Hooray for Corruption (in the Russian Military)

As I write this, the tragic unjustified conflict in Ukraine drags on, with anguishing reports of civilian casualties and needless destruction mixed with encouraging news of the valor of the Ukrainian armed forces and the resolve of the Ukrainian people and their leaders. I won’t pretend to have any idea what will happen. I’m just hoping that outnumbered the Ukrainian resistance can hold out long enough for the political and economic pressure to have some effect—if not in changing the Russian leadership’s policy, then at least in undermining its capacity to wage war or maintain a long-term occupation.

In trying to slow the Russian army’s advance and deny Russia control of major cities and other strategic targets, the Ukrainian military may have the help of an unexpected ally: corruption. The corruption, that is, of the Russian military and defense sector. Without taking anything away from the skill and bravery of the Ukrainian armed forces, many analysts have noted that the invading Russian force appears to have been hampered by cheap and poorly maintained equipment, shortages of fuel, rations, and other supplies, and deficiencies in training and coordination. And some of these analysts have suggested that while no one factor can explain Russia’s poor showing in the field (so far), pervasive corruption in the Russian defense sector may be an important contributing cause (see, for example, here, here, and here). Continue reading

Civil Society Organizations Can Help Fight Corruption in the COVID-19 Response. But Only if Governments Let Them

Corruption in the health sector—a longstanding problem that may cost $500 billion per year globally—has become an even more salient concern in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the virus swept the globe, many governments responded by sidestepping traditional procurement safeguards in the interest of speeding up emergency responses. While it was important to provide relief as quickly as possible, the relaxed regulations allowed corruption to thrive, leading to numerous scandals. To illustrate with just a few of the many, many possible examples: Bolivia’s Minister of Health was detained for allegedly purchasing 179 unusable ventilators at twice their original price; Indonesia’s Minister for Social Affairs was suspected of having pocketed US$1.1 million in funds relating to COVID-19 aid; and senior leaders and wealthy individuals in numerous countries, including Canada, Peru, Argentina, Spain, and Poland, jumped the queue to get access to vaccines. Much of this health sector corruption arises due to a lack of transparency and accountability in the governing systems. Especially in the midst of what seems like a never-ending pandemic, working towards combatting this type of corruption is especially salient as citizens are relying on the government for more health-related needs.

Anticorruption advocates have long argued that civil society organizations (CSOs) can and should play an important role in monitoring government activities and promoting accountability in the health context and elsewhere. A particularly encouraging example of the constructive role that CSOs can play, in the specific context of the COVID-19 response, comes from Argentina. Last year, the Argentine chapter of Transparency International, known as Poder Ciudadano, launched a COVID-19 Public Procurement Observatory, which uses open-source information to make procurement deals available to the public. Using this monitoring tool, Poder Ciudadano carried out an exhaustive survey of public purchases and contracting that took place within the COVID-19 emergency procurement framework. By December 2020, Poder Ciudadano had tracked more than seven hundred procurement activities valued at US$200 million. In addition to its work in monitoring COVID-related procurement, Poder Ciudadano worked with other CSOs to ensure transparency and equity in vaccine distribution. Using information provided by the Ministry of Health, these CSOs ensured daily publication of information about the numbers of vaccine shipments, their distribution, and who had been vaccinated. These transparency measures help prevent improper favoritism and other departures from the official vaccine distribution plan.

This example is both encouraging and instructive. The Poder Ciudadano case highlights how CSOs can be effective in promoting accountability and transparency in procurement and distribution. But this example also underscores that in order to play this role, CSOs in developing countries need outside funding, partnerships, and resources, as well as the support and cooperation of their governments. CSOs can play a vital role, but only if they have the right kind of help.

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Highway Robbery: Preventing Corruption in U.S. Infrastructure Investment

Last November, President Biden signed into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), a $1.2 trillion package that earmarks $110 billion for repairing and rebuilding roads and bridges. This is the single largest investment in U.S. roads and bridges since the construction of the interstate highway system in the mid twentieth century. And though it is a federal project, much of the money will be distributed to state governments, which will determine how best to use the money to address their infrastructure needs. As state governments receive the IIJA money, we can expect the states to launch a public tender frenzy.

In all the extensive discussion and debate over the IIJA, there has been relatively little focus on the corruption risks inherent in this sort of spending program—even in an affluent, reasonably well-governed country like the United States. After all, corruption in large construction projects, and infrastructure projects like roadbuilding in particular, is all too common. Unfortunately, the IIJA’s design exacerbates rather than reduces these corruption risks. While it is too late to address those flaws in the statute, there are some measures that the federal government can and should adopt now to mitigate the inherent corruption risks. Continue reading

Guest Post: Highlights from the UNGASS Anticorruption Session Side Events

Last month, the UN General Assembly held its first-ever Special Session focused specifically on the fight against corruption. In addition to the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) itself, various governments and civil society organizations arranged various side events, held in parallel with the main UNGASS meeting, to allow activists, policymakers, and researchers to share their expertise. Today’s guest post, contributed by Michaella Baker, a JD-MBA student at Northwestern University (working in collaboration with Northwestern Law Professor Juliet Sorensen), summarizes the themes and principal contributions of three of these side events.

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Corruption at the Heart of India’s Coronavirus Crisis? Prime Minister Modi Must Answer for the PM Cares Fund

India’s unfathomable Covid tragedy has left the country gasping for breath, and no oxygen can be found. Hospitals are overrun, and are often unable to help even those lucky enough to be admitted. Desperate relatives are turning to social media and the black market for help, as beleaguered crematoriums shift from unprecedented 24/7 hours to the horrors of mass cremation to keep up with demand. In the midst of this appalling tragedy looms the question: Why was the government so unprepared? And, more specifically, whatever happened to the billions of dollars raised last year through the Prime Minister’s Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations (known as the “PM Cares Fund”)? 

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Commentary on the FACTI Panel’s Report and Recommendations (Part 1)

This past February, the United Nation’s cumbersomely-named “High-Level Panel on International Financial Accountability, Transparency and Integrity for Achieving the 2030 Agenda”—which, thankfully, everyone simply refers to as the FACTI Panel—released its report on Financial Integrity for Sustainable Development. The report (which was accompanied by a briefer executive summary and an interactive webpage) laid out a series of recommendation for dealing with the problem of illicit international financial flows. Though the report states that it contains 14 recommendations, most of these have multiple subparts, which are really distinct proposals, so by my count the report actually lays out a total of 35 recommendations.

I had the opportunity to interview one of the FACTI panelists, Thomas Stelzer—currently the Dean of the International Anti-Corruption Academy—for the KickBack podcast, in an episode that aired last week. Our conversation touched on several of the report’s recommendations. But this seems like a sufficiently important topic, and the FACTI Panel report like a sufficiently important contribution to the debates over that topic, that it made sense to follow up with a more extensive analysis of and engagement with the FACTI Panel’s recommendations.

Of the 35 distinct recommendations in the report, eight of them (Recommendations 2, 3B, 4A, 4B, 4C, 8A, 11A, and 14B) all deal with tax matters (such as tax fairness, anti-evasion measures, information sharing among tax authorities, etc.). While this is an important topic, it is both less directly related to anticorruption and well outside my areas of expertise. So, I won’t address these recommendations. That leaves 27 recommendations. That’s too much for one post, so I’ll talk about 13 recommendations in this post and the other 14 in my next post.

I should say at the outset that, while some of my comments below are critical, overall I am hugely grateful to the members of the FACTI Panel for their important work on this topic. The Panel’s report should, and I hope will, prompt further discussion and careful consideration both of the general problem and the Panel’s specific recommendation. Part of that process is critical engagement, which includes a willingness to raise concerns and objections, and to probe at weak or underdeveloped parts of the arguments. I emphasize this because I don’t want my criticisms below to be mistaken for an attack on the Panel or its report. Rather, I intend those criticisms in a constructive spirit, and I hope they will be so interpreted.


With that important clarification out of the way, let’s dig in, taking each recommendation in sequence.

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Guest Post: Promoting Procurement Transparency During the COVID-19 Pandemic in Brazil

Today’s guest post is from Guilherme France, the Research Coordinator at Transparency International Brazil (TI Brazil), together with TI Brazil researchers Maria Dominguez and Vinicius Reis.

While the new coronavirus has slashed through Brazil at alarming rates since March, an old problem has undermined the government’s response: corruption. A considerable portion of the government money spent to deal with the pandemic may have already been lost to corruption and waste. To give just a few examples: in Amazonas the state government bought inadequate medical ventilators from a wine store; In Santa Catarina, the government spent over US$5 million on 200 ventilators that were never delivered; and in Rio de Janeiro, fraud led to losses of more than 700 million reais in the hiring of a company to construct emergency hospitals, most of which were never delivered.

As many have pointed out, the corruption risk in procurement is heightened during an emergency, because traditional procurement rules are relaxed or circumvented to allow goods and services to be purchased in a timely fashion. In Brazil, the problem is compounded by a lack of centralization—with over 5,000 independent government entities (federal institutions, states, and municipalities) competing with each other and international buyers for the same equipment.

In this challenging context, efforts to increase the transparency of government procurement and to promote social accountability are essential. To promote greater integrity and transparency in COVID-19 emergency procurement, last May Transparency International Brazil (TI Brazil) and the Federal Court of Accounts jointly published a set of Transparency Recommendations in Public Procurement. These recommendations inspired a methodology for assessing how well government entities were implementing transparency mechanisms to make emergency procurement data available in their websites. (The assessment method examines four dimensions: (1) the presentation of detailed information on suppliers and contracts, (2) the publication of data in open formats that allow complex analysis, comparison, and reuse; (3) information on the government’s own legislation regarding emergency procurement and related matters; and (4) the quality and availability of channels for citizens to make Freedom of Information requests and report on irregularities related to COVID-19 procurement, as well as the existence of committees, with civil society organizations, to monitor emergency procurement.) Using this method, TI Brazil has created an index on Transparency Ranking on Efforts Against COVID-19, which ranks government entities on a 0-100 scale and also assigns a designation of Poor, Bad, Regular, Good or Great, depending on how well the entity performs on the four dimensions of transparency described above. The initial index included an assessment of 53 local governments (states and state capitals), and monthly evaluations have been undertaken since.

The results are impressive so far. Between the first and the third rounds, for instance, every local government analyzed improved its score, and in the most recent round, 33 governments (20 capitals and 13 states) earned a transparency grade of “Good” or “Great”. The average scores increased from 46 to 85 (capitals) and from 59 to 85 (states). Continue reading

Requiring Public Contractors To Have Anticorruption Compliance Programs May Sound Like a Good Idea—But Not When Government Capacity Is Lacking

Five years ago, in a thought-provoking post, Rick Messick proposed that developing states should demand that firms doing business with them have an anticorruption compliance program. At the time Rick wrote his post, he wasn’t aware of any developing state that had imposed any such requirement. A couple of years later, some Brazilian subnational jurisdictions, such as the state of Rio de Janeiro and the Federal District, adopted legislation in this spirit, requiring that companies awarded a public contract, or participating in a public-private partnership, above a certain value must establish an anticorruption compliance program. These initiatives seem to be of a piece with a broader trend in Brazilian anticorruption law, which has sought in various ways to create stronger incentives for companies to adopt effective compliance programs. (For example, Brazil’s 2013 Clean Company Act holds companies strictly liable for corrupt conduct, but companies that have a so-called “integrity program” may get a penalty reduction.)

Nonetheless, despite the importance of corporate compliance policies as a component of any effective anticorruption strategy (see here and here), demanding that contractors to establish such programs as a condition of doing business with Brazilian government entities is unlikely to achieve the intended goals.

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Leveraging Blockchain to Combat Procurement Corruption

Procurement corruption–including things like bid rigging, shadow vendors, and the steering of public contracts to politically connected firms—is an enormous worldwide problem, costing taxpayers up to $2 trillion annually. New technologies, though certainly no panacea, may offer new techniques for combating this sort of corruption. One such technology is blockchain.

Blockchain, most famous as the foundational technology for cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, is a “distributed ledger technology” (DLT)—a tamper-proof record of activities that are time-stamped and verified by a distributed network of computers. DLT creates a trail of information which allows for the full traceability of every transaction and stores a chronological list of transactions in an encrypted ledger. Transactions are bundled into a secure and identifiable block and then added to a corresponding chain. The blockchain is maintained and verified by the distributed crowd, eliminating the need for hierarchy and any centralized authority or middleman. And while blockchain is best known for its role in making cryptocurrencies feasible, it also has a range of other applications, including anticorruption applications. For example, Tanzania has utilized the technology to weed out “ghost workers” from the public sector, ending the monthly outflow of 430 billion Tanzanian shillings (approximately US$195.4 million) in salaries to fake employees who exist only on paper. Nigeria’s customs service has also used blockchain technology to store information on financial transactions and share these transactions across multiple computer networks.

Blockchain technology could also be used to combat common forms of procurement corruption, particularly those that involve after-the-fact tampering with submitted bids and supporting documentation. Such a system would work as follows: Continue reading

We Need An Extraterritorial Law To Hold Companies Responsible For Clean Global Supply Chains.

Six years ago, the deadliest garment industry accident in modern history killed more than 1,100 people and injured 2,500 in an apparel manufacturing facility, Rana Plaza, in Bangladesh. Perhaps the worst part is that the tragedy was entirely preventable, and the result of corrupt practices by the politically well-connected owner. The Rana Plaza building violated codes, with the four upper floors having been constructed illegally without permits. The foundation was substandard, and despite safety warnings that led shop owners and a bank branch on lower floors to immediately close, owners of the garment factories on the upper floors instructed employees to work the next day to keep up with customer demand. The customers that the garment factory was trying to satisfy? Mango, Primark, Walmart, the Dutch retailer C & A, Benetton, and Cato Fashions, among other recognizable global brands. And yet none of the US brands accepted responsibility for the problems in their supply chains that enabled this disaster (unlike non-US brands that contributed millions of dollars into a victim support fund).

Years later, not much has changed. Despite some recent encouraging developments, the current legal regime still does not do enough to hold international companies responsible for health and safety violations by their suppliers, and two-thirds of corporations continue to turn a blind eye to supply chain corruption. Such corruption can lower production costs and increase profits by enabling suppliers to engage in a wide range of insidious practices, including cutting critical corners on labor, health and safety. And when an accident does happen, companies can walk away free of any liability for the practices of their subcontractors, as in Rana Plaza. The beneficiaries of these corrupt practices are not only the owners of the supply factories, but also the multinational purchasers and their consumers in rich countries, who get cheaper goods at the expense of the health and safety of disadvantaged workers in low-cost manufacturing hubs.

This is ethically unacceptable.  And because we cannot expect companies to engage in responsible sourcing on their own volition, the right response is more expansive liability on companies that do not take sufficient steps to ensure clean supply chains. While the ideal solution might be some sort of broad international legal regime, that isn’t going to be feasible anytime soon, meaning that countries like the United States should act unilaterally and create a bill focused on bringing about clean supply chains.

The law I advocate here would have the following features:

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