Anticorruption Strategies for Small Population Countries

As I discussed in a prior post, countries with very small populations face distinct challenges when it comes to detecting and fighting corruption. In places where everyone knows everyone, personal ties between decision-makers and stakeholders are practically unavoidable. This not only makes it more difficult to avoid conflicts of interest, but also fosters a culture of informality that may inhibit efforts to impose stricter procedures and requirements for public decision-making. Furthermore, in small, close-knit communities it is harder to ensure anonymity of whistleblowers, and to detect corruption that takes the form of inappropriate long-term reciprocity rather than explicit quid pro quo exchanges.

The distinct challenges posed by corruption in small populations may call for distinct solutions. While there may not be any single solution to these challenges, there are a few approaches that may help:

  • Calling corruption by its name: When a person in a position of public trust prioritizes particular familial or social loyalties over those owed to the public, she is engaged in a form of corruption—abusing her entrusted power to benefit her friends and family. But such corruption may be perceived as benign or even salutary when it takes place in a community characterized by a high degree of close familial and social ties. The fact that these corrupt relationships often do not involve exchange of money may further help to camouflage them as a social interactions rather than as transactions involving the abuse of public trust. Unless corruption is identified and perceived as such, no anticorruption effort is going to succeed. Therefore, there needs to be constant and systematic education within the community to raise awareness about the causes and manifestations of kinship corruption, as well as the harms caused by it, in order to de-normalize this form of corruption (see here, here and here).
  • Leveraging the power of public opinion: In tight-knit communities, informal social sanctions (social exclusion, ostracism, and stigmatization) may be much more powerful in these communities and can be a meaningful constraint on corruption (see here). This is, of course, a double-edged sword: As noted above, unless kinship corruption is recognized as such, those involved are unlikely to be shamed by their peers and may actually be socially punished if they decline to do favors for friends and family. Similarly, social pressure can be used to reinforce clientelism and nepotism (see here and here). But anticorruption reformers can and should try to find ways to leverage the power of shaming, and other social sanctions, to promote integrity.
  • Depersonalize decision-making: As noted above, in small communities, it is harder to enforce the sorts of strict conflict of interest rules that are feasible in larger communities. Furthermore, even where there is no “formal” conflict of interest, in small countries there is an increased likelihood that public decisionmakers will have personal relationships or connections with some of the people who would be affected by their decisions. In a hiring process, for example, those responsible for the hiring will very often have some connection with at least one of the applicants. Therefore, small-population countries should place an even greater emphasis on removing the personal element as much as possible. For example, anonymizing administrative procedures and implementing “blind” decision making not only makes nepotism and clientelism harder, but also reduces the risk of unconscious bias (see here and here).
  • International assistance: Another, potentially more controversial way for small countries to overcome the inherent difficulties in aggressively applying anticorruption laws within a close-knit community is to seek the assistance of the international community, for example by relying more heavily on international assistance to fight corruption. This is not only because outsiders may be less likely to have conflicts of interest. It is also because small population countries may simply have fewer talented people to devote to any single matter, including anticorruption (see here and here). International assistance, for example in the form of manpower with suitable expertise, may help to alleviate such issues.

As we are often reminded, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to anticorruption, and it is also true that there is no one anticorruption recipe for all small countries. Nevertheless, when designing anticorruption strategies for very small jurisdictions, it is useful to recognize some of the common challenges that such jurisdictions face, and to design anticorruption strategies that leverage some of the advantages of smallness while ameliorating some of its drawbacks.

Where Everyone Knows Everyone: The Distinct Anticorruption Challenges of Small Population Countries

Compared to most of the rest of the world, Iceland has a strong reputation as a clean country. In the most recent version of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), Iceland ranks in 14th place—quite impressive overall, though behind Iceland’s Nordic neighbors Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. Yet Iceland’s high CPI score obscures a number of incidents over the last several years, where public officials in Iceland were involved in conduct that seems to raise concerns about potential conflicts of interest. Consider a few of the most high-profile examples:

  • In 2017, Iceland’s Minister of Justice was criticized in connection with the appointment of judges to the newly-established Court of Appeals. Notably, at least three of the fifteen judges appointed had personal ties to the Minister: one was a partner at a law firm where the Justice Minister had worked prior to her appointment, another was the spouse of a partner at the same law firm, and a third was the spouse of her fellow party member and colleague in parliament (see here and here).
  • In 2019, after revelations of allegations that a major Icelandic fishing company had been involved in bribing Namibian government officials (the so-called Fishrot scandal), demonstrators called for the resignation of the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries. The reason was his connections to the company, where he had once served as chairman of the board, and his longtime personal friendship with the company’s CEO. Indeed, the Minister said publicly that his first reaction to the scandal had been to phone his CEO friend to ask him how he was feeling (see here, here and here).
  • In 2022, the Minister of Finance found himself in hot water after it became known that his own father was among a select few allowed to bid for valuable holdings in a state-owned bank (see here and here).
  • In December 2022, the Finance Committee of the Parliament proposed adding to the government’s budget a 100 million ISK grant (approximately US$ 727,000) to a media company, whose CEO was the sister-in-law of one of the committee members. (The proposal was promptly withdrawn when this was disclosed.)

To be clear, none of these incidents necessarily involves corruption. But they all raise concerns about potential conflicts of interest, and the appearance of impropriety. And while each of these incidents arose out of its own distinct set of circumstances, there is a common underlying factor that may have contributed to all of them, and that generally poses challenges to effectively preventing corruption and regulating conflicts of interest: Iceland is very small, with a population of only 370,000 people. Although Iceland is in many ways most similar—culturally and politically—to its larger Nordic neighbors, with respect to population size and the distinct anticorruption challenges it presents, Iceland may turn out to share some common features with other small-population jurisdictions, such as Belize, the Bahamas and Vanuatu. Consider some of the ways in which fighting corruption and conflict of interest may be more challenging—or at least pose different sorts of challenges—in very small countries: Continue reading

Is the United Kingdom a Corrupt Country? Confronting Parliament’s Conflict-of-Interest Problem

Prime Minister Boris Johnson recently declared that he does not believe the United Kingdom is “remotely a corrupt country.” And indeed, international indexes (such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index) indicate that most observers perceive the UK as having high levels of public integrity. But while the British state may be free from the routine bribery and embezzlement that is common elsewhere, the UK Parliament is awash in conflicts of interest. Such self-dealing by the political class—what many in the UK press have dubbed “sleaze”—suggests that the country suffers more from corruption (albeit a different kind of corruption) than many observers realize.

The most recent “sleaze” scandal—and the one that prompted Prime Minister Johnson’s defense of the UK’s overall record on corruption—involved Conservative MP Owen Paterson, a former Environment Minister. Paterson received hundreds of thousands of pounds consulting for a clinical diagnostics firm and a meat processor, in violation of the UK’s longstanding ban on MPs acting as paid lobbyists. Even more damning, Paterson pressed the government to act against the meat processor’s competitor, and the government awarded the diagnostics testing company a £133 million pound contract despite the company lacking adequate equipment. While this scandal may have revealed especially egregious conflicts-of-interest, it is not an isolated incident. Consider just a handful of additional examples of instances in which MPs earned outside income from positions that would seem to create a serious conflict:

Continue reading

Defining Corruption: What Do Readers Say?

Recent posts have treated readers to a discussion of what corruption means.  Professor Rothstein suggested coming at it from its opposite and offered “impartiality” so corruption would mean the absence of impartiality or bias. [Note: I had flubbed Prof. Rothstein’s view in the original text as per his comment below.] Professor Johnson argued that at its core corruption is about an imbalance of power and suggested tying the definition to notions of “justice.” Transparency International’s “abuse of entrusted power for private gain” was also examined.

I think it time for GAB readers to be heard. Rather than asking which one of these definitions they prefer, or whether they have another candidate, however, I thought it more interesting to see how a definition of corruption helps them judge actual conduct in the real world. 

Below are six cases where at least some have alleged corruption was afoot. What say, GAB readers? Do any of the cases described below involve corruption as you define it?

A yea or nay on each in a comment to this post will suffice. Extra credit for explaining how one of the definitions proffered helped you decide. Lifetime subscription to GAB at the current rate to the best entry or entries. How each played out in court and in the court of public opinion will be revealed in a future post.

Case 1. To defeat a motion of no confidence, Vanuatu’s Unity of Change government offered two MPs parliamentary appointments in return for withdrawing their support for the motion.  Another MP was offered the position of Minister of Health, and a fourth Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Fisheries. All four accepted the offers, and the government defeated the motion. Bribery?

Continue reading

Guest Post: Reforming Sudan’s Asset Declaration System

Today’s guest post is from Haytham Karar, an independent international development consultant based in Khartoum, Sudan.

The pro-democratic revolution in Sudan has ended a long-standing autocracy. However, public sector corruption, which remains widespread, threatens Sudan’s emerging democracy. The culture of using public office for private gain remains deeply entrenched, and the line between public and private roles is not clearly drawn or widely respected. Not only do the same people cycle back and forth through the “revolving door” between public office and the private sector, but many government officials own stakes in, or are otherwise directly connected with, private companies even while serving in government. In fact, many government officials continue to operate private enterprises while in office, even though the Constitution explicitly prohibits this practice. This blurring of public and private roles, and the associated conflicts of interest that arise, have contributed to the corruption and cronyism that continue to pervade the system.

One of the tools that is supposed to help combat these problems is the asset declaration system for public officials. While an asset declaration system is not by itself sufficient, a well-designed and operational asset declaration system is a crucial element in a larger strategy for promoting integrity and anticorruption. Unfortunately, Sudan’s asset declaration system is largely ineffective and in desperate need of reform. The current framework—which was designed under the previous government and was never implemented effectively or fairly—has a number of significant problems. Continue reading

The Emoluments Clause Cases Against Donald Trump: A Post Mortem

Of the many credible corruption and conflict-of-interest allegations against former President Donald Trump, some of the most prominent concerned the income that the Trump Organization earned from parties with interests in influencing U.S. government policy. While the general conflict-of-interest rules that cover most federal officials do not apply to the President, a subset of the Trump Organization’s business dealings—in particular, those involving foreign governments and state governments—at least arguably violated the U.S. Constitution’s two so-called “Emoluments Clauses. (The Foreign Emoluments Clause prohibits any U.S. official from receiving gifts, titles, or “emoluments” from foreign governments, while the Domestic Emoluments Clause prohibits the President in particular from receiving any benefits other than his official salary from federal, state, or local governments.) President Trump’s alleged violations of the Emoluments Clauses triggered three separate lawsuits, filed by different parties in different federal courts, within Trump’s first six months in office. Those cases gradually wound their way through the legal system, with some defeats and some victories, mainly on threshold legal questions.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court brought that whole process to a halt, dismissing petitions for review in two of those pending cases as moot. (The third case had been dismissed by an appeals court, and the Supreme Court declined to review that case last fall.) Thought the Court’s terse, unsigned order included no explanation, the obvious inference is that the Court determined that the Emoluments Clause suits were moot because Donald Trump is no longer President. Importantly, the Court’s mootness order means not only that these suits won’t proceed, but also that the previous legal rulings in the cases under review are vacated, and thus have no precedential value. Legally speaking, it’s as if the cases never happened.

This did not sit well with everyone. Former head of the Office on Government Ethics Walter Shaub described the Court’s dismissal of the cases as “insane,” arguing that the cases are “not moot” because Trump “still has the money.” “When any other federal employee violates the emoluments clause,” Shaub observed, “they have to forfeit the money.” Others involved in the litigation against Trump tried to look on the bright side. The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), for example, issued a statement noting that the Emoluments Clause litigation “made the American people aware for four years of the pervasive corruption that came from a president … taking benefits and payments from foreign and domestic governments.”

I’ve been trying to figure out what I think about all this. I don’t have a clear, clean bottom line, but I do have a few scattered thoughts about what we might take away from the denouement of the Emoluments Clause controversy. Continue reading

The Trump Administration and Corruption: A Preliminary Retrospective

As of yesterday at 12 noon, U.S. East Coast Time, Donald Trump is no longer the President of the United States of America.

First, let’s all breathe a collective sigh of relief.

OK, now we can start thinking about what we’ve learned from this traumatic experience. There is no shortage of political and cultural commentary on the Trump era and its implications, and I have little of substance to add to that general discussion. But, given that this is a blog specifically focused on corruption, let me offer a few reflections on the implications of the last four years for corruption and anticorruption in the United States.

At the risk of self-indulgence, I’ll frame this preliminary discussion in terms of my own guesses, as of four years ago, about how the Trump Administration would affect U.S. corruption and anticorruption policy. Immediately after Trump’s election, I wrote a despondent post about why I thought that Trump’s election would be a disaster for the fight against corruption on many different dimensions. Roughly a year later, I did a follow-up post assessing my own predictions, concluding that on some issues my pessimistic forecasts proved inaccurate (for reasons I did my best to assess), while on other dimensions the Trump administration was as bad or worse than I had feared. Now that Trump is finally out of office, it’s a good time for another retrospective assessment—both to understand where things stand now with respect to U.S. policy and leadership on anticorruption issues, and also to see what lessons we might be able to draw from the experience of the past four years. Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Jack Goldsmith

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, I interview my Harvard Law School colleague Jack Goldsmith about what the Trump Administration has taught us about the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. system for constraining corruption, conflicts of interest, and other forms of wrongdoing by the President and senior members of the executive branch, as well as what kinds of institutional reforms and policy changes would help prevent such wrongdoing going forward. The conversation centers on Professor Goldsmith’s new book, After Trump: Reconstructing the Presidency, co-authored with Bob Bauer. Jack and I discuss the importance of norms in constraining wrongdoing and maintaining the independence of law enforcement bodies, various approaches to addressing financial conflict-of-interest risks in the context of the U.S. president, the challenges (but also the necessity) of relying on political checks, and the debates over whether to prosecute a former president, such as President Trump, for crimes allegedly committed while in office. You can find this episode here. 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.

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–October 2020 Update

Back in May 2017, this blog started the project of tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here.

The most significant new additions are primarily due to some very good pieces of investigative reporting.

  • The first, and more widely covered, is the New York Times reporting on several years of President Trump’s federal income tax returns, including the returns from his first two years in office. The returns shed light on many troubling aspects of the President’s finances, including the exceptionally low tax rates he has paid, evidence of multiple instances of possible fraud (still under investigation by the IRS), and his deep personal indebtedness, which plausibly raises security and other risks. The tax returns also provide significant corroborating evidence of the extent to which President Trump and his businesses have continued to earn substantial income from both private firms and foreign governments, giving rise to extraordinary conflict-of-interest concerns, as well as possible (indeed, likely) violations of the Constitution’s Emoluments Clauses.
  • Second, Dan Alexander’s new book White House, Inc.: How Donald Trump Turned the Presidency Into a Business, covers in much greater depth, and with significant original reporting, the same themes that we’ve been trying to keep track of here, namely the ways that President Trump has sought to monetize the presidency for personal financial gain. A terrific and troubling Vanity Fair article summarizes some of the most significant findings, including compelling evidence that the government of Qatar rented office space in a building 30% owned by President Trump for no apparent purpose other than to influence the U.S. government’s Middle East policy.

As previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–September 2020 Update

Back in May 2017, this blog started the project of tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here.

As previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. (For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.)