The Persistence of Phony Statistics in Anticorruption Discourse

Early last month, UN Secretary General António Guterres delivered some brief opening remarks to the Security Council at a meeting on the relationship between corruption and conflict. In these remarks, Secretary General Guterres cited a couple of statistics about the economic costs of corruption: an estimate, attributed to the World Economic Forum (WEF), that the global cost of corruption is $2.6 trillion (or 5% of global GDP), as well as another estimate, attributed to the World Bank, that individuals and businesses cumulatively pay over $1 trillion in bribes each year. And last week, in her opening remarks at the International Anti-Corruption Conference, former Transparency International chair Huguette Labelle repeated these same figures.

Those statistics, as I’ve explained in prior posts (see here and here) are bogus. I realize that Secretary General Guterres’ invocation of those numbers shouldn’t bother me so much, since these figures had no substantive importance in his speech, and the speech itself was just the usual collection of platitudes and bromides about how corruption is bad, how the international community needs to do more to fight it, that the UN is a key player in the global effort against corruption, blah blah blah. Ditto for Ms. Labelle–her speech used these numbers kind of like a rhetorical garnish, to underscore the point that corruption is widespread and harmful, a point with which I very much agree. But just on principle, I feel like it’s important to set the right tone for evidence-based policymaking by eschewing impressive-sounding numbers that do not stand up to even mild scrutiny. Just to recap: Continue reading

Why Did Trump’s Anticorruption Rhetoric Resonate? Three Hypotheses

OK, I know I said in last week’s post that I would eventually get back to blogging about topics other than Trump, but not yet. After all, Trump’s election—a political and moral crisis on so many dimensions—poses distinctive challenges for the anticorruption community, in at least two different (though related) respects. The first concerns the consequences of a Trump Administration for US anticorruption efforts, both at home and abroad, a topic I’ve already blogged about (see here and here). The second issue concerns the role that anticorruption sentiments and rhetoric played in Trump’s victory. After all, Trump positioned himself (ironically, outrageously) as an anticorruption candidate, denouncing Secretary Clinton as “crooked Hillary” and pledging to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption.

It’s no surprise that the mainstream anticorruption community are perturbed, to put it mildly, by the effective deployment of anticorruption rhetoric by a racist xenophobic ultra-nationalist bully. While this is hardly a new phenomenon—see, for example, Katie King’s post on Hungary last year—the Trump victory has forced the anticorruption community to confront it head on. Indeed, at the International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) in Panama a couple of weeks back, the appropriation of anticorruption rhetoric by right-wing populists—especially though not exclusively Trump—was a constant subject of hallway conversation, even if relatively little of the IACC’s formal program dealt directly with this issue. (In fairness, many of the IACC speakers did find a way to raise some of these concerns in their presentations, and the organizers also managed to add a last-minute session, in which I was able to participate, discussing this topic.) What are we to make of this? What lessons should the anticorruption community—as well as others aghast at the success of Trump and other right-wing demagogues—take away from Trump’s successful appropriation of anticorruption rhetoric?

I wish I knew the answer to that question. I don’t, and won’t pretend to. But I do think it would be helpful to lay out what I view as the three main competing hypotheses: Continue reading

The International Anti-Corruption Conference Should Alter Its Agenda To Address the Trump Situation

The 17th Annual International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) will be held next month (Dec. 1-4) in Panama. General information about the conference is here, you can register here, and the current agenda is here. Overall, it looks like a great agenda. But in light of the result of the US Presidential election–which, as I argued last week, is likely to have significant and potentially devastating effects on the global anticorruption movement–it was striking to me that not a single session (out of seven plenary sessions and over 30 substantive panels) focuses on the consequences of the US election for the global anticorruption fight and how the movement should respond.

This strikes me as a very serious oversight. I’m sure that many of the speakers on the existing panels will address this issue, and I also know that the process of creating the agenda was a long and laborious one. But the Trump presidency poses perhaps the single greatest threat to the progress that the anticorruption movement has achieved over the last 25 years, and the IACC–as the leading global forum for anticorruption activists and advocates–needs to address this issue head-on. I don’t know if we have any of the IACC organizers (or anyone with access to them) among our readers, but if we do, I implore you to create a special session, preferably one of the plenaries, devoted specifically to meeting this challenge.

Impunity and Immunity: When (if Ever) Should We Sacrifice Accountability for Past Corruption Crimes?

I’ve been meaning to write a bit more about last month’s International Anti-Corruption Conference (other than my snarky reflections about anticorruption conferences generally). The conference theme was “Ending Impunity,” and indeed most of the panels and speeches emphasized, in one way or another, the importance of ending the culture of impunity and holding corrupt actors (criminally) accountable for their actions. I couldn’t agree more about the importance of ending the culture of impunity. Indeed, I suspect few people would dispute that objective; the controversies, such as they are, involve questions of means. And as a general matter, I’m also all for accountability. Who wouldn’t be? But here my commitment is more qualified, and I think the issue is a bit more complicated then some of the rhetoric sometimes implies. In fact, in the context of corruption offenses, there may be sometimes be good, or at least plausible, reasons for sacrificing accountability in order to advance some other interest.

I recognize that statement may be controversial, perhaps even heretical. Is it really ever OK to insist on less than full accountability for past corruption crimes? If so, when? The first panel I attended at the IACC, entitled “Breaking the Cycle of Impunity: Why Truth Telling and Accountability for Past Economic Crimes Matters,” brought these difficult questions to the fore. The four excellent panelists (Hennie Van Vuunen, Osama Diab, Gladwell Otieno and Transparency International Chair Jose Ugaz) all came out (unsurprisingly) against impunity and in favor of accountability. But as the subsequent discussion revealed, the impulse to hold the corrupt (fully) accountable sometimes conflicts with other legitimate interests. Although everyone agrees that those who commit corruption offenses should never have impunity, there are reasonable arguments for sometimes granting them (full or partial) immunity. Consider a few possible scenarios in which one might be tempted to exchange (full) accountability for something else: Continue reading

Some Slightly Sarcastic, Semi-Serious Suggestions for Improving Anticorruption Conferences

Over the last couple of years, I’ve attended maybe a dozen or so international anticorruption conferences—some small, some large, some focused narrowly on legal issues, others focused on broader issues of development and good governance. (Most recently, I was able to attend the International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) in Malaysia, which I hope to blog about more in a series of upcoming posts.) Overall, I’ve found these meetings to be very helpful, both in terms of useful substantive discussion and in terms of opportunities to meet people from governments, international organizations, civil society, media outlets, and research institutions who share a common interest in the fight against corruption. Nonetheless, I think there are a few ways that these conferences could be improved. So, in the spirit of constructive – if admittedly somewhat snarky – criticism, let me throw out a handful of suggestions for improvements to these meetings: Continue reading

The 16th International Anti-Corruption Conference — Sept. 2-4, Putrajaya, Malaysia

Most readers of this blog are probably already aware of this, but just in case:

The 16th International Anti-Corruption Conference will be held this coming September 2-4 in Putrajaya, Malaysia (about 25 km south of Kuala Lumpur). It looks to be an exciting program with lots of great speakers and interesting panels. Registration is now open. It’s rather expensive (even for poor academics), though there’s a discount if you register by August 14. Hope to see some of you there next month!

[A brief addendum: The fact that one of the world’s biggest anticorruption conferences is going to be held in Malaysia, right at the moment when the Malaysian government is engulfed in a major scandal–with allegations of massive corruption by the Prime Minister himself–should make this conference particularly interesting!]