Some Reflections on the Meaning of Anticorruption “Success”

Last month, we had a spirited debate in the anticorruption blogosphere about the conceptualization of corruption, academic approaches to the study of the topic, and the relationship between research and practice. (The debate was prompted by provocative piece by Bo Rothstein, to which I replied; my critical reaction prompted a sur-reply from Professor Rothstein, which was followed by further contributions from Robert Barrington, Paul Heywood, and Michael Johnston.) I’ve been thinking a bit more about one small aspect of that stimulating exchange: How do we, or should we, think about evaluating the success (or lack thereof) of an anticorruption policy or other intervention? I was struck by the very different assessments that several of the participants in last month’s exchange had regarding whether the anticorruption reform movement had been “successful,” and this got me thinking that although part of the divergence of opinion might be due to different interpretations of the evidence, part of what’s going on might be different understandings of what “success” does or should mean in this context.

That observation, in turn, connected to another issue that’s been gnawing at me for a while, that I’ve been having trouble putting into words—but I’m going to take a stab at it in this post. My sense is that when it comes to defining and measuring “success” in the context of anticorruption reform (and probably many other contexts too), there’s a fundamental tension between two conflicting impulses: Continue reading

Guest Post: Succeeding or Failing… at What?

Today’s guest post is from Michael Johnston, Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Colgate University:

A bracing and long overdue debate has surfaced recently on this and other blogs, focusing primarily upon the issue of whether anticorruption efforts have failed but also raising important questions about definitions, theory, analytical methods and—not least—the norms of scholarly discourse. Entries by Bo Rothstein, Matthew Stephenson, Robert Barrington, and Paul Heywood offer searching critiques and a number of cautionary tales that I will certainly take to heart.

The discussions raise many more questions than I can analyze in this short discussion, but as for the issue that launched the exchange—whether many or most anticorruption efforts have failed—my answer is to raise another question: How would we know? To that I add a critical follow-up: If we were to see significant success, what might it look like? The first question, I suggest, has no single clear-cut answer, and never will. As for the second: In my view success would not revolve around levels of corruption, but about the prevalence of justice. Continue reading

Guest Post: Contesting the Narrative of Anticorruption Failure

Today’s guest post is from Robert Barrington, currently a professor of practice at the University of Sussex’s Centre for the Study of Corruption, who previously served as the executive director of Transparency International UK, where he worked for over a decade.

I have read with great interest the recent exchange of views between Professor Bo Rothstein and Professor Matthew Stephenson on the academic study of corruption and anticorruption. As an anticorruption practitioner who now works within an academic research center, I was particularly struck by how their exchange (Professor Rothstein’s initial post, Professor Stephenson’s critique, and Professor Rothstein’s reply) surfaced some extremely important issues for anticorruption scholarship, its purposes, and its relationship to anticorruption practice.

I find it hard to agree with Professor Rothstein’s analysis, but this is before even looking at his points of difference with Professor Stephenson. My main beef with Professor Rothstein’s analysis is with his starting assumption of widespread failure. Like so many prominent scholars who study corruption, he proceeds from the premise that pretty much all of the anticorruption reform activity over the last generation has failed. He asserts that “[d]espite huge efforts from international development organizations, we have seen precious little success combating corruption,” that anticorruption reform efforts have been a “huge policy failure,” and sets out to explain “[w]hy …  so many anti-corruption programs [have] not delivered[.]” Professor Rothstein then offers three main answers, which Professor Stephenson criticizes.

In taking this downbeat view, Professor Rothstein is not alone. The scholarship of failure on this subject lists among its adherents many of the most prominent academic voices in the field. Professor Alina Mungiu-Pippidi has framed as a central question in corruption scholarship, “[W]hy do so many anticorruption reform initiatives fail?” Professor Michael Johnston asserts that “the results of anticorruption reform initiatives, with very few exceptions, have been unimpressive, or even downright counter-productive.” Professor Paul Heywood, notable for the nuance he generally brings to anticorruption analysis, asserts that there has been a “broad failure of anticorruption policies” in developing and developed countries alike. And many scholars proceed to reason backwards from that starting point of failure: If anticorruption reform efforts have been an across-the-board failure, it must be because anticorruption practitioners are doing things in the wrong way, which is because they are proceeding from an entirely wrongheaded set of premises. The principal problems identified by these scholars, perhaps not coincidentally, are those where academics might have a comparative advantage over practitioners: use of the wrong definition of corruption, use of the wrong social science framework to understand corruption, and (as Professor Rothstein puts it) locating corruption in the “wrong social spaces.”

That so many distinguished scholars have advanced something like this assessment makes me wary, as a practitioner, of offering a different view. But I do see things differently. In my view, both the initial assessment (that anticorruption reform efforts have been an across-the-board failure) and the diagnosis (that this failure is due to practitioners not embracing the right definitions and theories) are incorrect; they are more than a little unfair, and potentially harmful. I want to emphasize that different take should not be considered as an attack on eminent scholars, but a genuine effort to tease out why, when presented with the same evidence, some academics see failure, while many practitioners see success. Here goes: Continue reading

Professor Rothstein’s Reply to My Critique

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post criticizing several trends that I have noticed in some (certainly not all) anticorruption scholarship. The inspiration and focus of my critique was a post by Professor Bo Rothstein (on the Tufts Corruption, Justice, and Legitimacy (CJL) Blog) which I thought exemplified some of the trends which I found problematic. Just a quick recap:

  • I think that too much anticorruption scholarship is fixated on definitions, and has an exaggerated sense of the importance of definitional debates. In that regard, I criticized (indeed, I characterized as “ridiculous”) Professor Rothstein’s claims that the reason anticorruption reforms had not been more successful is because people are not defining “corruption” in the right way.
  • I think that too much scholarship on corruption misunderstands and misuses social science concepts. Here, I took aim at Professor Rothstein’s assertion (which is hardly unique to him) that “principal-agent theory” can’t help us understand corruption, an argument that appears to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding and mischaracterization of what a principal-agent problem actually is.
  • I also think that too much scholarship on corruption (and, frankly, too much scholarship generally) engages in sweeping and uncharitable dismissal of prior work and thought, often (or so it seems) because the scholar who wants to promote theory/hypothesis A feels the need to suggest that theory/hypothesis B has nothing whatsoever to offer. On this point, I focused on a less prominent but still important argument in Professor Rothstein’s post, namely his assertion that legal reform is irrelevant to the fight against corruption because all countries have “very good laws against corruption.” I took issue with this both because I think it’s wrong on the merits (all countries prohibit core forms of corruption like bribery, but there are huge and important variations in the nature of the specific relevant laws and legal institutions) and because I think such a quick rejection of the extensive and sophisticated line of research on the role of law in the fight against corruption was unhelpful, unnecessary, and counterproductive.

Because my critique focused on Professor Rothstein’s post, and because I had used strong critical language in advancing that critique, I offered Professor Rothstein an opportunity to write a response on this blog. He declined that offer, but he recently informed me that earlier this week he had published a response on the CJL blog. I am delighted that he chose to respond to my critique in writing. It will come as little surprise that I do not find his responses convincing in the slightest (for reasons I’m happy to elaborate if anybody so requests), but I greatly respect his willingness to take the time to write the response, so that our readers can follow the exchange and make up their own minds. Really, the main audience for this dispute consists of up-and-coming young scholars, who are making their own decisions about what kinds of work they want to do, what styles of scholarship and research topics will be most fruitful, and the like. I hope that these young scholars will find the exchange between Professor Rothstein and myself helpful in thinking through the kind of work they want to pursue.

Three Reasons Anticorruption Academics Fail: A Commentary on Rothstein

Last week, Professor Bo Rothstein, one of the most influential senior researchers in the anticorruption field, published a blog post entitled “Three Reasons Anti-Corruption Programs Fail.” The post (which draws from Professor Rothstein’s earlier writings and his new book) sets out to explain why the anticorruption efforts sponsored by a combination of domestic reformers and the international development community have been a “huge policy failure.” The three reasons for this purported failure laid out in the post are (1) use of the wrong definition of corruption (2) use of the wrong social science theory to frame and analyze corruption, and (3) locating corruption “in the wrong social spaces.”

I am disappointed to report that I find little in the post that is correct. Professor Rothstein’s post does illustrate some important and ongoing failures in anticorruption thinking—just not in the way that he intended. Rather, the post inadvertently illustrates certain tendencies that afflict a certain strain of academic work on the corruption topic—tendencies that render scholarship on corruption far less useful to the world than it could or should be. I’m particularly troubled when I encounter bright young up-and-coming researchers who appear to be misled by these tendencies. So with all due respect to Professor Rothstein, I will use his post as a framing device to highlight the problems I see and to urge the new generation of anticorruption researchers to be mindful of them.

Before proceeding, an important note: Despite what I just said, and what I’m going to say in the remainder of the post, I like and respect Professor Rothstein. We have met on several occasions, and he has always treated me graciously. He was the driving force behind the founding and development of the University of Gothenburg’s Quality of Government Institute, which consistently produces excellent research and researchers. He is a prolific writer, and by all accounts a generous and supportive mentor, coauthor, and teacher. My objective in this post is most definitely not to entertain readers with the gratuitous academic blood-sport that is unfortunately too popular in some quarters. Yet at the same time, precisely because Professor Rothstein is such an influential figure in the field, his writings ought to be subjected to rigorous critical scrutiny, especially given the importance of the topic. This isn’t a game, and we must hold one another to very high standards, even when this means assessing harshly the work of people we generally like and respect. I suspect Professor Rothstein would agree with that last sentiment, though probably not with anything else in this post.

With that important note out of the way, let me highlight the three common tendencies in academic writing on corruption that Professor Rothstein’s post illustrates: (1) an unhealthy and unhelpful obsession with definitions; (2) misunderstanding and misuse of social science concepts, particularly a fixation on capital-T “Theories”; and (3) sweeping and uncharitable dismissiveness of prior work and thinking on the topic.

Continue reading

Corruption Is Not (Mainly) an Assurance Problem

The study of corruption these days is often heavily empirical, involving the close analysis of case studies or quantitative data. But sometimes it’s helpful to take a step back and think about the nature of the corruption phenomenon in more abstract, theoretical terms—not because this sort of abstract thinking translates neatly and directly into specific policy recommendations (it usually doesn’t), but rather because it helps us organize the otherwise overwhelming mass of particular information in a way that facilitates thinking, in broad strategic terms, about the kind of problem we’re dealing with and what kinds of interventions might be most promising.

It’s in that spirit that a range of contributions have suggested that our conventional ways of thinking about and responding to corruption are flawed, or at least incomplete, because they fail to recognize the extent to which the problem of corruption is a manifestation of the bad equilibrium in what game theorists would call an “assurance game.” The basic idea behind an assurance game is often traced back to Rousseau’s parable of the “Stag Hunt,” in which two hunters are chasing a stag when a hare runs by; if both hunters continue to pursue the stag, they’ll catch it and both will be better off (half a stag is better than a whole hare), but if one hunter chases after the hare, that hunter will get something while the other ends up with nothing. The key feature of this game is that it captures a setting where there are two stable outcomes (“equilibria”)—either both hunters hunt the stag or both chase the hare—and one of those (the stag) is clearly better for both of them. If both hunters go after the stag, and expect the other to do so as well, neither has an incentive to get distracted chasing the hare. But if both hunters expect the other to go after the hare, then both hunters will go after the hare themselves, because hunting the stage alone (in this parable) guarantees one will go hungry, while chasing the hare at least yields something. In that sense, the assurance game differs from the more famous “Prisoners’ Dilemma” game (and from other so-called “free rider” problems), because in the latter class of games each player has an incentive to take the “anti-social” action regardless of what everyone else is expected to do, even though everyone would be better off if they all cooperated.

What does this all have to do with corruption? Well, a number of scholars have advanced quite explicit arguments that the corruption is basically the equivalent of the hare-chasing equilibrium in the Stag Hunt: Everyone does it because everyone expects everyone else to do it, but if everyone could be assured that everyone else would act honestly, nobody would have an incentive to behave corruptly. The earliest scholarly paper of which I’m aware that argued that corruption is more like an assurance game than a prisoners’ dilemma is Professor Philip Nichols’ 2004 article, but the idea has been developed further by other scholars. For example, Professors Persson, Rothstein, and Teorell interpret the results of interviews in Kenya and Uganda as suggesting that corruption in those societies is more like an assurance game than a principal-agent problem, and in a 2019 follow-up paper these scholars argue more generally that systematic corruption “resemble[s] an assurance game…. Within this collective-action framework, unlike the single-equilibrium ‘prisoners dilemma,’ … what action is taken by any individual depends on expectations regarding how others will act.” And Professor Avinash Dixit, though more agnostic as to whether systemic corruption more closely resembles a prisoners’ dilemma or an assurance game, suggests that the latter is an important possibility. And for these and like-minded scholars, seeing corruption in these terms has important implications for how we might fight it. Professors Nichols and Dixit, for example, each independently argue for (somewhat different forms of) certification systems, which, in the assurance game context, can induce a shift from the “bad” (corrupt) equilibrium to the “good” (honest) equilibrium even without material sanctions. Professors Persson, Rothstein, and Teorell are somewhat less specific in the policy proposals that flow from seeing corruption as primarily an assurance problem, but they argue that understanding the problem in this way implies that “rather than ‘fixing the incentives,’ the important thing will be to change actors’ believes about what ‘all’ other actors are likely to do,” and that this in turn requires “a more revolutionary type of change,” though they acknowledge that we still don’t have a clear sense of what can induce successful “equilibrium shifts” of this type.

I want to push back (gently but firmly) against the notion that it’s helpful to think of corruption as (primarily) an assurance problem. But before I pursue my critique of this idea, let me start out by acknowledging that the scholars who have framed corruption as an assurance problem are almost certainly correct in highlighting that corruption is one of those social phenomena for which pervasiveness correlates with attractiveness. In other words, the more people who (are expected to) engage in corruption, the more people who (have an incentive to) engage in corruption. That insight is hardly unique to corruption, but it is certainly important in the corruption context, and may have a range of significant implications for anticorruption policy. My beef with the “corruption is an assurance problem” is not with that key insight, but with what seems to me to be a substantial exaggeration of the importance of that factor relative to other factors. Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Bo Rothstein

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. This week’s episode features an interview with Bo Rothstein, the  August Röhss Professor of Political Science and the co-founder of the Quality of Government Institute at the University of Gothenburg. In the interview, Bo and I discuss a range of topics, including the right way to define corruption (and its opposite), how the field of anticorruption studies has changed in the past 20 years, what we’ve learned about the most effective ways of addressing systemic corruption, and what ought to be at the top of the agenda for future research.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast 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.

Carr Center Conference on Human Rights and Corruption: Full Video

There’s been a great deal of recent interest, in both the anticorruption community and the human rights community, about the connections between these topics. Back in May 2018, the Carr Center for Human Rights at the Harvard Kennedy School held a conference on this topic (entitled “Corruption and Human Rights: The Linkages, the Challenges, and Paths for Progress”). I posted a link to the written summary report of the conference last summer. I’m now pleased to report that a full video of the all-day conference is available here.

It’s long (over 4 1/2 hours), so here’s a quick guide to what speakers and presentations you can find where: Continue reading