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

Reforming the ANDSF Payroll Management System: The Limits of a Technological Solution

In my last post, I discussed the how the problem of “ghost soldiers”—soldiers who are inaccurately listed as on active duty, for purposes of generating salary payments that are then stolen—adversely affects the capacity and readiness of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). To make things worse, not only is the government making salary payments to soldiers who don’t exist, but some ANDSF personnel who do exist are not receiving the full salaries they are due. Approximately 20% of Afghan National Police (ANP) and 5% of Afghan National Army (ANA) personnel are paid in cash through so-called “trusted agents,” who are supposed to facilitate salary payments to ANDSF personnel when electronic funds transfers (EFTs) are not possible, but according to reports, corruption in the system could take as much as half of an employee’s salary. And while most ANDSF personnel receive their salaries via EFT to their personal bank accounts, this only reduces the threat of pilfering in the final distribution stage; it does nothing to correct for errors, either intentional or inadvertent, generated earlier in the process.

What can be done about these problems? The U.S.-led multinational military organization working with the Afghan government to reform and strengthen the ANDSF, known as the Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CSTC-A), is applying a technological band-aid that focuses on implementing a set of computerized systems that track personnel and pay. While these measures are helpful, they do not fundamentally change the incentive structures that drive corruption, and so are unlikely to represent a long-term solution, particularly after direct U.S. involvement winds down.

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The Toll Corruption Takes on Afghan Security Force Capacity

Corruption in Afghanistan and its role in the ongoing instability of the country has been discussed on this blog before (see, for example, here, here, and here), but for the most part in fairly general, strategic-level terms. In this post, I’m going to zoom in and explain in greater detail two particularly insidious types of corruption that plague the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF): 1) the problem of “ghost” soldiers, and 2) the pilfering of fuel, weapons, and other supplies intended for security force personnel. These forms of corruption leave Afghan security forces hollow and ill-equipped to accomplish the missions assigned to them. As long as pervasive corruption continues to undermine force capacity, readiness, and morale, the prospect of Afghan government forces gaining the upper hand on the Taliban and other insurgents remains slim.

“Ghost soldiers” are fictitious troops added to personnel rosters by corrupt officials who then collect the extra pay allocated for these (in some cases deceased, in some cases no longer active, and in some cases totally made-up) soldiers. To give a sense of the scale of the problem, consider the 215th Corps of the Afghan National Army. In 2015, local officials suggested that up to 40 percent of names on the books did not correspond to actively-serving soldiers. For the 215th Corps, with an authorized strength of 18,000, that would mean fewer than 11,000 soldiers were actually available to fight. Earlier this year, US Army Major General Richard Kaiser, commander of Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan (CTSC-A), told the Wall Street Journal that the US had removed from the Afghan military payrolls more than 30,000 suspected ghost soldiers. That group of names amounted to over one-sixth of the Afghan army, significantly less than 40 percent but nevertheless a staggering figure. For reference, 30,000 is the same number of additional US troops President Obama sent to Afghanistan in December 2009 in a surge deemed necessary to turn the tide in the conflict.

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U.S. to Honor Corruption Fighters from Afghanistan, Angola, Guatemala, Malaysia, and Ukraine

Afghanistan NGO leader Khalil Parsa, Angolan journalist Rafael Marques de Morais, Guatemalan judge Claudia Escobar, Malaysian civil society activist Cynthia Gabriel, and Ukrainian investigative journalist Denys Bihus will share the 2017 Democracy Award for their work promoting democracy in their countries.  Bestowed annually by the National Endowment for Democracy, the U.S. democracy promotion agency, the ceremony will be held June 7 at the U.S. Capitol.  Republican House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan and the House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi will both speak.

This year’s award is significant for three reasons.  In the wake of concerns Trump Administration rhetoric has raised about America’s commitment to human rights and democracy, Speaker Ryan and Leader Pelosi’s participation is a reminder that a strong, bipartisan consensus on these basic, universal values remains deeply embedded in U.S. political culture.  Second is the recognition by the National Endowment, perhaps the world’s leading advocate of democracy, that the fight against corruption is an essential element in building a democratic state.  Finally, the award is one more sign that those fighting corruption at home are not alone, that the international community supports them and stands with them.

More on the ceremony, biographies of each recipient, and the National Endowment’s democracy promotion work here.

Guest Post: Did the London Summit Make a Difference to Open Contracting? Does Open Contracting Make a Difference for Tackling Procurement Corruption?

Gavin Hayman, Executive Director of the Open Contracting Partnership, provides today’s guest post:

Anyone remember the London Anti-Corruption Summit last May? It seems like a long, long time ago now, but it was a big deal for us when 14 countries stepped forward at the Summit to implement the Open Contracting Data Standard to open, share, and track all data and documents coming from the billions of dollars that they are spending on public contracting and procurement each year.

One year later, how well have these countries have followed through on their commitments, and how much of a difference open contracting has made in combating corruption in public procurement? After all, it is government’s number one corruption risk; it’s where money, opacity, and government discretion collide.

The news is generally positive: the Summit commitments appear to have promoted genuine progress toward more open contracting in many of those countries, and the preliminary evidence indicates that such moves help reduce procurement corruption. Continue reading

Guest Post: The US and Afghanistan Need a New, Long-Term Anticorruption Strategy

Ahmad Shah Katawazai, Defense Liaison at the Embassy of Afghanistan to the United States, contributes the following guest post:

President-elect Trump has declared that he will stop American taxpayers’ money from being squandered abroad. This position poses a threat to a continued US presence in Afghanistan, in light of Afghanistan’s endemic corruption. Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President-Elect Trump’s pick to be National Security Advisor, has been arguing from a long time that abetting corrupt officials–“backing thugs”–would tarnish the U.S. military’s reputation. Thus Trump might threaten Afghan officials that the US will cut off foreign aid if the Afghan government fails to crack down on corruption.

The U.S.-led coalition mission in Afghanistan laid the foundations for systemic corruption right from the start of the war in 2001. The U.S. provided millions of dollars in cash to the so-called warlords, as well as opium and arms smugglers. These warlords and criminals needed to protect themselves, and they found that the best way to do so was to secure high-level governmental positions. It is these people who are mainly responsible for running the mafia-style corruption machine in Afghanistan.

Yet Western policymakers neglected this problem, largely because they were focusing more on security as their top priority. What these policymakers failed to grasp was the fact that corruption could turn into a serious security threat in Afghanistan. For too long the focus was solely on fighting the insurgents, but corruption undermined this fight by fueling grievances against the Afghan government and the West. Corruption, including the diversion of Afghan resources and donor aid for the private gain of the political elite, impoverished and alienated the common people. Public anger over massive graft and corruption in the country turned people against the government and the West, thus strengthening the ranks of Taliban. Moreover, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR)‘s recent report, “U.S. money was flowing to the insurgency via corruption.” Corruption in Afghanistan cuts across all aspects of the society, with 90% of Afghans saying that corruption is a problem in their daily lives, and this endemic corruption threatens the legitimacy of Afghanistan’s government.

What has been achieved in the past 15 years in Afghanistan—at the cost of billions of dollars and the sacrifices of thousands of lives—today remains at jeopardy. The country is in a fragile and vulnerable position. Yet it would be shortsighted for the US to simply disengage, or threaten to cut off aid if the Afghan government fails to crack down sufficiently. What is needed both from the Afghan government and the new U.S. administration is a unified, long-term, practical, results-oriented strategy that could produce solid outcomes. It would be wise for the Trump administration to come up with such a strategy. Afghanistan should remain a priority because of its geo-strategic location and an important U.S. ally in the region. Given the existing circumstances and the need to bolster Afghanistan’s security and economy, and to prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for terrorists and insurgents, a long-term commitment and a coherent strategy to get corruption under control would be in the interests of both the U.S. and Afghan governments.