National Digital Currencies Raise New Risks of Grand Corruption

In 2017, you may have heard of this thing called blockchain. The technology, which works by creating a decentralized, encrypted, and independently verifiable ledger of transactions distributed over a network of computer systems, has allowed innovations in the design of secure systems for recording votes, registering land ownership, and confirming digital identity. The most famous application of the blockchain, however, has been the creation of digital currencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Ripple. Many private individuals consider these currencies to be the way of the future, and the death knell of the central banker: universal, transparent, and valued according to mathematical laws rather than political preferences, cryptocurrencies—according to their proponents—will bring with them immeasurable benefits, among them making the fight against corruption easier by allowing all interested parties to “see the entirety of any transaction instantly and accurately.”

But private citizens aren’t the only ones who have heard of the blockchain: the same central bankers who are meant to be rendered irrelevant by the advent of cryptocurrencies have also taken notice. Several governments, including those of Israel, Russia, China, Estonia, Sweden, and Venezuela, have announced plans to create their own national digital currencies (NDCs) based on blockchain technology. While there are several sound economic reasons for introducing an NDC, governments frequently cite the same anticorruption benefits mentioned above.

However, there are crucial differences between NDCs and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Rather than open architectures enabling full financial transparency, most NDCs currently plan to use some form of centralized ledger, giving government authorities (and only them) the ability to see and police transactions. While such centralized transparency will give honest governments a much-needed boost in the fight against corruption, it will also give oppressive and kleptocratic regimes another tool with which to steal from and oppress their populations. Continue reading

Community-Level Aid and Corruption in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

As Rick has discussed in a previous post, one common strategy adopted by donors seeking to engage in development and humanitarian work in countries with corrupt governments is to try to bypass national institutions. Instead, they direct their efforts towards the local level, engaging with communities, local leaders, and smaller-scale NGOs. Theoretically, this approach means the money passes through fewer hands, and there are therefore fewer opportunities for some of it to be skimmed off. Furthermore, donors may believe that local institutions are less corrupt or more easily subjected to (or more responsive to) monitoring by donors or other overseers. Donors may also opt for a local-oriented approach for reasons not related to corruption, like supporting projects that are more responsive to people’s actual needs, furthering community empowerment, and building institutions.

However, recent evidence from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) indicates that a local-oriented approach has its corruption-related drawbacks. Resources channeled through national political figures may have the potential to be stolen or misdirected for personal gain, but community-driven development programs are also vulnerable to elite capture. In fact, broader research has indicated that members of community development organizations—the very people with whom donors are partnering in hopes of side-stepping corruption—are more likely to pay bribes than non-members.  Furthermore, even when donor programs succeed in creating infrastructure, they tend to fail to improve local governance, accountability, or capacity.

Still, given the pervasive corruption in national governments (in the DRC and elsewhere), and the way those in power benefit from avoiding any meaningful action against corruption, the impulse towards local-side aid is understandable. What, then, are donors to do? Though it’s impossible to guarantee positive results, there are some steps that foreign governments and NGOs can take to mitigate the risk of the money targeted locally from being illicitly diverted:

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