Nation-Building and Corruption: A Warning from French Vietnam

Nation-building has long been a popular project—albeit a controversial one—among Western nations. Nation-building is a complicated activity, one that requires balancing such a wide variety of considerations, and making hard choices about what areas to prioritize. As a result, anticorruption is sometimes neglected or ignored in the nation-building process. This, however, is a mistake. Unchecked corruption can have devastating effects on nation-building. And while contemporary critics make this point in the context of modern nation-building initiatives, such as U.S.-led efforts in Afghanistan, there are also compelling historical illustrations of how tolerance of corruption can help derail the nation-building project. One such lesson comes from the French experience during the First Indochina War.

Though France had held on to Vietnam with ease from the mid-nineteenth century to the early days of World War II, the post-war era spelled trouble for the French Empire in Southeast Asia. The Viet Minh, a burgeoning nationalist force led by Ho Chi Minh, challenged French colonial dominance in the region, eventually securing the support of China and the Soviet Union. By the early 1950s, France’s military campaign against Ho’s guerrilla forces was flailing. So, rather than trying to continue to hold Vietnam as a colonial territory, French leaders decided to create an independent Vietnamese state. In attempting to build this new country, however, French leaders turned a blind eye to a corruption scheme—the so-called “Piastres Affair”—that would gravely weaken this enterprise.

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Guest Post: How One Family Is Capturing the Sri Lankan State

Today’s guest post is from Professor Liz David-Barrett, Director of the Centre for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex.

Sri Lanka, a fragile democracy that emerged from a 26-year civil war only in 2009, is on the verge of becoming a captured state, thanks to a concerted power grab by the Rajapaksa family. When Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president in late 2019, he appointed his brother Mahinda to serve as both premier and Finance Minister. He later relieved Mahinda of the latter role, but replaced him with another brother. A fourth brother is Minister of Irrigation, and Mahinda’s son runs another two ministries. All told, Ministries run by the Rajapaksa family control an estimated 24% of the state budget. And another six Members of Parliament are members of the family. The Rajapaksas have further extended their control by appointing allies (including other family members) to other high-ranking government jobs and leadership roles in state-owned enterprises.

Even more troubling than the extent of the Rajapaska family’s dominance over Sri Lankan government is the way in which the Rajapaksas are using the familiar state capture playbook to ensure that they stay in power:

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NGOs, Dark Money, and Corruption: Lessons from Ohio’s Biggest Public Corruption Scandal

Ohio public utility giant FirstEnergy pled guilty June 20 to capturing or at least renting the Ohio state legislature long enough to win passage of financial bailout legislation. The picture below shows how the company used third-parties and cut-outs to hide its campaign to get Ohio’s legislature to do its bidding.

As with all large corruption schemes, several lessons can be learned from its unraveling.  One comes from the picture itself: how a well-designed graphic can make a complex, convoluted corruption scheme readily understandable. A second is how savvy prosecutors can craft plea agreements to curb future corruption.  A third is a step the Biden Administration could take to make it easier to ferret out those behind some of the dark money now plaguing American politics.

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Guest Post: Illicit Enrichment Laws and the Presumption of Innocence

GAB is pleased to welcome this guest post by Andrew Dornbierer of the Basel Institute on Governance, author of the recently released open-access book Illicit Enrichment: A Guide to Laws Targeting Unexplained Wealth.

Laws targeting illicit enrichment are increasingly prevalent. To date, at least 98 jurisdictions have some form of illicit enrichment law. While the design and scope of these laws vary—some are criminal laws that can be used to convict individuals who control assets disproportionate to their lawful income, while others are civil laws that allow governments to seize assets whose lawful origins cannot be adequately explained—the common characteristic of all illicit enrichment laws is that they do not require prosecutors to secure a conviction for the underlying criminal conduct that allegedly produced the illicit wealth. Rather, illicit enrichment laws only require that the government show that the person enjoyed an amount of wealth that cannot be explained by reference to their lawful sources of income.

This characteristic serves as the primary point of attack for many critics. They claim that by not requiring a state to prove criminal activity, illicit enrichment laws effectively reverse the burden of proof, requiring the targets of the enforcement action to prove their innocence. And some countries have resisted adopting illicit enrichment laws for this very reason. While the UN Convention Against Corruption includes a specific article recommending that state parties consider adopting illicit enrichment laws, during negotiations “many [national] delegations indicated that they faced serious difficulties, often of a constitutional nature, with the inclusion of the concept of the reversal of the burden of proof.” Similar concerns were raised during the drafting of the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption (IACAC), and while in the end this convention did include a provision calling on states parties to adopt illicit enrichment laws, the United States filed a particularly clear reservation to this provision when it joined, noting that because “[t]he offense of illicit enrichment … places the burden of proof on the defendant,” such an offense “is inconsistent with the United States Constitution and fundamental principles of the United States legal system.” And in Ukraine, in February 2019 the Constitutional Court of Ukraine invalidated the local illicit enrichment law on the basis that it was inconsistent with the presumption of innocence.

Is there any truth to the claim that illicit enrichment laws unfairly place a burden of proof on the defendant, and thus violate the presumption of innocence?

The short answer is no.

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To Cut Corruption in the Palestinian Authority, Cut Off Development Aid

Foreign development aid plays a unique role in the lives of Palestinians, as aid is the main driver of growth in the Palestinian economy. For this reason, many people welcomed the Biden Administration’s announcement in April to reverse the Trump Administration’s decision to halt all development aid to Palestinians. Yet widespread corruption in the Palestinian Authority (PA)—which remains the principal recipient of aid to Palestinians—threatens to undermine the effectiveness of aid. Worse, foreign aid to the PA helps perpetuate and exacerbate the PA’s culture of corruption.

Corruption in the PA is deeply entrenched. To illustrate with just a handful of many possible examples: Between 2008 and 2012 alone, over US$2.3 billion in development aid money from the European Union to the PA was embezzled. In 2017, the PA spent staggering sums on fake companies and projects, including a non-existent airline. Rather than develop welfare programs to distribute social services or development aid money to the public, the PA allocates the money to salary payouts for security officers and government officials in job placements secured by cronyism. High-ranking PA officials regularly establish their own NGOs and phony companies to attract additional funds from aid programs. Yet for the most part donors have turned a blind eye to the PA’s blatant corruption and mismanagement of development funds. (For instance, even when investigators reported PA officials’ massive embezzlement of EU aid funds, the EU did not discontinue the provision of aid.) Consequently, despite more than US$15 billion in development aid given to Palestinians in the past thirty years, that aid has failed to reduce poverty or deliver sustainable improvements in ordinary Palestinians’ quality life.

And it’s not just that the PA’s corruption undermines the effectiveness of aid. Perhaps the even bigger problem is that the flow of development aid contributes to and props up the PA’s culture of large-scale corruption. The more funding the PA can access, the more powerful it becomes, and the more capable it is of embezzling funds and extorting bribes from its populace. Worse still, the costs of the corruption that the aid to the PA fuels are not merely economic costs: In Palestine, corruption contributes to needless violence, political radicalization, and, ultimately, the loss of innocent lives.

The only way to break out of this malignant cycle is for donors to call a halt to unfettered development aid to Palestinian government institutions, which have proven themselves time and again to be too weak and unscrupulous to handle aid without corruption.

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A Dearth of Data in the De-Risking Debate

As readers of this blog are likely well aware, the fight against grand corruption is closely linked to the fight against money laundering. After all, kleptocrats and others involved in grand corruption need to hide the origins of their ill-gotten wealth. While the criminals who seek to launder their illicit cash are sometimes prosecuted for money laundering, much of the burden of the anti-money laundering (AML) regime falls on banks and other financial institutions. These institutions have obligations to perform due diligence on prospective clients—especially those clients with attributes suggesting high risk—and to report suspicious transaction to the government. Financial institutions can be held liable for failing to fulfill these obligations, and in some cases for their complicity in money laundering schemes. Yet many advocates believe that the current AML framework is not stringent enough, and have called for reforms that would impose additional obligations, and potential liabilities, on the financial institutions that handle clients and transactions that pose a high money laundering risk.

Banks and other skeptics often resist these reforms, arguing not only that the various proposals will do little to reduce money laundering, but also that more stringent AML regulations will lead to a phenomenon known as “de-risking.” This piece of industry jargon refers to the practice of ending or avoiding relationships with individuals or businesses perceived as “high risk” for money laundering. Of course, we want banks to eschew an individual client or transaction with characteristics that suggest a high probability of money laundering. But when banks and others warn about de-risking, they are referring to a phenomenon in which banks refuse to do business with broad categories of clients – for instance, those from particular countries or regions, or in specific lines of business – despite the fact that most of the individuals or firms in that category do not actually present a serious money laundering risk. If the monitoring costs and legal risks associated with certain kinds of accounts are too high relative to the value of those accounts, the argument goes, it’s easier for banks to simply close all of the accounts in the “de-risked” category. But this indiscriminate closure of allegedly risky accounts cuts off many deserving people, firms, and organizations from much-needed financial services.

Is de-risking really a significant problem? Skeptics might observe that the financial industry has incentives to resist more stringent AML regulation, and their warnings of de-risking may be, if not deliberately pretextual, then at least self-serving. That said, other actors, including non-profit groups, have alleged that they have experienced account closures due to de-risking. So the concern is likely a real one. Still, to set rational AML policy, we would want to know not just whether de-risking is a potential problem (it is) or whether it occurs sometimes (it probably does); we would want to know whether it is a systematic and serious problem, one that would likely be exacerbated by a significant enhancement of banks’ AML obligations.

So, what do we know about the extent and magnitude of de-risking in response to AML regulations? The short answer is: not much.

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Guest Post: How Not To Balance Efficiency and Integrity in Public Procurement–The Case of Italy

Today’s guest post is from Roberta De Paolis, a Ph.D. researcher in criminal Law at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies.

In designing an effective public procurement system, a key challenge is striking the proper balance between ensuring efficiency and promoting integrity. But emergency situations make it hard to maintain an appropriate balance, as the response to the global Covid-19 pandemic has again demonstrated. When confronted with an urgent situation, governments often allow the need for speed to trump the interest in transparency and oversight, and thus grant public procurement authorities exemptions from the ordinary rules and monitoring procedures.

If one wants to find a good example of how not to address the challenge of striking the right balance between these competing interests, one need look no further than Italy. Rather than design a system that can ensure an appropriate degree of integrity without stifling efficiency, while at the same time building in adequate flexibility to handle urgent situations appropriately, the Italian public procurement system is characterized by a set of overly rigid, stifling baseline rules, from which the government has created a set of overly broad discretionary exceptions to address situations in which the application of the usual rules is untenable.

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Castles of Corruption

Owning a castle has never been easier. In 2017, Italy’s State Property Agency made international headlines by announcing that the country would be giving away over a hundred castles for free. The only catch? Takers must promise to restore the dilapidated structures and turn them into tourist sites. (The program builds on an existing initiative in which the Agency gives historical federally-owned properties to local authorities for restoration.) At first glance, this program looks like a win for everyone. The Italian federal government no longer has to deal with crumbling historic castles, the properties will be cleaned up and made available to tourists, and lucky entrepreneurs and local governments can reap the profits. Unfortunately, however, there are reasons to worry that this program, like so many other castle restoration initiatives, will end up sapped by corruption, money laundering, collusion, and nepotism.

 Corruption and related malfeasance is quite common in the context of castle ownership and restoration. This is not all that surprising, given that corruption is a perennial issue within the construction industry as a whole. All of the usual problems in that sector—including bribery in the bidding process, collusion to funnel work to friends and family, embezzlement, and the substitution of substandard materials—apply in the specific context of castle restoration. On top of that, real estate has long been a favorite of those involved in money laundering due to the lower scrutiny that real property transactions receive, at least in comparison to stock or other commodities. But in addition to these familiar risk factors, castle restoration projects have several additional distinctive features that make them even more vulnerable to corruption than comparable construction projects and real estate transactions:

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Why Paying the Media to Uncover Corruption Would Work in India

Jennifer Kline’s recent post on this blog proposed a novel way to support and encourage investigative journalism that exposes corruption: When such exposés result in legal actions that impose substantial monetary penalties on wrongdoers, the responsible media outlet should receive a percentage of the penalty as a reward—comparable to how some countries have programs that pay whistleblowers a percentage of any monetary recoveries that result from the original information that the whistleblowers supplied. While Jennifer’s discussion of this idea was fairly general, and seemed to have in mind implementation in countries like the United States, her proposal may be especially suitable for a country like India. 

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Anticorruption Bibliography–July 2021 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. Additionally, the bibliography is available in more user-friendly, searchable from at Global Integrity’s Anti-Corruption Corpus website.

As always, I welcome suggestions for other sources that are not yet included, including any papers GAB readers have written.