Lebanon Disaster Update: An Excellent and Disturbing OCCRP Report Sheds New Light on the Backstory of the Deadly Explosion

A couple of weeks ago, I did a short post in reaction to the deadly warehouse explosion in Beirut, which killed at least 182 people, wounded thousands, and left hundreds of thousands homeless. My post wasn’t really about the Lebanon blast per se—especially because the causes of the explosion, and the role that corruption may have played, were unclear—but rather discussed more generally the direct and indirect ways that widespread corruption can increase the risk of deadly accidents. But I continue to wonder whether, with respect to the Beirut tragedy, it will turn out that corruption (rather than “mere” incompetence) will have been a contributing cause.

We still don’t have all the answers—particularly with respect to the decision-making process within Lebanon itself—but thanks to excellent investigative reporting by an international team of journalists with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), we now have a great deal more information about the shadowy and highly suspicious backstory of the abandoned ship that brought the ammonium nitrate to Beirut in the first place. I don’t think I can do the report justice, but I highly recommend that everyone read it—it’s available here. And to give you a sense of what’s in it, I’ll just quote the main findings summarized at the beginning of the report: Continue reading

The Case of the Missing Exports: What Trade Discrepancies Mean for Anticorruption Efforts

In 2017, the Republic of Georgia sent $272 million in exports to its neighbor, Azerbaijan. The same year, Azerbaijan reported receiving $74 million—that’s not a typo—in imports from Georgia. Goods worth $198 million seemingly disappeared before they reached Azerbaijani customs. The gap is a big deal. Azerbaijan taxes imports just above 5% on average (weighted for trade), which means its treasury missed out on collecting roughly $10 million in tariffs—0.1% of all government spending in that year—from just a single trading partner.

Many factors could explain the gap (see, for example, here, here, and here). Shippers might have rerouted goods to other destinations, the two countries’ customs offices might value goods differently, or the customs offices could have erred in reporting results or converting them to dollars. But one reason Azerbaijan’s reported imports are so low—not only here, but systemically across trade partners and years—is corruption and associated tariff evasion. Many traders likely undervalue and/or underreport their imports when going through Azerbaijani customs, and the sheer magnitude of the trade gap suggests the complicity or collusion of the authorities. The corruption involved might be petty (e.g., an importer bribing a customs officer to look the other way, or a customs officer pocketing the tax and leaving it off the books) or grand (e.g., a politician with a side business using her influence to shield imports from inspection; see here). A similar dynamic might also be at work in exporting countries: companies may undervalue exports to limit their income tax liability, possibly paying bribes to avoid audits.

Though Azerbaijan may be an extreme case, it is not unique. Economists have examined these export gaps (sometimes called “mirror statistics”) and have found similar discrepancies in, for example, Hong Kong’s exports to China, China’s exports to the United States, and Cambodia’s imports from all trading partners. Most recently, economists Derek Kellenberg and Arik Levinson compared trade data across almost all countries over an eleven-year time period, finding that “corruption plays an important role in the degree of misreports for both importers and exporters.” For lower-income countries, Professors Kellenberg and Levinson showed a positive relationship between a country’s level of perceived corruption, as measured by Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), and its underreporting of imports. The authors also showed a strong positive relationship between perceived corruption and the underreporting of exports across all countries.

Mirror statistics are an imperfect measure of customs corruption, to be sure, but they can serve two useful purposes in fighting this sort of corruption, and anticorruption reformers should pay more attention to this type of data. Continue reading

Putting Elected Officials in Charge of Elections Is a Recipe for Corruption: Evidence from U.S. States

One of the stories that figured prominently in last November’s U.S. elections was that of Brian Kemp, then Georgia’s Secretary of State and now the state’s new Governor. As Secretary of State, Kemp was responsible for administering the state’s elections—but in 2018 he was administering the very election in which he was running for governor, which creates an inherent conflict of interest. Indeed, there was plenty of evidence that Kemp used his position as Secretary to increase his odds of winning the election: He attempted to close polling locations in neighborhoods likely to vote for his opponent, promulgated abnormally stringent voter registration rules that put thousands of voters’ eligibility into question, and launched what most observers considered to be a groundless investigation into his opponent’s campaign in the week before the election. Ultimately, after ignoring calls for him to recuse himself, Kemp announced that he would resign as Secretary of State two days after the election, while the votes were still being counted. Kemp was eventually declared the winner, though his opponent, Stacey Abrams, never fully conceded, vowing to sue Kemp for “gross mismanagement of the election.”

It’s hard to see how an election administrator’s use of his power to benefit his own political campaign is anything other than corrupt. Indeed, Kemp’s controversial election illustrates how the U.S. electoral process is particularly vulnerable to this sort of corruption. (And, it’s worth noting, while Kemp drew most of the attention, there were two other candidates in the 2018 elections that found themselves in the same position, with one choosing to recuse himself from the recount process back in August 2018 during a close primary.) In most U.S. states, the Secretary of State (who is responsible for administering the state’s elections) is an elected official, and in over half of the states, Secretaries of State can run for public office while serving as Secretaries. This is out of step with most of the developed world, where election administration is independent and apolitical. Reformers have called for changes to this system before, so far without much success. But the atmosphere may now be ripe for anticorruption advocates to propose referenda to create new, independent, and non-partisan systems for election administration. A well-designed system could eliminate the clear conflicts of interest raised by people like Brian Kemp, while also tackling the more insidious and less obvious forms of corruption that arise when party members use their power over election administration to ensure that their party stays in power.

What might such a system look like? Canada may provide a useful model, given its similarities to the U.S., particularly with respect to its federalist structure. In Canada, each province is responsible for administering its provincial elections, while the Canadian national government administers national elections. The Canadian election administration systems share a few key components that keep the electoral commissions independent and non-partisan, and that all U.S. states should adopt: Continue reading

Are Jury Trials the Solution to Corruption in Armenian Courts?

Judicial corruption should be a priority for anticorruption efforts in nearly every country, since so much anticorruption work relies on the judiciary. Yet many countries struggle to address judicial corruption. Armenia is one such country, as its citizens well know. In 2015, Transparency International reported that “70 percent of citizens in Armenia do not consider the judiciary free from influence.” The practice of bribery is so open and notorious that in 2013, Armenia’s human rights ombudsman published a “price list” that judges used to set the price required to obtain various outcomes. One official estimated that most bribes add up to 10% of the cost of the lawsuit, but could be higher for higher-level courts. And in 2017, four judges were arrested for taking bribes that ranged between $1,200 and $30,000. Corruption is not the only problem with Armenian courts—Armenia’s judiciary is weak and generally subservient to the executive branch, and the courts often struggle with institutional competence and public distrust—but all of these problems are compounded by corruption.

Some advocates, including the American Bar Association, have proposed that one solution to judicial corruption in Armenia is to introduce jury trials. In fact, the first post-Soviet Armenian constitution explicitly allowed jury trials, though in the end no jury trials were ever held due to the absence of implementing legislation and lack of political will. When the constitution was amended in 2005, the language allowing jury trials was removed. Nonetheless, there has been some recent public debate in Armenia about whether introducing jury trials would be a good idea (see, for example, here and here).

Could juries be part of the solution to judicial corruption? There are several reasons to think juries can fight judicial corruption in Armenia, and elsewhere as well:

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Two Essential Volumes on Corruption

The study of corruption and what to do about it is no longer an academic or policy-studies backwater.  Matthew’s bibliography of corruption-related publications now lists over 6,000 books, articles, and reports and, as his regular updates show (thank you Matthew), the list continues to grow at the rate of some 50 plus per month.  That is the good news.  It is also of the course the bad news.  Few practitioners, and I suspect even academics, can claim to have absorbed the learning in the 6,000 current documents let alone keep up with the outpouring of new works.

For those who can’t , I recommend two recent books: Dan Hough’s Analysing Corruption and Alina Mungui-Pippidi and Michael Johnston’s Transitions to Good Governance: Creating Virtuous Circles of Anti-Corruption.  Both do an excellent job of synthesizing and extending recent scholarship on corruption issues, and both do so in a sophisticated but accessible manner.  Both have the added virtue of being available in reasonably priced paperback editions. Continue reading

Getting Serious (and Technical) About Procurement Corruption: The Transparent Public Procurement Rating Project

For corruption fighters, public procurement is notable for two reasons. One, it is damnably complex. Two, it is often permeated with corrupt deals.  The latter makes it a critical target of anticorruption policy, the former a tough nut to crack. The thicket of laws, regulations, standard bidding documents, and practices that govern procurement means civil society groups advocating counter corruption measures are often at sea.  Lacking expertise on this bewildering set of rules, they can do little more than campaign in general terms for reform, urging steps like “greater transparency” or “tougher penalties” for corrupt activities.

But as anyone knows who has tried to persuade a government of uncertain will and commitment to adopt effective anticorruption policies, the devil is in the details.  Unless one has mastered the details of public procurement, a government can do all sorts of things to “improve transparency” or “crack down on procurement scofflaws” that are nothing but public relations gambits. So it is a pleasure to report that civil society organizations in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have joined to form the Transparent Public Procurement Rating Project, which provides a way for staff to master the details of the public procurement and to thus be able to present detailed proposals for rooting corruption out of their nation’s public procurement systems.    Continue reading

Innovative or Ineffective?: Performance-Based Lending as an Anticorruption Tool

The Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs) new focus on fighting corruption and building institutions has generated quite a stir (including on this blog – see here, here, here, and here). But the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) – a U.S. agency responsible for disbursement of assistance geared toward international development targets – has long been acting against corruption through its effort to achieve the SDG precursors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Institution-building does not appear among the substantive aims of the eight MDGs. Rather, the MCC made anticorruption central to its work by introducing corruption indices into its process for competitive selection of aid recipients. In brief, the MCC Board of Directors chooses aid-eligible countries by evaluating and scoring candidates countries’ “policy performance” on a number of measures. Crucially, in order to qualify for aid, countries must score above average for their income group on the Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) “Control of Corruption” score. The indicator is therefore known as the “hard hurdle.” The Board also assesses corruption trends in its analysis of a country’s ability to reduce poverty and generate economic growth, which, with policy performance, comprises the overall evaluation.

This strategy is known as performance-based lending, and the MCC has employed it to award over $10 billion in grants to nearly 40 countries over the past 12 years. Is the MCC approach a good one? Many critics say no. I say yes. Although it is a strategy that is still evolving, performance-based lending—including the corruption control “hard hurdle”—is not only innovative and effective, but important.

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London Anticorruption Summit–Country Commitment Scorecard, Part 1

Well, between the ICIJ release of the searchable Panama Papers/Offshore Leaks database, the impeachment of President Rousseff in Brazil, and the London Anticorruption Summit, last week was quite a busy week in the world of anticorruption. There’s far too much to write about, and I’ve barely had time to process it all, but let me try to start off by focusing a bit more on the London Summit. I know a lot of our readers have been following it closely (and many participated), but quickly: The Summit was an initiative by David Cameron’s government, which brought together leaders and senior government representatives from over 40 countries to discuss how to move forward in the fight against global corruption. Some had very high hopes for the Summit, others dismissed it as a feel-good political symbolism, and others were somewhere in between.

Prime Minister Cameron stirred things up a bit right before the Summit started by referring to two of the countries in attendance – Afghanistan and Nigeria – as “fantastically corrupt,” but the kerfuffle surrounding that alleged gaffe has already received more than its fair share of media attention, so I won’t say more about it here, except that it calls to mind the American political commentator Michael Kinsley’s old chestnut about how the definition of a “gaffe” is when a politician accidentally tells the truth.) I’m going to instead focus on the main documents coming out of the Summit: The joint Communique issued by the Summit participants, and the individual country statements. There’s already been a lot of early reaction to the Communique—some fairly upbeat, some quite critical (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). A lot of the Communique employs fairly general language, and a lot of it focuses on things like strengthening enforcement of existing laws, improving international cooperation and information exchange, supporting existing institutions and conventions, and exploring the creation of new mechanisms. All that is fine, and some of it might actually turn out to be consequential, but to my mind the most interesting parts of the Communique are those that explicitly announce that intention of the participating governments to take pro-transparency measures in four specific areas:

  1. Gathering more information on the true beneficial owners of companies (and possibly other legal entities, like trusts), perhaps through a central public registry—which might be available only to law enforcement, or which might be made available to the general public (see Communique paragraph 4).
  2. Increasing transparency in public contracting, including making public procurement open by default, and providing usable and timely open data on public contracting activities (see Communique paragraph 9). (There’s actually a bit of an ambiguity here. When the Communique calls for public procurement to be “open by default,” it could be referring to greater transparency, or it could be calling for the use of open bidding processes to increase competition. Given the surrounding context, it appears that the former meaning was intended. The thrust of the recommendation seems to be increasing procurement transparency rather than increasing procurement competition.)
  3. Increasing budget transparency through the strengthening of genuinely independent supreme audit institutions, and the publication of these institutions’ findings (see Communique paragraph 10).
  4. Strengthening protections for whistleblowers and doing more to ensure that credible whistleblower reports prompt follow-up action from law enforcement (see Communique paragraph 13).

Again, that’s far from all that’s included in the Communique. But these four action areas struck me as (a) consequential, and (b) among the parts of the Communique that called for relatively concrete new substantive action at the domestic level. So, I thought it might be a useful (if somewhat tedious) exercise to go through each of the 41 country statements to see what each of the Summit participants had to say in each of these four areas. This is certainly not a complete “report card,” despite the title of this post, but perhaps it might be a helpful start for others out there who are interested in doing an assessment of the extent of actual country commitments on some of the main action items laid out in the Communique. So, here goes: a country-by-country, topic-by-topic, quick-and-dirty summary of what the Summit participants declared or promised with respect to each of these issues. (Because this is so long, I’m going to break the post into two parts. Today I’ll give the info for Afghanistan–Malta, and Thursday’s post will give the info for Mexico–United States). Continue reading