USAID’s New Dekleptification Guide

The U.S. Agency for International Development has just published a draft of what it calls a Dekleptification Guide. “Dekleptification,” the authors explain, is the process by which citizens kick kleptocrats out of power and ensure they stay out. The guide discusses a range of projects the agency could fund to support anti-kleptocrat movements, consolidate post-kleptocratic, democratic orders, and prevent kleptocrats from returning to office.

The agency seeks comments on the feasibility and appropriateness of the projects suggested, whether there are others it has overlooked, and generally whether its analysis and approach to dekleptification meshes with experience to date.  

USAID is one of the largest and most influential providers of foreign assistance — thanks not only to the size of its programs but to the quality of analysis that underpins them. The guide will almost surely have an impact far beyond coining a term to organize thinking about how to end kleptocracy. Members of the anticorruption community should therefore take up the agency’s request for comments.

There is much to applaud in the guide: the importance of understanding the politics of kleptocracy, the role of transparency and accountability in mobilizing support first to rid the country of kleptocrats and then to keep their would-be successors at bay. The case study of how USAID helped Ukraine overcome entrenched kleptocracy, even during the war, describes several innovative programs other donor organizations and their recipients should consider copying.

Many points the guide makes are likely to strike the anticorruption community as obvious. The guide’s principal audience however is not corruption experts but development specialists, mainly those who staff USAID country offices. These professionals may design an agricultural development program one day, oversee a project to expand health care a second day, and judge competing proposals to reform a country’s budget law a third. Even though many of them will by now have more than a passing familiarity with anticorruption programming, it cannot be said too often that at its core kleptocracy is a political issue.

Indeed, Michael Johnston and Scott Fritzen write in their new volume The Conundrum of Corruption that the incentives at work in donor organizations invite ignoring this basic, fundamental fact. That those who fund and those who implement anticorruption programs have every reason to treat corruption in apolitical, technocratic terms, a problem that can be overcome with the right mix of training and the introduction of “best practices.”

One consequence of recognizing the political basis of corruption, the guide explains, is that country offices should generously fund assessments of “the underlying networks through which [corrupt actors] operate” as well as “the reform coalitions and policy priorities” that can undermine them. Emphasizing that a political analysis must identify “actors sympathetic to reform,” the guide authors remind readers of something the anticorruption community itself sometimes forgets, that reformers are found in places besides elite anti-corruption NGOs in national capitals.

The draft guide suggests but does not explain some important changes in program design. It suggests in passing the inclusion in dekleptification programs of “a crisis modifier clause in the award instrument.” I suspect this means a provision that would allow a project to be easily changed if circumstances change. Foreign aid programs are creatures of government budgeting and spending rules that make changing direction a time-consuming process. Ideas on how to introduce more flexibility into anticorruption programming would be welcome by donors and recipients across the board. What do the authors have in mind here?

A second area where more detail would be welcome is on ways to protect corruption fighters from harm. From personal experience, it takes weeks if not months to get the visas and money needed to get a civil society activist or public servant with family to a place of safety. The guide recognizes the importance of furnishing those on the front lines of the fight against corruption “quick access to specialized security services that provide digital, physical, psychological, and other forms of safety,” and in a couple of places references the agency’s Empowering Anticorruption Change Agents Program. It says nothing however about how this program will operate. And more importantly, how quickly it will be able to respond to immediate threats.

Over the years proposals to establish a corruption fighters protection fund have been advanced. It would be run by a small board of notables authorized to immediately disburse funds to those facing imminent threat.  There is always the risk that a threat is overblown, and indeed the existence of such a fund might encourage more threats as one fearing prosecution might generate a threat in the belief that once the prosecutor left the country, the case would be dropped. But a serious fight against kleptocracy generates serious and sometimes deadly opposition as the assassinations of Ernest Manirumva, vice chairman of Burundi’s Observatoire de Lutte Contre la Corruption et les Malversations Economiques, and Ramon Aquino of the Philippines Department of Public Works & Highways demonstrate.

A personal disappointment. The guide overlooks a promising area for donor funding I have often written about (here, here, and here) and on which I have a paper in process for StAR: support for legal actions against kleptocrats and their accomplices. There have been cases, most notably the French prosecution of Teodoro Obiang, where a donor financed the collection of evidence that triggered the criminal prosecution. There have also been civil lawsuits where those injured by corruption have recovered damages. But far too few, especially given that virtually every country has laws that at least in theory provide for civil suits and in some for private prosecutions.    

A notable omission is the absence of any discussion on how those outside a country can contribute to the demise of a kleptocrat. Kleptocracy is, as Johnston and Fritzen explain, the result of “stark imbalances of power that enable the few to exploit the many.” Rarely will civil society and opposition politicians be able to right that balance by themselves. Whenever possible, those in the international community should be enlisted to help tilt the scale, and indeed the guide does mention the role of outsiders in overcoming entrenched corruption in Ukraine’s prosecution service and judiciary.

Where outsiders can be particularly helpful is in investigating and prosecuting kleptocrats and finding and returning money stolen from their citizens. The guide discusses how USAID programs can help chip away at a kleptocrat’s power and thus speed dekleptification, but here the discussion is blinkered, confined almost entirely to recommending that country offices support political analyses of the corruption, independent media, and domestic advocacy. Yet one of the most effective ways to undermine kleptocrats’ grip on power is to prosecute them. For it punctures the aura of impunity that surrounds them. Just ask Jacob Zuma, Teodoro Obiang, Thaksin Shinawatra, or the several Latin American leaders ousted thanks to the Odebrecht scandal.

The guide might recommend support for one or more regional networks of anticorruption investigators and prosecutors. Members would come together regularly to discuss strategy and develop the kind of trusting relationships essential for sharing sensitive information on investigations. Norway’s development agency has for several years funded what has been dubbed the “Corruption Hunters Network.” Members have supported each other’s prosecutions of kleptocrats and helped those under threat find a safe haven.

Much of the guide focuses on what an agency’s country office can do to help a state emerging from kleptocratic rule strengthen democratic institutions and build the rule of law. It rightly emphasizes the importance of building support by showing the public immediate “results around the delivery of salient services, impartial justice, and systemic reforms.” But the guide again overlooks the international dimension: swift action to bar the deposed kleptocrats and accomplices from accessing stolen assets hidden abroad. While absent fortuitous circumstances the return of the assets takes time, orders barring or freezing their movement can quickly issue if the country’s new leadership have the right tools, something that a USAID office should be ready to provide immediately.

USAID’s draft guide represents an important step forward in the international community’s fight against kleptocracy. It merits the close attention of all those involved in that fight.

4 thoughts on “USAID’s New Dekleptification Guide

  1. Thanks for sharing this, Rick. Long overdue. Your comments are surgically targeted. I hope the drafters give them their due.

  2. As a grassroots anticorruption activist of 26 years (and in a stunning upset, current mayor of the city of Cartagena, Colombia) I can vouch that your comments are spot on. you have an excellent grasp of what it is to fight corruption in the trenches – death threats and all sorts of intimidation, legal slugfests, betrayal by allies who sell out to the highest bidder, etc.


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