Guest Post: Corruption Among Development NGOs, Part 3–The Need for Collective Action by Funding Agencies

Roger Henke, Chairman of the Board of the Southeast Asia Development Program (SADP), a development grantmaker based in Cambodia, contributes the following guest post (the third in a three-part series):

Previous posts on development NGO corruption described a survey tool and its results in Cambodia and the conundrum of using the upward accountability relationship between local NGOs (LNGOs) and the grantmakers funding them for remedial action. The analysis of the report which underlies much of those contributions includes another foundational premise: Given the systemic functioning of Cambodia’s (and other countries’) LNGO sectors, anticorruption action to hold these LNGOs to account needs to be collective in order to be effective.

The characterization of the sector as “systemic” is meant to capture fact that nearly all LNGOs are funded by more than one, often five or more, grantmakers, while these grantmakers in turn, each fund many (sometimes more than 25) LNGO partners. To see why this matters for upward accountability, suppose for the moment that a given Grantmaker X takes seriously its responsibilities to diligently oversee LNGO Partner Y, and suppose further that Grantmaker X uncovers a problem. What happens next? The best case scenario is that the LNGO acknowledges the problem and fixes it, while the worst-case scenario is that both the LNGO and the grantmaker ignore the problem. Both of those happen sometimes. But the more common outcome is this: The LNGO fails to deal with the problem, and eventually Grantmaker X decides to stop funding it. But this affects LNGO Y only temporarily, because it has (or can find) other funders, many of which may not exercise the same degree of diligence as Grantmaker X. So nothing much changes. Even when Grantmaker X communicates with other co-funders about the problems, and more of them decide to question their support of LNGO Y, it takes a fair level of coordinated grantmaker disinvestment to put an LNGO out of business. That level of coordination is rare even in cases of obvious crisis, and absent during more mundane times.

What is needed, then, is more collective action. Many grantmaker staffs would agree with this in principle, but the dominant response is generally not action but resignation, dressed up as “realism”: “Why waste time on beating a dead horse? Even if local grantmaker offices were all willing to collaborate, aligning the diverse requirements regarding reporting, auditing, etc. of all the headquarters….forget it.” I reject this defeatism. One rarely knows that something won’t work until one tries, and my experience in Cambodia is that practical pilots are very rare. So, what would proper collective diligence regarding financial management imply in practice? Continue reading

Corruption is BOTH a “Principal-Agent Problem” AND a “Collective Action Problem”

Let me admit right up front that this is going to be kind of a nerdy post, focused mostly (though not entirely) on questions of terminology.  But there’s a particular meme that seems to have emerged in much of the discussion of anticorruption strategy, which I think is just wrongheaded and misleading.  The meme goes something like this:

“Although some people describe corruption as a principal-agent problem, corruption is actually a collective action problem.”

(I hate to point fingers, but just so you know I’m not making this up, examples of this meme appear here, here, here, here, herehere, here, and here.  Most depressingly, the not-very-good Wikipedia entry on corruption also includes this claim.)

This statement uses sophisticated-sounding social science jargon, but to anyone who knows what the terms “principal-agent problem” and “collective action problem” actually mean, in their technical economic context, it doesn’t make much sense–at least insofar as it implies that “principal-agent problem” and “collective action problem” are mutually exclusive alternatives. In fact, corruption is both a principal-agent problem (always) and a collective action problem (often).  Recognizing the latter claim need not and should not entail rejecting the former claim; the assumption that it does not only reflects conceptual confusion, but also entails the risk that we will neglect the many insights that principal-agent theory has to offer the study and practice of anticorruption.

I am certainly not the first to make this point. Heather Marquette and Caryn Peiffer have a very nice U4 Issue Paper developing many of the same themes (in greater depth). But because this has been bugging me for a while, let me offer my take on this issue:

Continue reading

Guest Post: Collective Action by Multinational Companies–A Recipe for Fighting Corruption in Emerging Markets

GAB is pleased to welcome back Gönenç Gürkaynak, the managing partner and head of the Regulatory and Compliance Department at ELIG, Attorneys-at-Law (Istanbul), who contributes the following guest post:

In too many countries, particularly emerging markets, corrupt public officials and getting rich by taking bribes, and they often seem immune from domestic law enforcement due to their influence over the judiciary. In such situations, collective action by the private sector—in cooperation with civil society—may be the key to changing the rules of this corrupt game. In particular, multinational companies (MNCs) can and should act collectively to require their intermediaries (e.g., distributors, agencies, etc.) to comply with stringent anticorruption rules. Considering that MNCs working in foreign jurisdictions act mostly through intermediaries (e.g. distributors, agencies, etc.) and that, according to the recent OECD Foreign Bribery Report, three-quarters of foreign bribery cases involve intermediaries, using collective action to targeting corruption by local intermediaries can help choke off the supply of bribes that corrupt public officials are so keen to extract.

The collective action strategy suggested here is designed for settings in which many MNCs, as well as large local companies, work with a limited number of local intermediaries that provide assistance in dealing with a sector or government agency prone to corruption; the approach is most effective when other potential intermediaries might be able to compete with the more established intermediaries if given the opportunity. In such a setting, the collective action approach—perhaps initiated by the MNCs, perhaps facilitated by some third party like a civil society organization—could work as follows: Continue reading