have a far greater impact than focusing on national figures. Corruption may actually be more prevalent at the local level, and anticorruption efforts targeted at this localized corruption tend to have a higher chance of success. These inspiring stories can both educate and inspire similar activism.
  • Second, while recognition from non-profits and international organizations is important, recognition from the United States could have a larger and more immediate impact. The United States still has an unparalleled ability to influence other nations’ behavior without military or economic force—so-called soft power. Honoring anticorruption heroes is a way for the United States to deploy this soft power to support and encourage domestic anticorruption activism. One need only look at the excited media coverage in the countries of award recipients to see U.S. soft power at work (see here, here, and here). In fact, after Mustafa Abdullah Sanalla, the chairman of Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC), received his award for preserving accountability and oversight, the wider leadership of the NOC convened a large celebration to honor Sanalla for his “prestigious international award.” For a hesitant would-be anticorruption activist, the desire to be lauded as a “champion” against corruption, especially by the United States, could be a significant additional motivating factor.
  • Third, the awards are an indicator that the United States is adopting a more proactive anticorruption approach. The United States has typically addressed international corruption in a reactive way, focusing on punishment of wrongdoers—for example, by prosecuting bribe-paying companies under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or imposing targeted individual sanctions pursuant to statutes like the Global Magnitsky Act. The positive reinforcement of successful anticorruption efforts complements these more reactive and punitive efforts. More generally, it is encouraging that the Biden administration considers anticorruption important enough to address within its first month in office, and, even more encouragingly, the State Department also hinted that the awards are part of a broader U.S. strategy to address corruption worldwide.
  • Fourth, the United States, as the longest continuously running democracy, bears a special responsibility to reinforce democratic norms, including the norm that retaliation against dissenters is unacceptable. The awards reinforced this message, as several of the recipients who faced harsh abuse for their activism came from democracies. Winner Dhuha Mohammed suffered repeated personal and professional attacks in order to implement the Central Bank of Iraq’s first electronic payment system for government workers, aimed at detecting and exposing payroll corruption. Awardee Anjali Bhardwaj, a leader in the Indian freedom of information community, explained that she and other anticorruption activists face debilitating resistance from their government as a result of their work, ranging from name-calling to terrorism charges and even incarceration. And Bolot Temirov, honored for his work as editor-in-chief of the leading anticorruption website in the Kyrgyz Republic, was physically attacked after his site published a story detailing extensive corruption by a high-level government official. The United States’ recognition of these activists’ heroic efforts and implicit condemnation of their home countries’ responses is a significant normative signal about what is expected in a democracy when citizens speak out against the government.

For these reasons, it would be a mistake to view these awards as just an empty gesture. To be sure, some might accuse the United States of hypocrisy, or worse, in giving out awards for anticorruption in light of the numerous allegations against President Biden’s predecessor. And some might question the State Department’s motives, suspecting that the awards are more about advancing U.S. foreign policy interests than about promoting good government. Even those who are not so cynical might wonder if such public recognition of individuals by the U.S. government is advisable. After all, if one of the recipients later turns out to be engaged in corruption or other misconduct, this could be a source of embarrassment. More importantly, the awards could backfire if they feed into a narrative propounded by corrupt governments that anticorruption activists are U.S. stooges—“traitors” who are “backed by the CIA.”

Even when taking these concerns into account, on the whole the benefits of the International Anticorruption Champions Awards far exceed any potential downsides. While it remains to be seen whether and how the International Anticorruption Champions Awards will impact anticorruption efforts in the recipients’ home countries and beyond, the awards are an important step toward de-normalizing corruption and celebrating those who work against it.

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