Equity Crowdfunding: Considerations for Anti-Money Laundering Regulation

Equity crowdfunding involves the use of an internet-based platform to market equity shares in a given company to a wide range of potential investors (the “crowd”). The result is financial democratization of sorts – harnessing the power of the crowd to make many small investments instead of relying on large capital infusions from a relatively small number of sophisticated investors. The key to equity crowdfunding is to keep transaction costs low, so that small businesses are able to participate, without sacrificing investor protection. This latter consideration is especially important given the potentially low financial sophistication of the crowd.

In my last post, I discussed how equity crowdfunding could help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in developing countries overcome corruption-related barriers to accessing finance. Because equity crowdfunding makes use of internet-based platforms, it is particularly useful for cross-border transactions. As a result, SMEs in developing countries that are unable to access finance through traditional means (often because of corruption in domestic capital markets) can use equity crowdfunding platforms to connect with investors outside of their home countries. As with other technology-based tools that have the potential to sidestep the effects of corruption and contribute to economic development, though, there is also reason to be concerned about the opportunities for corruption for which equity crowdfunding could be abused. In particular, equity crowdfunding platforms could be used to facilitate money laundering, in at least two ways: Continue reading

Equity Crowdfunding: A (Partial) Corruption Solution for SMEs

One of the most notorious phenomena in international development is the so-called “missing middle” problem: the scarcity and under-productivity of small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in developing countries. Around the world, SMEs can be a leading source of employment and an important driver of innovation. There is a strong positive correlation between the existence of a robust SME sector and high per-capita GDP. Yet in far too many countries, the potential of the SME sector is not being realized.

One cause of SME sector underdevelopment in developing countries is the inability of SMEs to access start-up capital and financing, which can be the “single most robust determinant of firm growth.” SMEs in developing communities face substantial challenges accessing capital, and as a result are often unable to scale or form in the first place. And corruption plays a central role in preventing access to finance among SMEs—by discouraging foreign direct investment, distorting the banking sector, and increasing the costs of equity capital. While corruption poses a significant problem for businesses in many developing countries, SMEs bear the brunt of the harm. Indeed, 70% of SMEs in the developing world cite corruption as a major barrier to their operations.

In the spirit of technological solutions to work around the barriers and distortions created by endemic corruption, equity crowdfunding is emerging as at least a partial solution for SMEs that require capital but are unable to get it because of corruption. Continue reading

Verdicts and Judicial Strength: Why Convictions Should Not Be the Focus of Anticorruption Efforts

As I discussed in my last post, effective anticorruption enforcement requires a judicial system with the capacity and will to hold powerful defendants criminally liable for their malfeasance. Understandably, then, judicial institutions, especially in developing countries, are often written off as weak or corrupt if they are unable to convict and sentence high-profile corruption defendants. Acquittals can seem synonymous with impunity, regardless of the justifications put forth by the court. On this measure, many domestic judiciaries charged with high-profile cases fail. For example, almost all of the central figures ousted in the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt were ultimately acquitted of all corruption-related charges. Additional examples of high-profile corruption acquittals or dismissals abound around the world (see here, here, here, here, and here).

To be sure, the inability of many judiciaries to hold high-profile corruption defendants criminally accountable is often indicative of underlying problems in the court system, and these problems must be addressed. At the same time, though, I worry that domestic and international constituencies sometimes put too much emphasis on individual verdicts, or overall conviction rates, as the measure of judicial effectiveness. While these indicators can provide important information, overemphasizing guilty verdicts in particular corruption cases, or overall conviction rates, could actually be counterproductive to anticorruption progress, for at least three reasons: Continue reading

CICIG’s Achilles Heel: Suggestions for Reforming the Guatemalan Judiciary

In 2015, an innovative institution in Guatemala—the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG)—got a lot of attention (including from me on this blog). Among CICIG’s triumphs last year were the resignations and arrests of former Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxanna Baldetti on corruption-related charges following a Guatemalan Spring of sorts. Perez was formally charged in December with illicit association, customs fraud, and bribery. He maintains his innocence, claiming to be a scapegoat and arguing that nothing has changed about corruption in Guatemala except that he is now in jail. Unfortunately, without major changes he is likely to be right on the latter point. To be sure, removals of corrupt leaders like Perez and Baldetti are victories. But while Perez’s fall from grace and the general outpouring of public anticorruption sentiment in Guatemala are cause for great optimism, there is reason for trepidation as his case moves toward trial this year.

The reason is a decade-old compromise made during CICIG’s founding based on national sovereignty concerns. A Guatemalan court ruled that CICIG would be unconstitutional if empowered to try cases outside of the Guatemalan judicial apparatus. As a result, the success of CICIG and its proposed spin-offs remains inextricably tied to the strength of domestic institutions. CICIG can investigate and support prosecutorial efforts, but must rely on the domestic judiciary to hear its cases. Unfortunately, domestic governments across Central America remain notoriously corrupt. Even after a decade of CICIG’s efforts toward capacity building, the Guatemalan government is no exception. The Guatemalan court system is largely defined in Guatemalan citizens’ political consciousness by its inability to obtain convictions in important cases. Reform of the judiciary must be a central focus of anticorruption efforts going forward. The following challenges should be prioritized: Continue reading

Fighting Corruption in Central America: Suggestions for Improving the CICIG Model

There has been a great deal of optimism surrounding Guatemala’s International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) in recent months. This UN-sponsored body, in existence since 2006, played a key role in exposing a massive customs fraud scheme that implicated the nation’s president and vice president. Both leaders are currently awaiting trial in Guatemala following their resignations and arrests. Following talk, including on this blog, about the merits of instituting CICIG-like bodies in other Central American nations, a Honduran version of CICIG is now set to become operational in 2016. As I discussed in a previous post, CICIG’s counterparts in Honduras and El Salvador are less robust (as currently formulated) than CICIG, though ultimately their effectiveness will depend on the strength of their leadership.

Yet notwithstanding CICIG’s recent high-profile successes, there are some important weaknesses in the CICIG model–weaknesses that reformers should consider and address before CICIG-like structures can be fully embraced as the solution to corruption and impunity in Central America. Key areas for improvement include the following: Continue reading

Close But No CICIGar… Yet: Replicating Guatemala’s Anticorruption Success

Guatemala’s international commission against impunity (known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG) played a pivotal role in answering widespread public demand this year for accountability for corruption in the government. CICIG’s investigations led to the resignations and arrests of top government officials—including the former president and vice president—following their involvement in a large-scale customs scandal. CICIG’s perceived success has let to calls in other countries for adopting (or adapting) the CICIG model elsewhere. For example, public outcry in Honduras over a healthcare scandal culminated in a proposal for a Honduran version of CICIG, to be led by the Organization of American States and formally titled the “Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras.” (Like CICIG, this body will also be known by its acronym in Spanish, MACCIH). There have also been calls to replicate CICIG in El Salvador (which thus far have led only to the continuation of a USAID-sponsored anticorruption initiative rather than creation of a full-fledged CICIG clone), most recently, in Venezuela.

These other governments, however, are resisting calls for full-fledged CICIG clones, and the existing or proposed institutions, like MACCIH in Honduras or the USAID initiative in El Salvador–have been met with skepticism. For example, many Honduran critics point to MACCIH’s limited mission as evidence of its limited effect. Indeed, many suspect that the Honduran government agreed to MACCIH precisely because its work is likely to be duplicative and ineffective, mainly focused on study and recommending improvements; the call for further study is seen, probably accurately, as a delaying tactic until the next election rather than a practical step forward. Anticorruption activists in Honduras have therefore introduced a bill that rejects MACCIH, calling it a governmental ploy to placate demand and avoid accountability, and requests a more CICIG-like body in its place.

To a certain extent, this skepticism is justified: both MACCIH and the Salvadoran USAID initiative are watered-down substitutes for CICIG at best. Nonetheless, the outlook may not be as bleak as it seems. CICIG may seem exemplary now, especially in comparison to MACCIH and the USAID initiative, but it was not always perceived this way. Many of the preconditions for CICIG’s recent success developed with its work over time. This is a cause for some optimism regarding the prospects for the “CICIG-lite” initiatives in El Salvador and Honduras, despite their limited mandate and powers. Nonetheless, certain structural problems–mainly related to funding and independence–are more worrisome. Continue reading

Not Corrupt, Not a Thief, But Not the Answer: Jimmy Morales and Corruption in Guatemala

Last month, Guatemalans went to the presidential runoff polls and elected former comedian Jimmy Morales in a landslide over former first lady Sandra Torres. Morales ran as an anticorruption candidate; his slogan, “not corrupt, not a thief,” says it all. Not being a thief might seem like a low bar for a presidential candidate, but Morales’s election shows that such qualifications are apparently and alarmingly sufficient in Guatemala. Despite never having held public office or having been involved much in politics as a private citizen (unless racism and cultural insensitivity count), Morales was a well-known and available outsider in the right place at the right time. Indeed, Morales seems to have gotten elected not despite but rather because of his lack of experience and prior political involvement—characteristics that were valuable assets against the backdrop of widespread public outcry against corruption in Guatemala over the last several months, culminating in the resignations and arrests of President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti in September.

Many hail Morales’s victory as an indication that the anticorruption movement reached a tipping point and created change in Guatemala. But there are at least three reasons to worry that far from an anticorruption success, electing Morales may be a setback or at least a non-event for anti-corruption and democracy in Guatemala. Continue reading