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

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

On the Political Subtext of Definition Debates, Part 2: Measurement or Moralism?

In my last post, I conjectured that a great deal of what would seem like a dry methodological question—How should we define and measure corruption?—is actually shot through with political-ideological considerations. The reason, I further conjectured, is that “corruption” is both (1) a descriptive sociological term, used to categorize a set of related behaviors, and (2) an evaluative moral term, used to characterize certain behaviors (or people or governments or institutions or countries) as “bad” or “blameworthy.” The fact that the same term has these different functions, coupled with the fact that the word “corruption” is particularly (though not uniquely) ambiguous and open-ended, means that attempts to come up with definitions and measurements that are appropriate for some purposes may seem to others wrongheaded, even offensive.

My illustration of this difficulty in the my last post concerned debates over whether “corruption” should be defined (say, by advocacy organizations or researchers) principally as “the abuse of public power for private gain,” or instead should be defined to include purely private sector corruption (“abuse of entrusted power for private gain”). My admittedly speculative conjecture was that many (not all) who argue for the latter position do so not so much because of (plausible) arguments for analytical equivalence, but rather due to an implicit—and in my view incorrect—belief that focusing on public sector corruption suggests a neoliberal/libertarian skepticism of activist government.

Here I want to suggest a similar sort of ideological subtext in debates over whether the definition of corruption (and the sorts of corruption that the leading indicators should seek to capture) ought to be limited to what we might think of as the “direct” or “first-order” dishonest acts by the responsible officials (such as taking bribes or embezzling funds), or whether measures of corruption should also incorporate the activities that facilitate corruption (such as providing safe havens for stolen assets), as well as the ways in which the rich and powerful seek to influence public policy through legal means (such as lobbying and campaign donations). This has come up more than a couple of times in the last few months at various conferences and roundtable discussions I’ve attended. The context is typically a criticism—often impassioned—of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) and the associated graphics (such as the color-coded country map) that are used to illustrate the index results. The criticism usually runs as follows (and here I’m paraphrasing, but I think fairly and accurately): Continue reading

On the Political Subtext of Definition Debates, Part 1: Public vs. Private Sector Corruption

Since I started working in the anticorruption field a few years back, I’ve noticed that a substantial amount of the discussion in this field—at conferences, in journals, on blogs like this one, etc.—is given over to debates about definition and measurement. This is something I’ve discussed, and complained about, before (see here, here, and here)—though I concede that every time I bring this up, I’m contributing to the very problem I’m complaining about.

Now, one of the reasons there’s so much debate about definition and measurement in this field is because corruption is, relative to other concepts, particularly difficult to define and measure. Another reason—in my mind the main one—is that while “corruption” is sometimes used as a purely descriptive term (that is, to describe certain conduct, which we can try to measure empirically), it is also an evaluative/normative term—one that connotes “bad” behavior of a certain sort. So any attempt to define corruption (for purposes of positive analysis or empirical research) will often, perhaps inevitably, suggest a normative position on the sorts of conduct, people, or institutions that ought to be condemned.

That’s not an original point, nor even a terribly interesting one. But the more of these “what is corruption” conversations I’ve been a part of, the more I get the sense that there’s a more specific political/ideological subtext to some of the arguments about how corruption should be defined. Nobody ever articulates these ideas in so many words, and so I may be way off base, but I’m going to offer up some conjectures, in this post and in the next one, about what I sense is the ideological subtext of some of these definitional debates.

Here I’ll focus on a fairly narrow issue: Should those organizations that focus on (and sometimes try to measure) “corruption” emphasize forms of corruption that involve the public sector (government, or entities with a sufficiently close connection with government to be considered essentially public instrumentalities), or should the “anticorruption agenda”—as well as the definition and measurement of corruption—also include purely private sector corruption? Continue reading

Corruption Discussion on “The Scholars’ Circle”

Last summer UCLA Professor Miriam Golden and I did a radio interview on political corruption for a program called The Scholars’ Circle, hosted by Maria Armoudian. I just learned that a recording of the program is available online, and I thought it might be of interest to some readers of this blog. The recording can be found here; the discussion about corruption begins at 17:16.

The relatively brief but wide-ranging discussion, skillfully moderated by Ms. Armoudian, touches on five major issues (issues that we’ve also covered on this blog):

  • How should we define corruption, and how can we try to measure it? (at 18:11-26:31 on the recording)
  • Possible factors that might contribute to the level of corruption, including economic development, governance systems (democracy v. autocracy), social norms, and culture (26:32-32:41)
  • Whether and how countries can make the transition from a state of endemic corruption to a state of manageable/limited corruption—as well as the risk of backsliding (32:52-47:32)
  • What will the impact of the Trump Administration be on corruption, and on norms of integrity and the rule of law, in the United States? (47:42-52:02)
  • What are some of the main remedies that can help make a system less corrupt? (52:03-56:34)

There’s obviously a limit to how deep one can go in a format like this, and the program is geared toward a non-specialist audience, but I hope some readers find the conversation useful in stimulating more thinking on the topics we covered. Thanks for listening!

Conceptualizing Bank Robbery: A Pedantic Parable for Corruption Scholars

Some years ago, an ambitious and idealistic young social scientist decided that she would put her newly-acquired research skills to good use by trying to better understand and combat some important social problem. She settled on bank robbery. Why? Well, partly her personal interest, partly her background, and partly coincidence: She had a friend whose hometown had been hit by a rash of bank robberies, and she had been reading newspaper articles about a high-profile bank robbery, and it just seemed like a good thing to work on.

She went to see a senior scholar in the field, a former editor of the Journal of Bank Robbery and chair of the International Association of Bank Robbery Studies. They had the following exchange: Continue reading

Guest Post: The Metaphysics of “Corruption” (or, The Fundamental Challenge to Comparative Corruption Measurement)

GAB is pleased to welcome back Jacob Eisler, Lecturer at Cambridge University, who contributes the following guest post:

A couple months back, Matthew Stephenson and Michael Johnston engaged in a lively debate on the question of if aggregate-level data of corruption is useful, focusing on the appropriate level of methodological skepticism that should be directed towards large-scale efforts to quantify corruption (see here, here, here, and here). While this debate touched on a number of fascinating questions regarding how to best treat data regarding corruption, it has drifted away from why Michael had a concern with overly aggressive quantification in the first place: Actually addressing corruption requires a “standard of goodness,” and the difficulty in coming up with such a standard explains why the social sciences have faced a “longstanding inability to come to a working consensus over how to define corruption.” In other words, when we talk about corruption, we are inevitably talking about something bad that suggests the vitiation or distortion of something good. It is difficult to conceptualize corruption except as a distortion of a non-objectionable political process—that is, political practice undertaken with integrity. This need not mean that there must be some shared first-order property of good governance; but it does suggest that there is a shared property to distorted or corrupted governance that must derive from some shared property of all politics.

If this idea of a “shared feature” is taken seriously, it would suggest those who argue for the value of comparative corruption metrics are making a very strong claim: that if you are comparing corruption within a country, or across countries, all the relevant polities and types of practice must have some shared feature, deviation from which counts as corruption. This shared feature in turn would be an aspect of governance. It could be any number of constants in human society – a constant feature of morality in governance, or tendencies of human anthropology. But in any case, this is a very distinctive and powerful claim, and one that requires strong assumptions or assertions regarding the nature of governance. To weave this back to the original dispute, our willingness to rely on quantitative metrics should depend on our level of commitment to our faith in this constant feature of politics that makes corruption a transferable, or, more aggressively put, “universal” thing. Our use of these homogenizing empirical metrics implies that we are committed to the robustness of the constant feature. Yet it doesn’t seem like this conceptual work has been done. Continue reading

ສໍ້ລາດບັງຫຼວງ’: The Laotian Approach

The American Supreme Court’s recent decision that confusion over what constitutes corruption entitles former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell to a new trial again illustrates how critical it is that “corruption” be precisely defined.  As Matthew explained yesterday, the Court in McDonnell ruled that the definition the jury was given to decide whether the former governor had broken the law was too broad.  The justices feared that were such a definition allowed to stand, public servants would shy away from doing their duties for fear they could be accused of “corruption.”  While Matthew argues that in McDonnell this fear was misplaced, there are instances where it is not.  Take Indonesia.  Bureaucrats there are refusing to spend billions of dollars on legally approved projects ranging from schools and hospitals to garbage trucks and parking meters because they fear it would open them to investigation for the vaguely defined corruption crimes as “abuse of office.”

As I have argued on this blog, the problem begins with the term “corruption.”  As passed down from Latin to Old French and into English, the word carries the idea of something that has spoiled or become impure.  Milk left in the heat too long sours or is “corrupted.” But while there is no mistaking when milk has gone sour, the endless debates over whether such (lawful) practices as private donations to political candidates are “corrupt” shows that when applied to politics and government, “corruption” is in the eye of the beholder.

But not all languages derive their expression for “corruption” from Latin, and thus not all languages are saddled with the subjective meaning the Latin imparts to the modern-day term.  Take ສໍ້ລາດບັງຫຼວງ – the Laotian term for corruption. Continue reading

Guest Post: Fixing the Federal Definition of Bribery–From “Intent to Influence” to “Illegal Contract”

Albert W. Alschuler, the Julius Kreeger Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago Law School, contributes the following guest post:

In the United States, the principal federal criminal statute prohibiting the bribery of federal officials, 18 U.S.C. § 201(b), forbids “corruptly” offering or giving anything of value to an official “with the intent to influence any official act.” Yet, as I argue in a recent article, defining bribery primarily in terms of the payer’s “intent to influence” is overbroad. The phrase “intent to influence” not only seems on its face to reach common and widely accepted practices; it also invites speculation about motives and may produce prosecutions and convictions based on cynicism.

There’s an alternative: The American Law Institute’s 1962 Model Penal Code defines bribery as offering, giving, soliciting or accepting any pecuniary benefit as “consideration” for an official act. As a Texas court said of a state statute modeled on this provision, the Code “requir[es] a bilateral arrangement—in effect an illegal contract to exchange a benefit as consideration for the performance of an official function.” More than two-thirds of the states now embrace an “illegal contract” definition of bribery; the federal government and the remaining states should follow suit. Continue reading

Guest Post: The British Academy/DFID Anti-Corruption Evidence Programme

Paul M. Heywood, the Sir Francis Hill Professor of European Politics at the University of Nottingman, contributes the following guest post:

In a recent post, Matthew recommended a speech by Robert Barrington, Executive Director of Transparency International UK, on the relationship between academics and advocates in the fight against corruption. I was very pleased to read the post, as Robert had given the speech at my invitation during the inaugural meeting of research projects funded under an exciting new initiative being jointly run by the British Academy and the Department for International Development (DFID). The Anti-Corruption Evidence (ACE) Programme, which I serve in the capacity of Academic Leader, is designed explicitly to address the interface between researchers and practitioners, with a fundamental focus on what actually works when it comes to fighting corruption.

Prompted in part by a highly critical report of DFID’s anticorruption approach by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) – itself reproached for poor use of evidence (including on this blog) – and in part by its own commissioned evidence papers into corruption (here and here), DFID has partnered with the British Academy to launch a £3.6m programme aimed at helping us understand better exactly how and why specific interventions succeed or fail in particular contexts. Some may wonder why we need yet more research on corruption; indeed, that is precisely the question I was recently asked by Jeremy Lefroy MP when giving evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee on International Development inquiry into tackling corruption overseas: “I would have thought there was plenty of evidence around. In what way do you think the evidence base needs to be strengthened, or is this just creating extra work for people who look at these things?”

The question is a reasonable one, especially given the exponential rise in the number of books and articles on corruption published over the last quarter century (as reflected in Matthew’s ever-expanding bibliography on the topic). There are many answers that could be given, but one key factor is that much of the existing research on corruption has simply been too generic to produce specific recommendations on which policymakers can act. Although it is widely recognized that corruption is not just one thing, such recognition has often not been translated into research design. Notably, many large-n studies have used an undifferentiated concept of corruption to serve as either a dependent or independent variable, seeking to explain a host of specific failings across a very wide canvas. Where there have been attempts to disaggregate corruption, these have often proposed bipartite, rather than graded, classifications (grand/petty, political/bureaucratic, need/greed, and so forth). In practice, corruption is a much more complex phenomenon than such dichotomous approaches can conceivably capture. Four observations follow from this: Continue reading