To Catch Big Fish, the World Bank’s Integrity Vice Presidency Should Pay for Tips

The World Bank’s Integrity Vice President (“INT”), responsible for investigating corruption and fraud in World Bank projects, recently released its Fiscal Year 2015 Annual Update. INT had a busy year, opening 323 preliminary investigations, of which 99 were selected for full investigation, and closing 81 investigations, with three-quarters finding evidence of sanctionable conduct. (A primer on how INT conducts external investigations is here.) Some of INT’s recent cases, such as those brought against Alstom SA and SNC-Lavalin, involve large companies. Yet despite these examples, the data in the Annual Report raises questions about whether INT is sufficiently effective in uncovering corruption and fraud by large companies. The evidence suggests not: The firms debarred in FY 2015 are mostly small- and medium-sized enterprises—minnows, not sharks. The longest debarment leveled was for thirteen years on N.C. Sanitors and Service Corporation, essentially for paying public officials in Liberia and falsely claiming it collected trash that it never picked up. The challenged contract was worth about $350,000—not exactly a break-the-bank amount, especially considering the largest contracts the World Bank awarded last year were worth $438 million, $98 million, and $53 million (excluding government-awarded contracts funded by World Bank loans).

Perhaps large corporations with World Bank contracts and governments officials administering large World Bank loans are not engaging in corruption—but I doubt it. It’s much more likely that INT does not have the information that it would need to investigate and seek to sanction large companies. According to people familiar with INT’s intake system, while INT gets thousands of tips a year through its phone and online tip lines, many of which prove valuable (either individually or when aggregated), relatively few tips relate to large contracts where the amount of money at stake enhances the harm from corruption and bribery. INT should therefore develop methods to get actionable information on fraud and corruption related to large projects. My suggestion: pay for information.

One reason why INT may receive few tips about large contracts is that INT currently only offers confidentiality to protect whistleblowers. When it comes to large contracts, the likelihood that a whistleblower will face repercussions if her tip is revealed increases, changing the cost-benefit analysis of reporting. Some potential whistleblowers with actionable information might need some sort of additional material incentive to offset the potential risks. A well-structured system using payments to induce reporting might therefore increase the amount of actionable information INT receives about large-contract corruption.

What would such a system look like? How should it be designed? While this is not the place to lay out the proposal in all its details, the essential elements might work as follows: Continue reading

When Should Corruption Be Tolerated? The Case of the Padma Bridge

In a recent post, Rick examined the Canadian Supreme Court case concerning a high-level corruption scheme implicating Bangladeshi government officials and executives at SNC Lavalin, a Canadian construction company, over a cancelled World Bank project in Bangladesh. The $1.2 billion project underlying the case was the Padma Bridge, a massive infrastructure that some estimated would increase the Bangladeshi GDP 1.2% each year.

Upon discovering the corruption scheme in 2011, the World Bank—recognizing the importance of the infrastructure project for the Bangladeshi people—initially responded by attaching conditions to the continued funding of the bridge. Specifically, the Bank requested that the Bangladeshi government (i) place all public officials involved in the investigation on leave pending the completion of the investigation, (ii) appoint a special inquiry and prosecution team, and (iii) agree to provide full access to investigative information. However, on June 29, 2012, the World Bank cancelled its funding of the project, deeming the Bangladeshi government’s response “unsatisfactory.”

Although neither the World Bank nor SNC Lavalin are involved in the project anymore, the government of Bangladesh is nonetheless moving ahead with the Padma Bridge, and has awarded the construction contract to a Chinese firm. Since the World Bank withdrew its involvement, the estimated cost of the bridge has climbed by over US$1 billion, and the expected completion date is being pushed back by two years to 2020. These climbing costs and greater delays suggest not only less efficiency, but also that even more money is being siphoned off by corrupt public officials, to the detriment of the Bangladeshi people.

Because of this, it may seem that the World Bank’s decision to disengage from the project, and allow the Bangladeshi government proceed on its own–without any Bank oversight–was a misguided policy. I understand this view, but on balance I do not agree. While the World Bank’s decision to terminate its involvement in the project may have increased costs and corruption in the short run, in this case the Bank made the right call. That does not mean that the Bank should have a “zero tolerance” policy that requires it to suspend any project where there is evidence of corruption of any kind. But in the particular circumstances of this case, withdrawal was the best of the Bank’s bad options.

Continue reading