What Would Senator Warren’s Anticorruption Bill Really Mean for Advocacy Groups? 

Last month, Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced her Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, a 300-page blueprint for how to counter the structural enablers of public corruption in the United States. Included among her many proposals (which are detailed at length here) is a set of new lobbying regulations. Many civil society groups—most notably Oxfam—have praised the bill for bringing “an end to lobbying as we know it.” This enthusiasm is understandable, as few professions are decried with the special fervor Americans reserve for lobbyists. The very word conjures up images of slick, well-heeled, sleazy political operators who manipulate and corrupt the political system for their corporate clients. But of course lobbyists are a much more diverse group. Some lobbyists work for big pharma, banks, or the gun industry, but others work for the girl scouts, the environment, or the poor. Indeed, some work within anticorruption organizations. And so while there are many things to like about Senator Warren’s bill, including many of the proposed new lobbying regulations, it’s a bit odd that none of the anticorruption organizations that have praised the bill (see, for example, here and here) appear to have acknowledged (at least publicly) how the bill’s lobbying restrictions would affect their own work.

With that in mind, there are at least four aspects of the Warren bill that should concern anticorruption groups and other civil society advocacy organizations:

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“We Have to Reclaim Our City”: Lessons From the “Eye People”

Last year, a 22-year-old Afghan woman went to a local government office to get documentation to travel abroad. She was promptly turned away because she was not accompanied by her father or husband, and because she refused to pay the official a small bribe to overlook this detail. As recently as a few years ago, she may have paid the bribe. But things had changed. Defiantly, she confronted the official and proclaimed: “I will go to the eye people.”

The “eye people” she invoked are three activists—Lima Ahmad, Kabir Mokamel, and Omaid Sharifi—who in 2014 founded a grass-roots anticorruption movement in Afghanistan called ArtLords. ArtLords (whose name is a deliberate play on the “warlords” and “drug lords” that too often define Afghanistan’s image) seeks to raise awareness about corruption and other social issues (including women’s rights and domestic terrorism) by empowering youth to “have a say in how we run the government” and giving them the courage and a forum to speak out on these issues. ArtLords’ founders began their work by organizing small group discussions to better understand young people’s concerns. Unsurprisingly, corruption was the most frequently mentioned. The founders sought a way to publicize these concerns and provide an outlet for discussions to shape the national dialogue. To do this, ArtLords creates public art projects, in which artists trace beautiful, powerful designs on blast walls (concrete barriers constructed to protect buildings and people from terrorist-related explosions) across Afghanistan. To date ArtLords has painted more than 400 murals in almost half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces; the most famous is a piercing set of feminine, hazel eyes glaring onto the front entrance of the National Directorate of Security in Kabul (which is why the group is known to some as “the eye people”).

Through these projects, the group has inspired a generation of younger Afghans. As Faisal Imran, a student in Afghanistan, noted as he painted a mural on a blast-wall, “this art has a message of hope.” It is this message that has driven young girls to draw murals with the words “I can’t go to school because of your corruption. I can see you.” Moreover, beyond providing an outlet and educational opportunity for the youth of Afghanistan, ArtLords has achieved concrete success by both naming and shaming corrupt officials and naming and family good civil servants, working with the national government to drive change, and inspiring grass-roots social movements, including a recent campaign to challenge warlords and corrupt government officials who drive around Afghanistan with black tinted windows and no license plates. Additionally, one of the founders of ArtLords, Lima Ahmad, was invited to serve as the Director of Monitoring and Evaluations in the Office of the President of Afghanistan, a position from which she advocated for anticorruption and other social reform. In fact, over the past year, the group and its founders have been invited by government officials to speak at conferences and engage in substantive policy decisions.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Ms. Ahmad about her experience, and about what lessons that experience might hold for other civil society groups focused on combating corruption. Our conversation highlighted several important messages for other civil society groups seeking to use similar artistic tools—whether art, music, dance, or others—to combat corruption and promote broader social reform.

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Petty Corruption, Grand Corruption, and the Politics of Absolution

My post last month offered some reflections on Professor Giovanni Orsina’s interesting observations, at last September’s Populist Plutocrats conference, about how the wide-ranging Clean Hands (mani pulite) investigations in Italy may have contributed to the rise of Silvio Berlusconi—first by creating a power vacuum, and second by contributing to the delegitimation of professional politicians and traditional political organizations. Today I want to pick up on another thread of Professor Orsina’s analysis, echoed and amplified by his co-panelist, the journalist Beppe Severgnini. Professor Orsina and Mr. Severgnini’s insight is that is that part of the secret to Berlusconi’s success – and the apparent willingness of many Italian voters to overlook his corruption and other misdeeds – is what for lack of better terminology I’ll call the “politics of absolution.” Here’s how Mr. Severgnini describes the phenomenon (see 57:34 on the video):

[A] populist plutocrat [like Berlusconi] is warm, empathetic, admits his sins – and forgives yours. It’s a very smart thing because he admits his huge sins, and he forgives your little sins…. [To] every shopkeeper who gave 50 Euros to the local policeman, … Berlusconi [said] “OK, don’t worry, this is not important.” … The smart thing, and the very subtle thing [is that by saying,] “I forgive you for those 50 Euros,” … in a way I buy your [acquittal of] me, [even though for me] it was 50 billion, not 50 Euro…. I forgive you the small things, so you forgive me for the big things – and maybe you vote for me. And that’s exactly the psychological trick, and it works extremely well.

Professor Orsina’s analysis is similar, emphasizing the contrast between Berlusconi’s forgiving, indulgent populism and what many voters perceived as the arrogant moralization of his chief opponents on the Italian left (at 45:20):

[The Italian left said to the voters,] “This is a corrupt country, this is a country that must be … corrected, … and we are those who can … teach the Italians how to behave.” Now, this was perceived as extremely arrogant…. On the other side, [Berlusconi] was saying, “Come on, guys! You are good! This is a great country…. I am in no position to tell you what to do…. What I want to do is to create the conditions for you to do what you want to do because what you want to do is good.” Of course there was no match…. Now, of course, when Berlusconi was telling the Italians, “You’re good, you can do whatever you want,” he was wrong. And when the left was telling the Italians, “We should behave better,” they were right…. [But] this [is] … why Berlusconi won the elections and the left lost.

I lack the expertise to assess, or even to intelligently discuss, whether this analysis of Italian politics is correct. But it strikes me as plausible, and moreover, if the diagnosis is accurate in this or other contexts, then understanding the politics of absolution may have at least two implications for efforts to combat corruption. Continue reading

Telling Corruption’s Story, or Why Is Corruption So Boring? (Part 1)

In 2010, a group of talented young musicians from across the globe gathered in Nairobi, with the financial support of Transparency International and Jeunesses Musicales International. Their mission: to write and record a viral hit that would not only communicate the gravity of corruption to young people (a crucial demographic for anticorruption activists), but would also make them want to share the tune with their friends. The diverse band of artists left the studio with “Against Corruption,” a reggae jam complete with Lebanese Arabic hip-hop verses and flamenco-tinged guitar riffs. You can watch the music video here, or listen to the audio here.

Despite its all-star cast and catchy hook, however, the big budget music video has been viewed just over 600 times. This kind of failure to turn big anticorruption dollars into effective campaigns that generate excitement, activism, and action on the ground isn’t unique. The anticorruption community’s proposed revolution may well be broadcast, but its soundtrack will be probably be, dare I say, boring. And as a result, few will tune in.

Why is that? What makes it so much easier to capture an audience’s imagination when speaking about issues like the refugee crisis or modern-day slavery than to tell the story of corruption, whose effects are similarly destructive?

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TI’s “Declaration Against Corruption” — A Plug and a Question

Last week, I got an email alert from Transparency International asking me to sign (and publicize) TI’s new “Declaration Against Corruption.” The declaration is short and sweet:

I will not pay bribes
I will not seek bribes
I will work with others to campaign against corruption
I will speak out against corruption and report on abuse
I will only support candidates for public office who say no to corruption and demonstrate transparency, integrity and accountability

On reading the declaration, I had two thoughts. The first thought was, “Yes, of course I agree with all that, I’m happy to add my name to the list” (which I did). I’m also happy to use this blog post in part to help publicize the declaration in case some of you out there haven’t already heard about this and would like to sign on as well.

My second thought, though, was along the lines of “What’s the point?”

I ask that question with all due respect to TI. I want to pose this as a substantive, serious question about anticorruption campaign strategy: What is a “Declaration Against Corruption” like this supposed to accomplish? It certainly doesn’t do any harm, but what good do TI and other anticorruption campaigners think will come of this?

I have a few hypotheses about why one might think that calling on as many people as possible to sign onto a Declaration Against Corruption might be a useful and meaningful (as opposed to symbolic but ultimately trivial) element of an anticorruption campaign: Continue reading

The Roles of Anticorruption Academics and Advocates: Insights from the NGO Side

One of the purposes of this blog (as noted in our mission statement) is to promote the interchange of ideas across disciplinary boundaries, including–indeed, especially–between researchers and practitioners. It turns out that despite our shared interests in understanding and fighting corruption, there’s often quite a gulf between the academic and advocacy communities. I’ve commented this difference in perspectives in the past (from the perspective of an Ivory Tower academic), both in general terms, and with respect to some particular topics, such as the optimal degree of simplification, the role of university education, and the use of eye-catching statistics. While I recognize that discussion of these issues may seem like navel-gazing, I actually think these conversations are quite important, given the complementary but distinct roles that academic research and advocacy work have in the overall anticorruption project.

I was therefore delighted to read a recent speech by Robert Barrington, the Executive Director of Transparency International UK, on precisely this topic. It’s one of the best discussions of this issue that I’ve come across. (And I’d say that even if he didn’t reference one of my posts on this blog!) Whereas I come at this issue from an academic perspective, Mr. Barrington is a leading voice in the advocacy community, and he has some good advice for all of us. The speech is very short, so instead of attempting to summarize it I’ll just encourage interested readers to click on the link above. But let me close here by quoting Mr. Barrington’s summation, with which I wholeheartedly concur:

We should be two communities that work closely together. There is little excuse not to. As an advocate, this is my message: our subject is too important for academics to be obscure or self-referential, or for NGOs to be ill-informed, misguided or unchallenged. Our choice is not whether to work hand-in-hand, but how we should do so.

Assessing Corruption: Do We Need a Number?

As GAB readers are aware, I’ve occasionally used this platform to complain about widely-repeated corruption statistics that appear to be, at best, unreliable guesstimates misrepresented as precise calculations—and at worst, completely bogus. (The “$1 trillion in annual bribe payments” figure would be an example of the former; the “corruption costs the global economy $2.6 trillion per year” is an example of the latter.) I recognize that, in the grand scheme of things, made-up statistics and false precision are not that big a deal. After all, the anticorruption community faces 1,634 problems that are more important than false precision, and in any event 43% of all statistics quoted in public debates are completely made up. Yet my strong instincts are that we in the anticorruption community ought to purge these misleading figures from our discussions, and try to pursue not only the academic study of corruption, but also our anticorruption advocacy efforts, using a more rigorous and careful approach to evidence.

But perhaps I’m wrong about that, or at least naïve. A few months ago, after participating in a conference panel where some of the other speakers invoked the “corruption costs $2.6 trillion” figure, I was having a post-panel chat with another one of the panelists (an extremely smart guy who runs the anticorruption programs at a major international NGO), and I was criticizing (snarkily) the tendency to throw out these big but not-well-substantiated numbers. Why, I asked, can’t we just say, “Corruption is a really big problem that imposes significant costs?” We’ve got plenty of research on that point, and—a few iconoclastic critics aside—the idea that corruption is a big problem seems to have gained widespread, mainstream acceptance. Who really cares if the aggregate dollar value of annual bribe payments is $1 trillion, $450 billion, $2.3 trillion, or whatever? Why not just say, corruption is bad, here’s a quick summary of the evidence that it does lots of damage, and move on? My companion nodded, smiled, and said something along the lines of, “Yeah, I see what you’re saying. But as an advocate, you need to have a number.”

We didn’t get to continue our conversation, but that casual remark has stuck with me. After all, as I noted above, this person is extremely smart, insightful, and reflective, and he has lots of experience working on anticorruption advocacy at a very high level (a kind of experience that I, as an Ivory Tower academic, do not have). “As an advocate, you need to have a number.” Is that right? Is there a plausible case for continuing to open op-eds, speeches, policy briefs, and so forth with statements like, “Experts estimate that over $1 trillion bribes are paid each year, costing the global economy over $2.6 trillion,” even if we know that those numbers are at best wildly inaccurate? (This question, by the way, is closely related to an issue I raised in a post last year, that arose out of a debate I had with another advocate about the legal interpretation of the UN Convention Against Corruption.)

I thought I’d use this post as an opportunity to raise that question with our readers, in the hopes of both getting some feedback (especially from our readers with first-hand experience in the advocacy and policymaking communities) and provoking some conversations on this question, even if people don’t end up writing in with their views. And to be clear, I’m not just interested in the narrow question of whether we should keep using the $2.6 billion or $1 trillion estimates. I’m more generally curious about the role (and relative importance) of seemingly precise “big numbers” in anticorruption advocacy work. Do we really need them? Why? And is what we gain worth the costs?