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

The Fishrot Files: Clean Countries and Fishy Business

The Nordic countries are often seen as world leaders when it comes to anticorruption, ranking at the top of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Yet critics have pointed out that while the Nordic countries have a sterling reputation for suppressing corruption at home, they have a much spottier record when it comes to dealing with exported corruption. This has been the case in Sweden and Denmark, and most recently, in Iceland, which has been widely criticized for its handling of the country’s first high-profile foreign bribery scandal.

The case in question was first exposed in November 2019 when three media outlets published joint investigative findings alleging that an Icelandic fishing company had paid millions of dollars in bribes to Namibian officials in order to gain access to the country’s valuable fishing zones (see here, here, and here). The reporting relied on thousands of leaked documents, which were dubbed the “Fishrot Files,” as well as first-hand testimony provided by a whistleblower, a former manager of the company’s operations in Namibia who admitted that he himself had played a role in bribing Namibian officials.

Though the scandal triggered public protests by Icelandic citizens, senior government officials in Iceland have sought to shift the blame to Namibia’s “weak” and “corrupt government.” Yet whatever governance weaknesses in Namibia may have contributed to the wrongdoing in the first place, it is notable that Namibian authorities moved swiftly to prosecute officials implicated in the scandal, including two high-level government ministers. These ministers were forced to resign and were subsequently arrested; they and eight other defendants now face charges of corruption, fraud, money laundering and tax evasion. In contrast, Icelandic authorities have yet to make any arrests or issue indictments in the case, more than three years after the initial revelations. To date, the executives implicated in the scandal have escaped official sanctions and have remained in their roles at the company.

In this instance, then, we see something rather unusual in foreign bribery cases: A strong response by a demand-side country in the global South (in this case Namibia), and a weak response by the supply-side country. Better understanding Namibia’s unusually strong response to the scandal is important in its own right, but for now, let’s focus on the question of why Iceland—which was one of the first signatories to the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention in 1998 and has readily available the legal framework necessary to handle the matter adequately—has been so ineffective in enforcing its laws against foreign bribery offences. Consider several possible explanations: Continue reading

Following the Money: October 21 Conference on Making Finance More Transparent

The Norwegian Branch of Publish What You Pay is bringing together a terrific group of investigative journalists, whistleblowers, bankers, government officials, and academics to discuss how to lift the veil of secrecy often surrounding illicit financial transactions. Those speaking at the free, online conference October 21 include –

* Bradley C. Birkenfeld, the individual who exposed how UBS helped ultra-wealthy Americans commit billions in tax fraud

* Jóhannes Stefánsson and Ingi Freyr Vilhjálmson. Stefánsson blew the whistle on the bribes the Icelandic company Samherji paid Namibian officials to corner the market on the country’s fishing quota while Vilhjálmson’s reporting exposed the role of Norway’s DNB bank in disguising the bribes

* William Bourdon, French avocat who has done so much to force French prosecutors, judges, and politicians to address corruption in France and abroad

* Simon Bendtsen, Danish editor and journalist with Berlingske Tidende who with colleagues exposed the Danske Bank money laundering scandal

* Linda Larsson Kakuli and Axel Gordh Humlesjö, members of the investigative team at Swedish national public television broadcaster SVT who revealed the Swedbank money laundering scandal

Information on the other speakers and how to register is here.

Offshore Tax Havens: Whose Fight Is It Anyway?

By the end of 2017, offshore tax havens were (again) in the spotlight. This was largely thanks to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ), which helped release the “Paradise Papers”, a trove of documents primarily concerning the clientele of Appleby, a prestigious law firm with offices in the Cayman Islands and the Bahamas. These documents illustrated how firms like Appleby help wealthy individuals use offshore tax havens to avoid or evade paying taxes in their home jurisdictions; this is possible because tax havens offer significantly lower tax rates compared to the home jurisdiction, and also offer a measure of secrecy surrounding financial transactions. (Tax havens often have little to offer but these discounts; they rarely have good governance, and opportunities outside the finance industry are difficult to find for the locals.)

The movement to crack down on offshore tax havens has gathered much support from anticorruption activists. Pointing to leaks like the Paradise Papers (and the Panama Papers before them), anticorruption activists argue that the secrecy associated with offshore tax havens exacerbates the problems of kleptocracy and corruption. While I agree that offshore tax havens pose serious problems, I’m skeptical whether this issue should be a focal point for anticorruption activists (rather than, say, advocacy groups concerned primarily with tax justice or global wealth inequality). There are two reasons for this: Continue reading