New Podcast Episode, Featuring James Wasserstrom (Part 2)

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, James Wasserstrom, with whom I did a podcast episode last month, returns for a second interview. In our first conversation, Mr. Wasserstrom and I talked about his experience as a whistleblower exposing corruption at the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) in 2007, and the aftermath. In this week’s episode, Mr. Wasserstrom discusses his work as a special advisor on anticorruption issues at the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, where he served from 2009 to 2014. He talks about the importance of anticorruption work in ensuring stability and security, the challenges he faced in convincing senior military and diplomatic officials of the need to take corruption seriously, and why it’s important, in situations like Afghanistan, to adopt a “zero tolerance” approach to corruption and to use strict conditionalities on aid to compel governments to adopt meaningful improvements in transparency, accountability, and integrity. He also compares his experiences in Afghanistan with his prior work in Kosovo, as well as work he’s done since on promoting anticorruption and good governance in Ukraine.

You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

“Ghost Money”: Assessing the Risks of State-Sponsored Bribery

Back in 2014, the New York Times reported that the Central Intelligence Agency had been paying the office of then-President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai tens of millions of dollars in cash for more than a decade. Afghan officials termed these payments “ghost money,” a convenient term that I adopt here—though some might simply call it bribery. This case was hardly unique. Indeed, the practice of engaging in state-sponsored bribery in the interests of national security appears to be a longstanding and global one: Over last half-century or more, the CIA has reportedly made cash payments to heads of state from Angola to Zaire in exchange for favors.

U.S. officials have defended this controversial practice. One former CIA operations officer even went so far as to say that state-sponsored bribery serves a productive role in the anticorruption fight: where the CIA is asked “to monitor the level of corruption in a place like Afghanistan,” “it only makes sense that U.S. operatives would have to talk to, and if necessary, bribe those involved in the corruption to find out what is going on.”

Yet even if one sets aside the question of whether ghost money itself presents the same normative concerns as regular bribery by private parties (an issue previously discussed on this blog), ghost money raises more problems than it solves for the anticorruption fight. In particular, the U.S. practice of making ghost money payments in places like Afghanistan likely has three significant adverse collateral consequences: Continue reading

“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.

Continue reading

Is the West Being Too Critical of Corruption in Ukraine? The Debate Continues

A couple weeks back I posted a commentary on an interesting debate over the West’s approach to promoting anticorruption in Ukraine. On the one side, Adrian Karatnycky (the Managing Partner of a consulting firm that assists international clients with government relations in Ukraine) and Alexander Motyl (Professor of Political Science at Rutgers) published a piece arguing that the West’s approach to promoting anticorruption was misguided, for two reasons: First, because (according to the authors) there was too much focus on punishing individual wrongdoers rather than on institutional reform, and second because the emphasis on the failings of the Ukrainian government (and the wrongdoing of individual Ukrainian officials) was undermining a reformist government, and would likely lead Ukrainian voters to embrace populist demagogues. On the other side, Daria Kaleniuk (the executive director of a Ukrainian civil society organization called the Anti-Corruption Action Center) countered that the only reason the Ukrainian government has made any progress on anticorruption reforms is because of pressure from the West, and that holding individual wrongdoers accountable is essential to making progress on this issue and restoring the faith of the Ukrainian people in the institutions of government.

My own take was that Ms. Kaleniuk is likely correct that individual accountability, though not sufficient, is a necessary component of an effective anticorruption strategy; Karatnycky and Motyl’s implicit argument that Ukraine could make headway on the corruption problem without an effective system for holding individual wrongdoers accountable, as long as the country pursues “institutional reforms” (like privatization and de-monopolization), struck me as both facially implausible and inconsistent with what we know about successful anticorruption reforms elsewhere. Karatnycky and Motyl’s second point, about “messaging,” struck me as harder. On the one hand, it’s true that emphasizing only problems and failures and shortcomings might breed cynicism, frustration, and possibly political instability. But on the other hand, exposing corruption may be the only way (or at least the most effective way) to mobilize public opinion to address some very real problems.

I probably wouldn’t have returned to this topic (about which, I can’t repeat enough, I lack genuine expertise), but Mr. Karatnycky and Professor Motyl published a rejoinder to Ms. Kaleniuk last week that I think merits further commentary. The new piece makes a number of separate points, and I won’t touch on all of them. But if I had to sum up their central argument, it would go like this:

Don’t be too critical of the ruling elites—even if those elites are pretty corrupt, and even if the only reason they’ve done much of anything about corruption in the past is because they’ve been pressured or shamed or coerced into doing so. If you’re too mean to them, they might lose the support of the people—and what comes next might be much worse.

That summary, which I admit is a bit of a caricature, might seem unfair. But I don’t think it is. Indeed, I not only think it’s an accurate distillation of Karatnycky and Motyl’s main argument, but I actually think that it’s an argument worth taking seriously, and in some circumstances might even be right. But I’m skeptical it’s right in most cases, and I remain to be convinced that it’s right about Ukraine. Under most conditions, I think it’s probably wrongheaded and dangerous to say that we shouldn’t criticize a government for failing to tackle corruption or try to expose the corruption of individual politicians out of a concern that doing so might undermine the legitimacy of the government.

So, before I proceed, let me make clear that my caricature—“Don’t say mean things about the kinda-corrupt-but-kinda-reformist incumbents”—really is a fair distillation of the argument. Here the key passages from Karatnycky and Motyl’s most recent piece: Continue reading

Guest Post: Tackling Health Sector Corruption—Five Lessons from Afghanistan

GAB welcomes back Mark Pyman, Senior Fellow at the London Institute for Statecraft, who previously served as Commissioner of the Afghanistan Joint Independent Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC). He contributes this post together with Hussain Rezai, a researcher at MEC.

Despite the horror stories, interesting things are happening on tackling corruption in Afghanistan. Besides the progress (discussed in previous posts) on education and procurement, a major anticorruption initiative has been underway in the Afghanistan health system since June 2016. The initiative, which is another surprising (if qualified) anticorruption success story in a very difficult environment, offers five lessons for anticorruption practitioners and health ministers in other countries. Continue reading

Guest Post: Afghanistan’s Radical–and So-Far-Surprisingly Successful–Public Procurement Reforms

Today’s guest post is co-authored by frequent GAB guest contributor Mark Pyman, Senior Fellow at the London Institute for Statecraft and former Commissioner of the Afghanistan Joint Independent Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee, together with Sohail Kaakar of the Afghanistan National Procurement Authority.

Afghanistan may be one of the most corrupt countries in the world, but it is also where some of the world’s most innovative anticorruption solutions are being implemented. Case in point: Afghanistan’s reforms to its public procurement system.

In Afghanistan, government procurement accounts for 19% of GDP and almost 50% of the national budget. However, procurement corruption has long been endemic, with many figures taking large cuts from almost every contract, and many contracts being little more than money-extraction schemes. But in 2015—at a critical juncture, when Afghanistan’s government was faced with unprecedented public pressure due to insecurity, recession, withdrawal of international troops—the government adopted significant reforms to its procurement system in order to curb corruption and improve government performance. (The immediate catalyst for the reform was a particularly corrupt military fuel contract, but the reforms go well beyond addressing this one incident.)

After a brief review of alternatives, the Afghan government decided on a radical reform based on a single regulatory body and a centralized procurement system. Continue reading

Guest Post: We Need To Talk About Donors

GAB is delighted to welcome back Mark Pyman, Senior Fellow at the London Institute for Statecraft, who also served as Commissioner of the Afghanistan Joint Independent Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee until November 27, 2017.

When it comes to fighting corruption and promoting accountable government, donors provide funds, expertise, and support, often over many years. They face many difficult challenges, and we all sympathize with the hard issues they have to contend with. Yet at the same time we have to forthrightly acknowledge that, for all their good intentions, when it comes to corruption, international donors easily become part of the problem. Donors, researchers, politicians and grantees have all been too silent on this.

Let me illustrate this with problems at one large, well-intentioned donor program in Afghanistan, the Comprehensive Agriculture and Rural Development Facility (CARD-F) Program. This Program, funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) and Denmark’s aid agency DANIDA to the tune of $120 million over two phases, was established to increase rural employment, incomes, and business opportunities through the design and implementation of projects, such as infrastructure work (such as building irrigation canals), provision of grants to producers and processors, establishment of greenhouses and poultry farms, and training for farmers.

Between March and October 2017, the Afghanistan Independent Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC) made an inquiry into corruption concerns at CARD-F, based on allegations from five whistleblowers. MEC is the premier anti-corruption entity in Afghanistan, set up by Presidential decree in 2010, led by a Committee of six (three eminent Afghans and three international experts), and with an Afghan Secretariat of some 25 professional staff. It is funded by international donors. MEC found plenty of malpractice, including nepotism and cronyism in the Management Unit; multiple irregularities in the awarding of grants and procurement contracts; poor monitoring provided by expensive UK companies (that, to be blunt, were not doing their job); and international (UK) contractors with a built-in incentive to use up more of the available budget for their own “technical assistance.” MEC found that only 33% of CARD-F funds in the first phase reached the intended end users, instead of the planned 60% (the other 40% planned to going on technical assistance and administration; eventually 67%). Moreover, not one of the five separate whistleblowers whose concerns were passed to MEC felt protected enough to complain through the CARD-F program, nor through DFID or DANIDA. At least two of these whistleblowers were fired, and others felt they had to leave.

At the same time the donors vigorously opposed MEC’s plan to do the inquiry, suggesting that MEC surely had other more important priority topics to examine, and that MEC shouldn’t be concerned because the donors had already done an audit (which was not shared with MEC) in response to a previous whistleblower. Not-so-subtle pressure was applied: MEC’s own core funding, which comes partly from DFID and DANIDA, would need to be “reviewed” if MEC persisted. Ultimately, MEC had to request the President of Afghanistan to intercede, before DFID Afghanistan offered its support to MEC’s inquiry.

Any organization doing or sponsoring work in a tough environment like Afghanistan can expect to have corruption issues. But trying to hide the problem, and then to bully it away? As an anticorruption professional who has seen DFID do good work elsewhere in the world, and indeed in Afghanistan, I was really shaken. Less naïve than me, the Afghans are well aware that such internationally sanctioned malpractice is taking place, and they too see this as evidence of dishonesty and hypocrisy.

The huge disconnect between donors’ generally good intentions on the one hand and the, frankly, perverse bureaucratic politics that drives donor agencies is a known problem. Most donors know what is going on in their programs, but feel driven to cover themselves with expensive and often ineffective technical veils – fiduciary risk assessments; supply chain mapping, due diligence, layers of oversight – to protect themselves from charges of lax supervision.

An honest conversation about this is surely overdue. Here are ideas on four of the key topics to start the discussion: Continue reading

Guest Post: Tackling Corruption in Afghanistan’s Education Sector

GAB is delighted to welcome back Mark Pyman, Senior Fellow at the London Institute for Statecraft, who also served as Commissioner of the Afghanistan Joint Independent Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee until November 27, 2017.

One of the successes of the last fifteen years in Afghanistan has been the rise in the numbers of students attending school, especially girls. According to the Afghan Ministry of Education, more than 9.2 million children, 39% of them girls, are now enrolled in school (though these statistics continue to be disputed, with alternative enrollment estimates ranging between 6 and 10 million). Yet the Afghan government, the citizenry, and external observers are all well aware that the education system remains beset by endemic corruption. As one parent put it in a focus group discussion: “A suicide attack isn’t the most dangerous thing for us, because a few people will die…. It is the unprofessional and unknowledgeable teachers that are most dangerous for us because they kill the future of Afghanistan.”

A major new report from the Afghanistan Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (known as MEC), carried out at the request of the Minister of Education, evaluates the corruption vulnerabilities across the education system and how they need to be addressed. The study, conducted in cooperation with the Education Ministry, visited 138 schools in nine provinces, and conducted over 500 interviews with a range of stakeholders (including Ministry officials, provincial education officials, teachers, parents, students, and others), as well as 160 focus group discussions. These interviews and focus group discussions assessed a broad range of education corruption issues, including both corruption that arises at the level of schools and districts (such as students paying for advance copies of papers, or teachers using nepotistic influence to avoid having to turn up) and corruption in central government education policy and management (such as corruption in teacher appointments, school construction, and textbook procurement). Some of the report’s main findings are as follows: Continue reading

Transparency International’s Anti-Corruption Pledge Tracker Is Badly Flawed. It Needs To Be Redone from Scratch.

In May 2016, at the London Anticorruption Summit sponsored by then-Prime Minister David Cameron, participating countries issued declarations announcing a variety of commitments—some new, some continuations of existing policies—to further the fight against international corruption. Of course, all too often governments fail to follow through on their grandiose promises, so I was heartened by Transparency International’s announcement, in September 2016, that it had gone through all the country declarations, compiled a spreadsheet identifying each country’s specific promises, and would be monitoring how well each country was following through on its commitments.

Last month, a year after TI published the spreadsheet documenting the list of summit commitments, TI released a report and an interactive website that purport to track whether countries have followed through on those commitments. So what do we learn from this tracking exercise?

Alas, the answer is “almost nothing.” TI’s “Anti-Corruption Pledge Tracker,” in its current form, is a catastrophic failure—a slapdash, amateurish collection of arbitrary, often inconsistent judgments, unsupported by anything that resembles serious research, and (ironically) non-transparent. This is all the more surprising—and disappointing—given the fact that TI has done so much better in producing similar assessment tools in other contexts. Indeed, at least one such recent tool—TI’s Government Defense Anti-Corruption Index—provides a model for what the Pledge Tracker could and should have looked like. Given the importance of tracking countries’ fulfillment of their summit pledges, and TI’s natural position as a leader on that effort, I dearly hope that TI will scrap the Pledge Tracker in its current form, go back to the drawing board, and do a new version.

I know that sounds harsh, and perhaps it seems excessive. But let me explain why I don’t find the Pledge Tracker, in its current form, worthy of credence. Continue reading

Can Indirect Questioning Induce Honest Responses on Bribery Experience Surveys?

As I noted in my last post, bribery experience surveys – of both firms and citizens – are increasingly popular as a tool not only for testing hypotheses about corruption’s causes and effects, but for measuring the effectiveness of anticorruption policies, for example in the context of assessing progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals’ anticorruption targets. Bribery experience surveys are thought to have a number of advantages over perception-based indicators, greater objectivity chief among them.

I certainly agree that bribery experience surveys are extremely useful and have contributed a great deal to our understanding of corruption’s causes and effects. They’re not perfect, but no indicator is; different measures have different strengths and weaknesses, and we just need to use caution when interpreting any given set of empirical results. In that spirit, though, I do think the anticorruption community should subject these experience surveys to a bit more critical scrutiny, comparable to the extensive exploration in the literature of the myriad shortcomings of corruption perception indicators. In last week’s post, I focused on the question of the correct denominator to use when calculating bribery victimization rates – all citizens, or all citizens who have had (a certain level of) contact with the bureaucracy? Today I want to focus on a different issue: What can we do about the fact that survey respondents might be reluctant to answer corruption questions truthfully?

The observation that survey respondents might be reluctant to truthfully answer questions about their personal bribery experience is neither new nor surprising. Survey respondents confronted with sensitive questions often have a tendency to give the answer that they think they “should” give (or that they think the interviewer wants to hear); social scientists call this tendency “social desirability bias.” There’s quite robust evidence that social desirability bias affects surveys on sensitive topics, including corruption; even more troubling, the available evidence suggests that social desirability bias on corruption surveys is neither constant nor randomly distributed, but rather varies across countries and regions. This means that apparent variations in bribery experience rates might actually reflect variations in willingness to truthfully answer questions about bribery experience, rather than (or in addition to) variations in actual bribery experience (see here, here, and here).

So, what can we do about this problem? Existing surveys use a range of techniques. Here I want to focus on one of the most popular: the “indirect questioning” approach. The idea is that instead of asking a respondent, “How much money does your firm have to spend each year on informal payments to government officials?”, you instead ask, “How much money does a typical firm in your line of business have to spend each year on informal payments to government officials?” (It’s perhaps worth noting that the indirect questioning method seems more ubiquitous in firm/manager surveys; many of the most prominent household surveys, such as the International Crime Victims Survey and the Global Corruption Barometer, ask directly about the household’s experience rather than asking about “households like yours.”) The hope is that asking the question indirectly will reduce social desirability bias, because the respondent doesn’t have to admit that he or she (or his or her firm) engaged in illegal activity.

Is that hope justified? I don’t doubt that indirect questioning helps to some extent. But I confess that I’m skeptical, on both theoretical and empirical grounds, that indirect questioning is the silver bullet solution for social desirability bias that some researchers seem to suggest that it is. Continue reading