The New Frontier: Using Artificial Intelligence To Help Fight Corruption

In January 2018, scientists from Valladolid, Spain brought a piece of inspiring news to anticorruption advocates: they created an artificial intelligence (AI) system that can predict in which Spanish provinces are at higher risk for corruption, and also identifies the variables that are associated with greater corruption (including the real estate tax, inflated housing prices, the opening of bank branches, and the establishment of new companies, among others). This is hardly the first example of computer technology being used in the fight against corruption. Governments, international organizations, and civil society organizations have already been mining “big data” (see, for example, here and here) and using mobile apps to encourage reporting (see, for example, here and here). What makes the recent Spanish innovation notable is its use of AI.

AI is a cluster of technologies that are distinct in their ability to “learn,” rather than relying solely on the instructions specified in advance by human programmers. AI systems come in several types, including “machine learning” (in which a computer analyzes large quantities of data to identify patterns, which in turn enables the machine to perform tasks and make predictions when confronted with new information) and more advanced “deep learning” systems that can find patterns in unstructured data – in hundreds of thousands of dimensions – and can obtain something resembling human cognitive capabilities, though capable of making predictions beyond normal human capacity.

AI is a potentially transformative technology in many fields, including anticorruption. Consider three examples of the anticorruption potential of AI systems:

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Integrity Pacts: A Contractual Approach to Facilitate Civic Monitoring of Public Procurement

Public procurement is one of the highest risk areas for corruption. A public project contaminated with corruption is a recipe for disaster: ordinary citizens suffer from substandard facilities and services; competitive companies lose out when the bidding is rigged; and government money vanishes without making a difference. To rein in procurement corruption in, improving transparency and civic monitoring is vital. That’s why an “integrity pact” (IP)—a legally-binding contractual provision that commits all parties to comply with anticorruption best practices from the time the tender is designed to the completion of the project—can be such a useful tool.

An IP is more than a demonstration of commitment to avoid corruption practices on the part of its signatories. An IP contains obligations for bidders and government authorities, among other things, to refrain from offering or accepting bribes and to disclose all contract expenses and commissions; the IP also sets out sanctions for non-compliance, such as termination of the contract, liability for damages, or debarment from future public contracts. Perhaps most importantly, an IP creates a monitoring process where an Independent External Monitor—which can be an individual, a civil society organization, or a group with combined expertise and technical support—independently scrutinizes the deal for any anomaly or violation of the IP, and ensures proper implementation of the contract and the satisfaction of all stakeholders’ obligations. To execute these functions, the monitor is entrusted to examine government tender documents, bidders’ proposals, and evaluator’ assessment reports of the bids, to visit construction sites and contractor offices, and to facilitate exchange with the local communities and public hearings.

IPs have previously been used in public procurement projects in many countries, including Romania, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Portugal, Hungary, Latvia, Poland, Greece, Italy, India, and many others. It’s notable that many of the states that have embraced IPs are countries where governments have a long track record of corruption and abuse of power. IPs have at least three roles to play to help facilitate transparency and civic monitoring so as to safeguard the competitiveness and fairness of the procurement process:

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How “Scandalizing” Corruption Can Backfire

High profile corruption scandals are making headlines almost every day: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is embroiled in multiple bribery allegations; Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) was convicted for his involvement in corruption; Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was forced to resign after his allies were caught on tape buying political support to defeat his impeachment vote. The list could go on and on. And one cannot help noticing that the media coverage of these high-profile corruption cases often focuses on the most lurid, sensational aspects of individual politicians’ corrupt behavior. For example, as the Netanyahu probes unfolded, the Israeli media emphasized the juicy details: how Netanyahu and his wife were bribed with Cuban cigars and Dom Pérignon worth up to $130,000, the state’s annual allocation of approximately $3,000 for the PM’s pistachio ice cream supply, and his son’s bragging of how his father pushed through a gas deal caught on tape in a strip club. And this is but one example. It seems that corruption cases are often covered as if they were TV dramas, with entertaining plot twists and voyeuristic appeal. To put this in the terminology developed by Shanto Iyengar in his book on how TV news frames political issues, much of the contemporary media coverage of corruption tends to be “episodic” (focusing on individual stories or specific events, putting the issues in a more subjective light, and including sensational or provocative content) as opposed to “thematic” (more systematic, abstract, and in-depth, and providing a wider context for a more nuanced understanding of the causes and trends).

Such salacious coverage of corruption is perhaps unavoidable; these tawdry details attract more readers and viewers than dry reporting on financial misdeeds and back-room negotiations. And one might think that such coverage would be more effective in motivating citizens to take action against corruption—whether through votes, protests, organizing, or other means. After all, as Jimmy Chalk argued last year on this blog, anticorruption narratives can be more effective when they include dramatic stories with virtuous heroes and sinister villains. That may well be true for narratives fashioned by activists in the context of a campaign, but for news reporting, the episodic/scandal-centric approach may be counterproductive, for three main reasons:

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The Missing Piece in UK’s Unexplained Wealth Order Mechanism

All of a sudden politicians, public figures, and oligarchs – such as Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Ignor Shuvalov and former Nigerian Oil Minister Diezani Alison-Madueke – have to explain how they are able to afford the swanky apartments in London’s posh Mayfair neighborhood on their modest official salaries. This is due to the UK’s new Criminal Finances Act (CFA), which came into force in February and is meant to crack down on the flow of dirty money into the UK—a flow that has given London in particular a reputation as a “Death Star” of global kleptocracy. Most notably, the CFA adds a new investigative tool, the Unexplained Wealth Order (UWO), into the civil recovery regime. Originally proposed by Transparency International UK a few years ago, a UWO is an order granted by the High Court in cases where there are reasonable grounds to believe (1) the respondent owns some property worth more than £50,000; (2) either the respondent is a politically exposed person (PEP), or the respondent or a person connected to the respondent has been involved in a serious crime; and (3) respondent’s lawfully earned income would not be sufficient to obtain the property in question. If there are reasonable grounds to believe that each of these three conditions is satisfied, the High Court may issue an order requiring the respondent to provide information regarding the nature of her interests in the property in question and how she was able to lawfully obtained such property. If the respondent is unable to provide a reasonable explanation, the UK Government can subsequently initiate the civil forfeiture process and seize these assets.

Lauded as “a powerful new weapon in[] the anti-corruption arsenal,” UWOs are expected to be particularly helpful when there is no conviction against the respondents in their countries of origin, or when efforts to get a corrupt foreign government to cooperate with investigations have led to naught. Moreover, even though UWOs are a civil enforcement mechanism, the information they uncover may be useful in pursuing criminal investigations, and if respondents recklessly or knowingly make false statements or mislead the enforcement body in responding to an order, they may be criminally prosecuted. There’s already some evidence that the new law will make a difference: In March, a month after the promulgation of the CFA, two UWOs were issued requiring a tycoon in Central Asia to explain how he is able to afford real properties in the UK totaling £22 million.

Yet notwithstanding the enthusiasm for UWOs in some quarters, the effectiveness of the UFO mechanism is likely to be hampered by an important missing piece in the UK’s anticorruption framework, namely an effective means for ensuring genuine transparency regarding the beneficial ownership of real and movable property. Without knowing who really owns what, the new law is unlikely to realize its full potential, and indeed may not make much difference outside of a handful of cases involving particularly careless criminals.

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How Can an Anticorruption Agency Repair Its Reputation After a Scandal? Lessons from Ghana

Corruption-plagued countries often create independent anticorruption agencies (ACAs) to ensure the integrity of other institutions. But sometimes ACAs get caught up in their own scandals—scandals that can undermine their credibility and hard-won public trust. ACAs may be particularly at risk because of the threat they pose to powerful elites, who will always be on the lookout for ways to undercut ACAs. Of course, ACAs should be attuned to these risks and to put measures in place to minimize them. But no preventative system is perfect. What to do when it fails? When an ACA’s reputation has been besmirched by an internal corruption scandal, what can the agency do to restore public trust?

Ghana’s experience may offer some lessons. In 2008, Ghana established the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ), which is responsible for anticorruption enforcement, among other things. CHRAJ has done much good work, from conducting investigations of corruption allegations to producing conflict-of-interest guidelines and a code of conduct. But in 2011, the CHRAJ was rocked by an internal scandal when it was revealed that Lauretta Lamptey, then chief of the CHRAJ, had misappropriated public funds to renovate her official residence, to pay hotel bills, and to upgrade her air tickets. The scandal “dented the image of the CHRAJ both nationally and internationally” and jeopardized public trust in the CHRAJ and the willingness of Ghanaian citizens to report corruption cases to the commission.

Damage control was absolutely crucial—and seems to have been largely successful. According to the US State Department’s Ghana 2016 Human Rights Report, public confidence in the CHRAJ is again high. The CHRAJ’s relative success in restoring credibility after its internal corruption scandal suggests a few guidelines for how an ACA can respond effectively in this sort of situation:

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China’s Anticorruption System 2.0: A Harbinger of Rule of Law?

In his three-and-a-half-hour speech at China’s 19th Party Congress last month, President Xi Jinping demonstrated his determination to maintain his vigorous anticorruption campaign. But he also proposed a number of significant changes, including (1) the creation of a new National Supervision Commission (NSC), along with supervision commissions (SCs) at the provincial, municipal, and county levels, to spearhead China’s anticorruption efforts, (2) the adoption of new national legislation, the Supervision Law, that includes improved procedural protections for the accused, and (3) the integration of China’s obligations under international anticorruption treaties into domestic law.

For the most part, Western commentators were unimpressed (for example, see Tom’s previous post). The establishment of the NSC was characterized as “essentially another power expansion of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI),” while the reforms related to protections for the accused were seen as little more than the “replace[ment of] one abusive detention system with another.” I beg to differ. This reform plan, while incomplete and inadequate in some respects, is a big step forward from where China stands now. While it would be a mistake to be overly optimistic before any positive change actually takes place, it would also be a mistake to dismiss these new reforms out of hand as insignificant or cosmetic. Any movement toward greater judicialization and respect for the rule of law in China is likely to be incremental and face pushback. Understood in that context, the three announced reforms noted above seem quite significant, and mark a notable break with China’s previous approach to anticorruption enforcement.

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No Silver Bullet: Why Ukrainian Anticorruption Activists Should Not Fixate on Creating a Specialized Anticorruption Court

Ukrainian civil society activists have been aggressively campaigning for the establishment of an independent anticorruption court (see, for example, here, here, and here), in which international donors and other partners would participate in the selection of judges. Until very recently, President Poroshenko had vigorously resisted this campaign, asserting that “all courts in the country should be anti-corruption,” and proposing instead to have an anticorruption chamber within the current court system as part of his judicial reform plan. Yet in a surprising turn of events, on October 4th President Poroshenko appeared to yield to the demand of activists and international pressure to create such a court.

Poroshenko’s flip-flop seems to be a major victory for anticorruption activists in Ukraine. Yet it might be too early to celebrate. As promising as it sounds, a specialized anticorruption court is unlikely to live up to Ukrainian activists’ expectations. In a country like Ukraine—an oligarchic democracy in which governmental power is not delineated clearly by the constitution or legal framework, the executive is not effectively checked by the judiciary, and businesses are entangled with politics—the creation of a new judicial body is unlikely to be a game-changer. Moreover, in focusing so much on the campaign to create a specialized anticorruption court, domestic and international activists may be diverting energy and resources from more important issues, such as reforming the Prosecutor General’s Office (PGO), strengthening the role of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), and adopting more comprehensive political and economic reforms reduce the clout of the country’s oligarchs.

There are two main reasons that the proposed Ukrainian anticorruption court is unlikely to live up to activists’ expectations:

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