For the Love of Money: Capitalizing on Corrupt Officials’ Opulent Spending Habits to Fight Corruption

Corruption is notoriously difficult to track and discover, not least because both sides in a corrupt exchange have strong incentives to avoid getting caught. So how can enforcement officials, journalists, and anticorruption activists catch corrupt actors? Pay close attention to flagrant and excessive spending by public officials. After all, most people who benefit from corruption, whether they are officials receiving bribes or industrialists benefitting from the government action they purchased, do it for the money. And what’s the point of taking on so much personal risk to make more money if you can’t spend it on nice things? This is why you’ll see Chinese officials wearing wristwatches worth four times their annual salary and presidents spending millions on designer clothes and shoes and other luxury goods. The additional risk of being caught seems to be outweighed by the perceived social benefits of public displays of wealth. Throwing lavish weddings and banquets seems to be a particularly common trap that captures this phenomenon. The very public nature of these events, the massive guest lists, and the attendance of well known figures all but guarantee public scrutiny. But current and former government officials just can’t seem to help themselves. For example, in the middle of India’s recent anticorruption crackdown a former government minister held a lavish wedding for his daughter at a cost of over $75 million. This is in a country where a former state chief minister and potential prime minister was recently sentenced to four years in prison, banned from politics for a decade, and fined $16 million after an investigation sparked by an astonishingly opulent wedding she hosted.

Over the past decade, the spending habits of dozens of high-ranking officials have produced a number of viral news stories and have, in some cases, led to effective enforcement actions. The fact that people are willing to spend their corruptly acquired wealth so publicly, in spite of the risks involved, provides enforcement officials and anticorruption advocates with a unique and important opportunity in three respects:

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Telling Corruption’s Story, or Why is Corruption So Boring? (Part 2)

In my last post, I identified challenges inherent in creating campaigns that move laypeople to action against corruption, and I proposed solutions to these challenges. In this follow-up post, I will assess how two very different campaigns score on the factors previously proposed.

I’ll start with a less successful campaign: Transparency International’s call to “Unmask the Corrupt.” In late 2015, TI announced its Unmask the Corrupt campaign, which aimed, among other things, to “highlight the most symbolic cases of grand corruption.” The first phase of the campaign encouraged individuals to submit cases of grand corruption, from which TI would select semi-finalists to be voted on in the second phase. In the third phase TI would “look at the cases that have received the most votes and . . . openly discuss with all how the corrupt should be punished.” From 383 submissions, TI selected 15 semi-finalists, which included the “Myanmar jade trade,” “Lebanon’s political system,” and the “U.S. State of Delaware.”

In early 2016, TI announced that it had imposed “social sanctions” on the finalists (including Lebanon’s political system and Delaware). The toothiest of these sanctions were TI press releases which led to some negative coverage of the finalists in important media outlets. TI also launched #StopKadyrov, an Instagram-centered campaign against Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov, who had received all of 194 votes in the second phase of Unmask the Corrupt. An Instagram search for #StopKadyrov reveals that the hashtag has been used in a total of fifteen posts. When assessed against the factors I sketched in my previous post regarding the criteria for effective narratives—in particular, the importance of placing the audience in the role of potential heroes of the narrative, depicting a compelling (and repellant) antagonist against whom to struggle—these mediocre results are not surprising.

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Reporting Corruption Easily and Safely: Papua New Guinea’s Phones Against Corruption Initiative

Nick Brown, head of Global Distribution for Mobimedia International, contributes the following Guest Post.

 Persuading corruption victims to complain remains one of the great challenges to combating corruption.  Policymakers can’t prioritize prevention efforts or know where to deploy enforcement resources if they don’t know who is demanding bribes where and from whom. But getting citizens to blow the whistle is no mean feat.  Citizens must be convinced it is worth the effort, that something will happen if they do speak up.  Citizens must also be assured they will be safe if they do, that the corrupters will not harm them or their loved ones, financially or physically.

With its “Phones Against Corruption” initiative, the Government of Papua New Guinea has hit upon a way that citizens can easily and safely report corruption complaints, and since its launch in 2014, with technical support from Mobimedia International and financial backing from UNDP and Australia, it has taken off.  Critical to its success is that it makes no technological or financial demands on PNG’s limited capacity.  It requires no more technological sophistication from citizens than the ability to send a text message, a form of communication widely used throughout the country. How does it work? Continue reading

#Ley3de3 and the Power of Mexican Civil Society

As I discussed in an earlier post, Mexico enacted a series of constitutional anticorruption reforms last spring. I praised those reforms for their comprehensiveness and their potential to resolve problems of corruption at the state and local levels. However, I also noted that they required secondary enabling laws to actually go into effect. Until recently, the likelihood of enacting those laws on time looked slim, as the late-May deadline approached with considerable foot-dragging by the legislature. But Mexican civil society has risen to the challenge in an exciting way. Thanks to a 2012 constitutional reform that allows citizens to introduce bills to the legislature with 120,000 signatures (or 1.3 percent the voter rolls), an anticorruption bill has now been delivered to and is being debated by the Mexican Senate.

Called Ley 3de3, the initiative is an extraordinary example of civic engagement. Leading civil society groups have spearheaded the campaign, and universities and even for-profit businesses have gotten involved (see here and here). When the law was first delivered to the Mexican Senate on March 17th, it had over 300,000 signatures. A second installment of almost 325,000 more signatures was delivered nineteen days later. The legislation works to fill a number of important holes in the Mexican anticorruption landscape. For example, it requires public servants to disclose their assets, private interests, and tax returns (the 3-out-of-3 which gives the law its title) and proposes protection for whistleblowers who report corruption. The law faces a number of obstacles before it is passed, and other laws will be necessary to fully enact the National Anticorruption System promised by the constitutional reforms. However, the Ley 3de3 effort should be cause for, at least tempered, optimism. Continue reading

Take Two: Will a Second Attempt at Hacking Corruption in China Work?

Late 2010 to early 2011 was the heyday for India’s “I Paid A Bribe” (IPAB) website, which encouraged Indian citizens to report personal encounters with bribe solicitation from public officials. As Rick Messick previously reported, although the site experienced its share of challenges, the fact is that IPAB worked (and even thrived at times) and continues to be operational today. For digitally-inclined anti-kleptocrats, IPAB seemed like a prime example of a bottom-up approach to tackling corruption, one that could be emulated elsewhere. But in the summer of 2011, when a handful of concerned netizens in China attempted to import the IPAB model into China’s cyberspace, their attempts almost immediately failed. While these copycat sites enjoyed a brief period of temporary government approval (or at least ambivalence), they were all shut down well within half a year of founding, with most squashed within a month.

What the initial popularity of these sites indicated was a strong desire among Chinese netizens to function as self-appointed watchdogs who sniff out incidents of government corruption. (Indeed, between 2003 and 2010, China’s most popular media source saw a 20-fold increase in the number of anticorruption-related posts.) In late 2013, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) tried to tap into this newfound desire. The CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) created a corruption-reporting website that allowed citizens to access anticorruption laws, suggest proposals to anticorruption policy, and most importantly, “submit tips on current investigations or suspected cases of corruption.” In June 2015, the CCDI released a smartphone app version of the reporting site, which allows users to report up to 11 different categories of corrupt acts (e.g. using public funds for international travel and domestic tourism, and hosting extravagant banquets and parties), and even lets users upload pictures or videos of the act.

So will this new, Party-controlled version of crowdsourced anticorruption reporting prove more successful than its predecessor? Maybe. But there are also a number of reasons to be skeptical.

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Guest Post: Empowering Youth To Fight Corruption — Examples from Kosovo

Shqipe Neziri, Manager with UNDP’s anticorruption program in Kosovo, contributes the following guest post on behalf of UNDP-Kosovo. [Note: For purposes of this post, in reflection of the fact that Kosovo is not a member of the UN, references to “Kosovo” should be understood to be in the context of Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999)):

Young people are often forgotten victims of corruption, left without an opportunity to voice their concerns, to help make positive changes, or to enhance their skills and become active citizens for a better future. Yet young people can play an important role in the fight against corruption. They tend to be more open to wide-scale socio-political transformation and have less vested interested in maintaining the status quo. Moreover, the values and attitudes of young people today will shape the values of the society tomorrow. The question is how to harness then energy and innovation of young people, and to provide the right kinds of support.

UNDP’s recent efforts in Kosovo may provide an example of how to foster a youth-based anticorruption movement. Corruption in Kosovo is a serious problem, viewed by Kosovars as the third-most serious problem, after poverty and unemployment. Kosovo’s population skews young –half of its 2 million citizens are under the age of 30 – and Kosovo’s young people are frustrated by corruption and lack of economic opportunity. (The overall unemployment rate is 35%, while unemployment rate of youth aged 15-24 years is 60%.) For several years, UNDP Kosovo has been placing youth at the core of its development support. Through our anticorruption efforts we have been helping to strengthen the voice of the youth and to foster their participation in decision making through the use of traditional and social media, and working to make institutions more responsive to youth.

What are some of our most successful youth-focused anticorruption initiatives? Here are some examples, which might serve as useful models for others: Continue reading

Facebook Fever is Not Enough: The Role of Social Media in the Philippines

The Philippines, long mired in corruption, appears to have made progress on this front in recent years. While the current administration’s anticorruption efforts may have contributed to this progress, some commentators have suggested that social media might actually be playing a bigger role in the decline of graft in the country. Indeed, there are some dramatic examples of social media playing a role in the fight against corruption. For instance, as details of a major scheme involving misappropriation of public money began to surface in 2013, social media platforms exploded with photos and videos pulled from the Instagram and Facebook account of Jeane Napoles, whose mother, Janet, had orchestrated the scheme. Filipinos were shocked and appalled by all that ill-gotten wealth could buy—private planes, expensive handbags, multi-million dollar apartments, and even a new car detailed with an Hermes leather exterior (yes, exterior). Even after these accounts were taken down, photos of the Napoles’ lavish lifestyle continued to circulate. These images made people far more aggressive in condemning the actions of those involved, and even inspired the Million People March, when protestors called for complete elimination of the fund used in the scheme. More recently, Facebook posts about sightings of the younger Napoles helped the media to discover that Jeane, who fled the country in 2013, had in fact returned. She has since been charged with tax evasion.

This is encouraging, and no doubt social media platforms can be useful in the fight against corruption. Nonetheless, I’m cautious about overstating the long-term impact that social media might have on corruption in the Philippines. After all, the Philippines has had an active free press for decades, and past administrations have frequently been challenged by civilian participation and condemnation of corrupt practices. Can we really rely on social media to effect lasting change? Continue reading