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

Providing Reparations to the Victims of Foreign Bribery: What Criteria Are Appropriate?

It is widely agreed that foreign bribery is capable of causing harm to a range of different victims, including the governments whose officials are bribed (the so-called “demand-side countries”), and the citizens of those countries. Yet traditionally, when supply-side countries (those with jurisdiction over the firms that paid bribes abroad) reach settlement agreements with corporate defendants in these cases, the fines and penalties collected—which can sometimes run into the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars—go to the supply-side government treasuries, a fact that has attracted considerable discussion and criticism.

In recent years, we’ve started to see some changes in the approach taken by supply-side governments on this issue, with the United Kingdom being particularly active. On several notable occasions, the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) has included in its settlement agreements with corporate defendants specific provisions to remediate the victims of foreign bribery. Importantly, such remediation (not just in the UK case, but more generally) can take two forms, which are often unhelpfully conflated:

  • In some cases, the resolution of a bribery case may include compensation to identifiable victims, if it can be shown that the victims suffered a direct loss, the value of which can be reasonably estimated. The victim might be a foreign government itself. For example, the 2015 deferred prosecution agreement negotiated between the SFO and Standard Bank included a payment to the Tanzanian Government, because in that case an agent of Standard Bank had used money to which the Tanzanian government was entitled in order to pay an illegal bribe. The payment to the Tanzanian government in the settlement agreement was compensation for this loss.
  • In many cases, though, the harm done by foreign corruption is more diffuse, the victims are difficult to identify individually, and the monetary value of the harm inflicted is impossible to calculate. Nonetheless, even though traditional victim compensation is not possible in these cases, it is still possible, and often desirable, for a portion of the fines and penalties collected from the responsible corporation to be directed toward improving the lives and livelihoods of the population victimized by the misconduct—perhaps by making a payment to the government of the demand-side country, possibly earmarked for a specific purpose, or perhaps by donating money to charities, or by purchasing assets that benefit the public, or even by making payments directly to citizens. Though these sorts of payments are also sometimes described as “victim compensation,” I prefer the term reparations, which makes clear that these payments are not “compensation” in the traditional, narrower sense, but rather payments intended for the benefit of a general populace or society at large. An example of this sort of reparations payment can be found in another case involving the SFO and Tanzania, this one the SFO’s 2010 settlement agreement with BAE Systems for illegal commissions that the company had paid to an intermediary in connection with the sale of an aircraft radar system to the Tanzanian government. (Technically, BAE admitted and was penalized for an accounting offense—failing to keep accurate records of the payments—rather than the underlying bribery.) The settlement required BAE systems to pay approximately £30 million for the purpose of buying educational materials in Tanzania. There is no evidence to suggest that BAE System’s misconduct in connection with the radar system sale caused any damage, let alone £30 million worth of damage, to Tanzania’s education system. So this payment was not “victim compensation” in the narrow sense, but rather an effort to offset some of the damage BAE’s wrongful conduct had done at a more general, societal level.

The legal mechanisms for determining compensation awards, though imperfect, are relatively straightforward. Determining an award of reparations is much more complicated, because (almost by definition) it will not be clear exactly who suffered due to the act of foreign bribery, nor how much loss was suffered, nor how that loss should be recouped. (While the United Kingdom does have “compensation principles” in place which are intended to provide a guiding framework for remedial awards in foreign bribery cases, these principles are phrased at too high a level of abstraction to be much use.) One question that will need to be addressed, and the one I want to focus on here, is whether there must be some kind of nexus between the harm caused by a particular act of bribery and the proposed reparations. Of course, as I have explained, reparations are distinct from compensation, and will not require a showing of a quantifiable harm to an identifiable victim. But does the reparations payment need to have any strong connection—in sector, location, or amount—with the harm plausibly caused by the defendant’s act of bribery? Continue reading

Tanzania’s President Magufuli Bulldozes the Civil Service: Is This an Anticorruption Breakthrough?

For decades (perhaps longer), the corruption problem in Sub-Saharan Africa has seemed intractable. With only a handful of exceptions (such as Botswana, and more recently Rwanda), Sub-Saharan African countries score poorly on measures like Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI), and direct surveys of African citizens tend to confirm that the frequency of petty bribery, while both lower and more variable than some Westerners think, are much higher than in most other countries. Declarations of war on corruption have also been a feature of African politics for decades, to the point where both citizens themselves and outside observers have grown cynical about the will or capacity of leaders to clean up the system.

But there are some preliminary, hopeful signs that in at least some major Sub-Saharan countries, things may be starting to change for the better. The country that probably gets the most attention, at least among commentators outside of Africa, seems to be Nigeria, where President Buhari—a former strongman-style President whom some have characterized as a kind of “born-again” reformer—has made anticorruption a centerpiece of both his election campaign and his administration. (For some discussions of President Buhari’s anticorruption efforts, on this blog and elsewhere, see here, here, here, and here.) But to me—as a non-expert with only the most superficial knowledge of the region or its politics—the more interesting developments are actually occurring in Tanzania, under the administration of President John Magufuli. Continue reading

Fighting Procurement Corruption: the Essential Role of Bid Challenge Systems

Ensuring firms that loose the competition for a government contract can challenge the result is a critical part of the fight against corruption in public procurement.  A losing bidder will have lost the chance to make a profit and will have invested time and money in preparing its bid.  It thus has not only a strong motive for contesting a decision it believes tainted by corruption but the expertise to do so.  Bid challenge systems complement procurement oversight by civil society.  Indeed, they may even be a more powerful tool.  Whereas civil society monitoring typically relies on public-spirited volunteers unfamiliar with the technical aspects of the procurement, bid challenge systems harness firms’ self-interest and technical knowledge in service of ferreting out procurement corruption.

Transparency International’s 2014 volume on combating procurement corruption and the OECD’s 2016 procurement integrity handbook both note the importance of bid challenge systems but offer little guidance on what makes for an effective system.  Here are five questions anticorruption advocates can ask to assess the effectiveness of their nation’s bid challenge system: Continue reading

Guest Post: Turning Big Data Into a Useful Anticorruption Tool in Africa

GAB is delighted to welcome back Dr. Elizabeth Dávid-Barrett of the University of Sussex, who contributes today’s guest post:

Many anticorruption advocates are excited about the prospects that “big data” will help detect and deter graft and other forms of malfeasance. As part of a project in this vein, titled Curbing Corruption in Development Aid-Funded Procurement, Mihály Fazekas, Olli Hellmann, and I have collected contract-level data on how aid money from three major donors is spent through national procurement systems; our dataset comprises more than half a million contracts and stretching back almost 20 years. But good data alone isn’t enough. To be useful, there must be a group of interested and informed users, who have both the tools and the skills to analyse the data to uncover misconduct, and then lobby governments and donors to listen to and act on the findings. The analysis of big datasets to find evidence of corruption – for example, the method developed by Mihály Fazekas to identify “red flags” of corruption risks in procurement contract data—requires statistical skills and software, both of which are in short supply in many parts of the developing world, such as sub-Saharan Africa.

Yet some ambitious recent initiatives are trying to address this problem. Lately I’ve had the privilege to be involved in one such initiative, led by Oxford mathematician Balázs Szendrői, that helps empower a group of young African mathematicians to analyse “big data” on public corruption. Continue reading

Innovative or Ineffective?: Performance-Based Lending as an Anticorruption Tool

The Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs) new focus on fighting corruption and building institutions has generated quite a stir (including on this blog – see here, here, here, and here). But the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) – a U.S. agency responsible for disbursement of assistance geared toward international development targets – has long been acting against corruption through its effort to achieve the SDG precursors, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Institution-building does not appear among the substantive aims of the eight MDGs. Rather, the MCC made anticorruption central to its work by introducing corruption indices into its process for competitive selection of aid recipients. In brief, the MCC Board of Directors chooses aid-eligible countries by evaluating and scoring candidates countries’ “policy performance” on a number of measures. Crucially, in order to qualify for aid, countries must score above average for their income group on the Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) “Control of Corruption” score. The indicator is therefore known as the “hard hurdle.” The Board also assesses corruption trends in its analysis of a country’s ability to reduce poverty and generate economic growth, which, with policy performance, comprises the overall evaluation.

This strategy is known as performance-based lending, and the MCC has employed it to award over $10 billion in grants to nearly 40 countries over the past 12 years. Is the MCC approach a good one? Many critics say no. I say yes. Although it is a strategy that is still evolving, performance-based lending—including the corruption control “hard hurdle”—is not only innovative and effective, but important.

Continue reading

Lessons from a Pathbreaking DfID Anticorruption Project in Tanzania

Britain’s Department for International Development is funding thoughtful, ambitious projects in Ghana, Tanzania, and Uganda to help those governments step up the enforcement of national anticorruption laws.  What makes the three thoughtful is their recognition that improving anticorruption law enforcement requires the simultaneous strengthening of the entire criminal justice chain – from the entities that turn up possible corruption violations to the agencies which investigate these leads to prosecution services and courts – together with measures to improve  collaboration among them.  What makes the three projects ambitious is that they provide assistance from one end of the chain to another;  building capacity in a single agency can be challenge, building it in several simultaneously even more so.

Yet if developing countries are to do better at catching, prosecuting, and convicting corrupt officials and those who corrupt them, more programs like these three, whether donor- or self-funded, are needed.  It does no good to improve the ability of an anticorruption agency to investigate corruption if prosecutors don’t have the skill to present a convincing case.  And no matter how skilled the prosecution, it will be for naught if the courts don’t understand the law or the evidence.

The 4 ½ year, £11.3 million Tanzania project, dubbed “STACA” for Strengthening Tanzania’s Anticorruption Action, was the first of the three DfID projects to tackle the criminal justice chain in one fell swoop, and along with the U4 Anticorruption Resource Center and REPOA, a Tanzanian think-tank, I reviewed its progress at roughly the half- way mark in implementation.  While we trust close study of the review is merited, below I summarize three points that came out of it that I think are particularly critical, both for developing country policymakers looking for ways to enhance the enforcement of their nation’s anticorruption laws and for donor organizations wanting to help them. Continue reading