Congress Should Act to Make US Aid to Ukraine Contingent on Anticorruption Reform

Since the Maidan Revolution removed former President Yanukovych from power in 2014, anticorruption progress in Ukraine has been uneven at best. Ukraine passed important anticorruption legislation in 2015, yet implementing it has been a challenge. Progress in some areas, including the judiciary and prosecutors’ offices, have met with significant and growing resistance. Many reformers within the government have resigned. For what it’s worth, Ukraine’s Corruption Perceptions Index score has only marginally improved. Still, there has been some progress. A significant portion of Ukraine’s budget is comprised of foreign aid, and donors—who have little patience for having their money stolen or wasted—have pressed the Ukrainian government to take the fight against corruption more seriously. The biggest anticorruption reforms have therefore been the ones on which large donors made their aid contingent.

The United States is one of the most important of these donors. The U.S. sends billions in loan guarantees, military aid, development aid, and State Department spending to Ukraine. During the Obama administration, anticorruption, and political reform more generally, was a high priority for the U.S. in its relationship with the post-Maidan Ukrainian government. Former Vice President Biden emphasized anticorruption during his five visits to Ukraine, and put personal pressure on President Poroshenko to follow through on his commitments in that area. Biden also played a role in delaying one billion dollars in loan guarantees to Ukraine due to corruption concerns—an approach the IMF has also embraced. But the anticorruption strings that the U.S. had attached to foreign aid in the past were imposed as a matter of executive discretion rather than legislative obligation.

Under the Trump administration, perhaps unsurprisingly, ensuring that Ukraine follows through on its anticorruption reforms has not been a foreign policy priority. No highly visible person in the current administration has taken on Biden’s conspicuous role in ensuring Kyiv follows through on its Minsk commitments. If President Trump isn’t willing to use U.S. leverage to continue to push for anticorruption efforts in Ukraine, the U.S. Congress can and should step in by putting anticorruption conditions on at least some American spending in Ukraine.  Continue reading

A Dangerous Retreat from Anticorruption Aid

The US government’s drive to cut foreign aid in favor of increased military spending is shortsighted, even if one focuses only on national security objectives. This is especially true for aid devoted to supporting anticorruption efforts, which can act as a powerful tool for improving regional stability without direct, overbearing involvement in a region. The past decade has shown how difficult on-the-ground involvement can be, and anticorruption-focused aid can help secure dangerous regions and allow the US to withdraw some of it physical presence abroad.

One striking example of the danger that corruption poses to security and stability can be seen in the context of land use and land rights. When corrupt officials deprive people of their land, destroying both their livelihoods and often their local communities in one move, they may push those affected into a situation where violence may seem like the only option. For example, recent land seizures in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq—with Kurdish members of the community either relying on tribal connections or direct bribery to convince local judges to push through illegal land transfers—have caused an outcry among the primarily Christian and Yazidi victims and partially contributed to the formation of religious minority militia units that now threaten to create more violence if they cannot return to their seized homelands. Similar pairings of violence following land seizures were also found in Zimbabwe in the early 2000s. And in Afghanistan, corrupt land seizures have been a consistent issue throughout the past decade. This danger remains a concern not just for those affected, but for the international community, as violent movements can lead to destabilization. Continue reading

The U.S. Combating Global Corruption Act Is a Worthwhile Proposal that Deserves More Attention

I know a lot of what I write on this blog is pessimistic, critiical, or both, but every once in a while it’s nice to call attention to some positive, encouraging developments. In this spirit, I was heartened to read that a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators last week introduced a new bill, the “Combating Global Corruption Act of 2017” (CGCA), that strikes me as quite a good idea overall. Yes, I realize that most bills like this never make it out of committee, let alone get enacted into law. And yes, the bill has a number of problems, some of which might be fixable through the amendment process but others of which are more inherent. But on the whole, it seems to me that this is the sort of bill that the U.S. anticorruption community ought to support.

Here’s a quick summary of what the bill would do, why I think it’s basically a sound idea, and (because I can’t help myself) a few of its problems and difficulties. (The full text of the bill can be found at the link above, and a press release about it from Senator Cardin’s office is here.) Continue reading

Cracking Down on Corruption in Haitian Customs

Billions of dollars in international aid to Haiti has been lost due to corruption, and this corruption epidemic has hindered many of the good-faith efforts to provide assistance in the wake of disasters. Of the many layers of bribery, fraud, and deceit that plague aid delivery, the one that interests me the most concerns the front-line Haitian Customs officers.

My interest stems in part from personal experience: In August 2016, I was part of a small project to engineer and build a clean water system in Haiti, which required importing equipment and supplies. As a matter of law, the items we were attempting to bring into Haiti were exempt from tax on account of their use in a non-commercial setting and our association with an NGO. Yet despite the fact that this was clearly stated on the Customs form, the Customs officials insisted that we had to pay tax on the goods, told us further that we had to pay in cash directly to the Customs officer, and reduced the tax payment we engaged in bargaining. It seemed like a bribery racket, especially with the insistence on cash payment without giving us an option to make a payment to a government agency officially. Our experience was, alas, typical: Over the past few years, there have been multiple reports of individuals being extorted for cash at Haitian Customs, with officials often unwilling to follow their own guidelines, a situation that seriously hinders the timely provision of non-profit aid.

The Haitian government is aware of the problem, and in 2013 launched a general crackdown. Yet despite a handful of successes—such as the arrest of a prominent Haitian businessman who was involved with multiple Customs officers in a corruption ring that involved contraband and trafficking—the crackdown doesn’t seem to have led to a meaningful reduction of inconsistent and corrupt Customs practices. While additional reforms to the anticorruption laws and improved internal auditing would help, there are a few other steps that the Haitian government could take that would help to combat the sort of corruption that many importers, including my own team, have encountered in Haitian Customs: Continue reading

The Aid-Corruption Paradox: How Should the U.S. Allocate Foreign Aid?

The United States spends about $34 billion annually on foreign aid, frequently to countries that have abysmal corruption track records (see the exact allocations here). Although a portion of that money, almost $6 billion, goes to humanitarian aid, the remainder is intended for development purposes. There has been a great deal of discussion about whether the United States should continue giving this aid, exemplified by the debate between Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly: Professor Sachs argues that the West can eliminate African poverty if it increases the amount of aid, while Professor Easterly insists that foreign aid thus far has not only been ineffective, but has actually caused greater harm to aid-receiving countries, in part due to corruption. Easterly-like skepticism of foreign aid due to corruption (a topic that has been discussed previously on this blog) seems to have permeated public opinion, resulting in what has been labeled “aid fatigue.” Such fatigue endangers the foreign aid system, as taxpayer support is necessary if the U.S. hopes to continue or increase its aid programs.

Unfortunately, choosing to withhold aid from corrupt countries altogether would be to deny aid from the majority of the world’s poorest countries. Corruption and poverty are correlated, resulting in an “aid-corruption paradox”: often the countries that are in the greatest need of foreign aid also have extremely corrupt governments. Thus there will inevitably be a trade-off when giving development aid: either we will be ignoring the countries in greatest need, or we will give to those countries but accept that a portion of the funds may not serve their intended purposes. How then should countries such as the United States determine where to allocate their development aid? Continue reading

Reducing Corruption in the Use of Development Aid: The Payment by Results Model

Corrupt diversion of development aid in recipient countries affects both the efficacy of the intended development programs and the willingness to supply aid in donor countries. Mismanagement of development funds has spurred debate over the ability of our current aid models to achieve development goals (improved healthcare, poverty alleviation, etc.). Many possible solutions for reducing corruption’s effect on development have been tested over the years with varying degrees of success. Various approaches have been tried, including conditioning aid or loans on “good governance” policy reforms, allocating development aid to local governments or local NGOs rather than national institutions, improving oversight and tracking of aid money, and supplying loans exclusively to countries that already have relatively favorable corruption scores (called performance-based lending). Each of these models has its own limitations: Conditionality is often viewed as an affront to sovereignty and has not been terribly effective. The local approach does not address governance issues, and local actors have not always proved to be less corrupt. Oversight of funds is important but costly and imperfect. Performance-based lending seems to leave behind many poor countries that cannot jump the corruption “hurdle.”

In searching for alternative models for distributing aid in light of the aid-corruption paradox, some donors have turned to yet another approach: payments by results (PbR). PbR has been supported by the Center for Global Development (see here and here) and has gained significant traction in the past two years by bilateral donors, such as the UK and Norway, and multilateral donors, such as the World Bank. The basic premise of PbR is that payment to the recipient depends on achieved results. The donor and recipient first define the desired outcomes (e.g., increased TB vaccinations, construction of an infrastructure project, etc.) and determine the amount that the donor will give once the desired outcome is met. The donor may provide some money up front to implement the program, but the rest of the payment is contingent upon performance: The recipient carries out the project independently, the donor measures the results, and, if the results meet the agreed-upon objective, the donor releases the remaining funds. This approach stands in contrast to the traditional input model, in which a donor gives the recipient money for inputs and provides a detailed action plan along with significant oversight for achieving results. Continue reading

For Foreign Aid and Fighting Corruption, Less Is More

The US government learned many hard lessons from its military occupation of Iraq. With respect to corruption in security and reconstruction projects, one of the clearest lessons—emphasized by the 2013 final report from the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), among others—was that smaller, short-term projects were more effective, and less susceptible to massive and debilitating corruption, than big, long-term projects. Indeed, a month after publication of the SIGIR report, Paul Cooksey, the Deputy Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, testified to Congress that large amounts of money should not be injected into an unstable region without enough well-trained, experienced personnel to oversee it. The better strategy, he argued, was to use small projects that could be more tightly managed. For example, one battalion commander in Iraq mentioned that greenhouse and drip irrigation projects—which allowed farmers to use water more efficiently and grow vegetables year-round—were small enough to be easily monitored to completion. This may not be as grandiose as building massive infrastructure, but it can still have a meaningful impact on people’s lives.

Yet despite the clarity and consistency of this message, it has not been heeded in Afghanistan. Continue reading