Guest Post: Contesting the Narrative of Anticorruption Failure

Today’s guest post is from Robert Barrington, currently a professor of practice at the University of Sussex’s Centre for the Study of Corruption, who previously served as the executive director of Transparency International UK, where he worked for over a decade.

I have read with great interest the recent exchange of views between Professor Bo Rothstein and Professor Matthew Stephenson on the academic study of corruption and anticorruption. As an anticorruption practitioner who now works within an academic research center, I was particularly struck by how their exchange (Professor Rothstein’s initial post, Professor Stephenson’s critique, and Professor Rothstein’s reply) surfaced some extremely important issues for anticorruption scholarship, its purposes, and its relationship to anticorruption practice.

I find it hard to agree with Professor Rothstein’s analysis, but this is before even looking at his points of difference with Professor Stephenson. My main beef with Professor Rothstein’s analysis is with his starting assumption of widespread failure. Like so many prominent scholars who study corruption, he proceeds from the premise that pretty much all of the anticorruption reform activity over the last generation has failed. He asserts that “[d]espite huge efforts from international development organizations, we have seen precious little success combating corruption,” that anticorruption reform efforts have been a “huge policy failure,” and sets out to explain “[w]hy …  so many anti-corruption programs [have] not delivered[.]” Professor Rothstein then offers three main answers, which Professor Stephenson criticizes.

In taking this downbeat view, Professor Rothstein is not alone. The scholarship of failure on this subject lists among its adherents many of the most prominent academic voices in the field. Professor Alina Mungiu-Pippidi has framed as a central question in corruption scholarship, “[W]hy do so many anticorruption reform initiatives fail?” Professor Michael Johnston asserts that “the results of anticorruption reform initiatives, with very few exceptions, have been unimpressive, or even downright counter-productive.” Professor Paul Heywood, notable for the nuance he generally brings to anticorruption analysis, asserts that there has been a “broad failure of anticorruption policies” in developing and developed countries alike. And many scholars proceed to reason backwards from that starting point of failure: If anticorruption reform efforts have been an across-the-board failure, it must be because anticorruption practitioners are doing things in the wrong way, which is because they are proceeding from an entirely wrongheaded set of premises. The principal problems identified by these scholars, perhaps not coincidentally, are those where academics might have a comparative advantage over practitioners: use of the wrong definition of corruption, use of the wrong social science framework to understand corruption, and (as Professor Rothstein puts it) locating corruption in the “wrong social spaces.”

That so many distinguished scholars have advanced something like this assessment makes me wary, as a practitioner, of offering a different view. But I do see things differently. In my view, both the initial assessment (that anticorruption reform efforts have been an across-the-board failure) and the diagnosis (that this failure is due to practitioners not embracing the right definitions and theories) are incorrect; they are more than a little unfair, and potentially harmful. I want to emphasize that different take should not be considered as an attack on eminent scholars, but a genuine effort to tease out why, when presented with the same evidence, some academics see failure, while many practitioners see success. Here goes: Continue reading

New Podcast, Featuring Gary Kalman

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, we’re delighted to welcome back to the podcast Gary Kalman, the Director of Transparency International’s United States office. I was fortunate to be able to interview Gary a little over one year ago, just before he stepped into his new role as TI’s U.S. Director. In our more recent conversation, we had the opportunity to discuss how his first year in this position has gone, touching on some major successes–most notably the passage of the Corporate Transparency Act, which requires companies to provide the government with information on their true beneficial owners–as well as ongoing challenges. Gary discusses some of the advocacy strategies that proved effective on the corporate transparency issues, and suggests how similar strategies might be deployed to advance other aspects of the anticorruption agenda. He also lays out what he sees as the highest priorities for TI’s advocacy work in the United States, and what vulnerabilities have been exposed by the experience with the Trump Administration and how those might be addressed. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations: KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

This Year, Let’s All Resist the Temptation to Emphasize Changes in Individual Country’s CPI Scores!

Later this week (if I’m not mistaken, a couple of days from today) Transparency International (TI) will publish its annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), together with some press materials and additional discussions. And if this year is like previous years, many media outlets — and TI itself — will make much of how individual countries’ scores and rankings have changed from the previous year. Often these discussions will be situated into some narrative (usually along the lines of, “Country X’s anticorruption efforts are failing, as we can tell from its declining score”). In fact, sometimes politicians and activists will point to their country’s score changes as evidence on the question whether they are making progress on the fight against corruption.

This comparison of annual CPI scores for individual countries is, with vanishingly few exceptions, a pointless, misleading, intellectually bankrupt exercise, for reasons that I’ve tried to explain pretty much every year for the last seven years. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. To be clear, I’m a fan of the CPI and will continue to defend it as a worthwhile measurement exercise, despite its flaws. And many of the folks on the TI research team who work very hard on this index are smart, serious people who are doing their best. Indeed, if you know where to look, you can sometimes find TI research documents on the CPI that include appropriate caveats. But TI’s press releases and public comments, and most of the media commentary on the CPI, continue to treat individual changes in each country’s score as some kind of meaningful indicator.

This year, I’m going to try something new. Instead of waiting until after the CPI is published, and then sitting back in my (metaphorical) armchair in the Ivory Tower and hurling criticisms at those who portray year-to-year changes in individual countries’ CPI scores as meaningful, I’m going to try raising this issue before the CPI is published, in the hopes that this might have more of an impact in how the CPI numbers are presented, especially by the folks at TI. (And I know some of you read this blog!!!) It’s not too late! Please please please go over your press release and other materials and make sure you’re not presenting your (very important!) work as telling us anything interesting or useful about which individual counties are getting better or worse as compared to last year (or the last few years). Please please please emphasize that the CPI is not meant to be used as an indicator of policy success or failure. Please please please, at the very least, make sure that you emphasize the uncertainty (that is, the “noisiness”) of the perception estimates (which is not the same as the point that perceptions are different from reality, which TI already emphasizes), and for goodness’ sake, don’t emphasize score changes that your own data indicates are not statistically significant at conventional levels.

And in case any of you folks in the media happen to be reading this blog, you can do better too! The CPI is a great “hook” for discussing corruption-related issues in your country, but you do your readers a disservice if you cover the CPI as if it’s a league table, or try to construct a narrative around random noise.

(Oh, by the way, all of the above exhortations are premised on the validity of my critique of year-to-year country CPI comparisons. If anyone out there thinks that critique is misguided, I would also welcome a substantive rebuttal. I’m not going to restate all the elements of my critique here; anyone who is interested can click on the links above and read my posts from previous years.)

Let’s see if this preemptive strike is any more successful than past years’ after-the-fact criticisms…

The IMF’s (Non-)Engagement with Corruption in Military Spending

In a move that has been hailed by the anticorruption community as a “major step forward,” the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has declared that it will address corruption in its member states, insofar as that corruption is “macro-critical” – that is, when corruption “affects, or has the potential to affect, domestic or external [macroeconomic] stability.” As I stressed in a previous post, the focus on “macro-criticality” is the IMF’s solution to a persistent problem with how to distinguish economic policy (which the IMF may influence) from matters that are outside the IMF’s mandate—because, after all, the IMF is a “monetary agency, not a development agency.” Grounding anticorruption in the Fund’s mission to support the international financial system allows IMF staff to discuss anticorruption strategies frankly with country authorities.

Yet certain corruption-related topics still seem off limits, notwithstanding their arguably macro-critical characteristics. For instance, although the IMF has touted its comprehensive framework for reviewing corruption risks, the IMF’s strategy leaves out certain key channels that facilitate corruption, such as the corrosive effect of corruption on, and in, military spending. The wholesale omission of military spending from the IMF’s anticorruption strategy demonstrates that the IMF’s attention to macro-critical corruption problems is tempered by understandable concerns about the reputational blowback that might result from intervention into politically sensitive areas. Understandable as it may be, the IMF’s decision to exclude military spending from its anticorruption strategy deprives member countries of the broader benefits that are provided when the IMF acknowledges a concern as macro-critical.

Understandable as it may be, the IMF’s decision to exclude military spending from its anticorruption strategy deprives member countries of the broader benefits that are provided when the IMF acknowledges a concern as macro-critical.

Continue Reading

A Covid-19 Checkup: How the IMF’s Transparency Measures Have Fared So Far

With a trillion dollars in lending capability, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is one of the best-equipped institutions to deal with the Covid-19 public health and financial crisis. Since March, the IMF has met an “unprecedented number of calls for emergency financing” with “unprecedented speed and magnitude,” through renegotiations of rapid credit facilities, refinancing initiatives, and debt relief assistance for more than 100 countries, totaling over $100 billion in disbursements so far. In the early days of the pandemic, there was a great deal of concern among anticorruption advocates over the way these emergency funds would be monitored (see collections of pieces here and here). The IMF’s initial approach generally did not impose formal transparency or governance requirements as a condition for receiving emergency Covid relief funds. Rather, the IMF chose to rely more on after-the-fact safeguards: recipient countries were told to spend as needed but to “keep the receipts.”

The IMF’s approach is understandable. As Jason Keene argued on this blog, the IMF at that early stage faced a trade-off between speed and transparency, and may have reasonably concluded that it would not be advisable to bargain over transparency measures if doing so would slow the deployment of much-needed funds. This conclusion, as a May 2020 IMF publication revealed, was influenced by the IMF’s experience with the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa: Many, including a prominent public health journal, blamed the IMF for the lethality of the Ebola epidemic, provoking a backlash against what was seen as unduly burdensome loans, a focus on austerity, and the underfunding of medical systems in vulnerable countries (see here, here, and here). Given this background, it’s understandable that the IMF might, on balance, favor speed over transparency, providing loans for Covid-related public health and budgetary shortfalls without much conditionality.

Continue Reading

New Podcast, Featuring Michael Hershman

After a brief summer hiatus, I’m happy to announce that a new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, my collaborators Nils Köbis and Christopher Starke interview Michael Hershman. Mr. Hershman, one of the co-founders of Transparency International (TI), has had a long and distinguished career on issues related to transparency and anticorruption, including work with the U.S. Senate Watergate Committee, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and, more recently, the Independent Governance Committee for FIFA. In the interview, Nils and Christopher talk with Mr. Hershman about his background, the founding of TI, the relationship between corruption and populism, and issues related to corruption and sports, among other topics.

You can find this episode here. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

New Podcast, Featuring Asoka Obeysekere

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, I interview Asoka Obeysekere, the Executive Director for Transparency International’s Sri Lanka chapter (TI-SL). Our conversation covers TI-SL’s various approaches to combating corruption in Sri Lanka, including both “retail” legal aid efforts to assist individual citizens in dealing with corrupt bureaucrats, as well as efforts to secure broader legal and institutional reforms, as well as broader cultural change. On that latter subject, the interview also covers the system of corruption in Sri Lanka, how corruption has become normalized, and whether an dhow attitudes about corruption can be changed. We also discuss how TI-SL, drawing inspiration from a civil society initiative in Ukraie, has compiled its own registry of Politically Exposed Persons (PEPs) using publicly available, and how the creation of such a database can be helpful in detecting suspicious activity and exposing potential wrongdoing. The interview concludes with the advice Mr. Obeysekere would offer to other civil society leaders operating in similarly challenging environments on how they can be most effective in advancing an anticorruption agenda.

You can find this episode here. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

Guest Post: Lessons from the Campaign for the UK Bribery Act

Today’s guest post is from Robert Barrington, who is currently Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at the University of Sussex’s Centre for the Study of Corruption, and who previously worked for Transparency International’s UK chapter (as Director of External Affairs from 2008-2013, and as Executive Director from 2013-2019).

The United Kingdom Bribery Act (UKBA) was enacted into law just over a decade ago, on April 8th 2010. This overhaul of UK law on transnational bribery was the culmination of a dozen years of vigorous campaigning by civil society advocacy groups, including Transparency International’s UK chapter (TI-UK). I was TI-UK’s Director of External Affairs for the final couple of years of that campaign, and I thought it might be helpful to reflect on some of the key lessons we learned in the course of the campaign for the UKBA. I explored these issues at greater length in a lecture marking the tenth anniversary of the UKBA, but in this post I want to focus on three of the most important lessons that we learned from the campaign for the UKBA, lessons that I hope will be useful to other civil society organizations engaged in similar campaigns elsewhere. Continue reading

Commentaries on Corruption and the Coronavirus Pandemic: Update

A couple weeks back, I said I was thinking about trying to collect and collate the ever-increasing number of commentaries on the relationship between corruption and the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. Several readers wrote to encourage me to continue, so I’m doing another update. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep this up, since commentaries in on the corruption-coronavirus connection, like the virus itself, seem to be growing at an exponential rate. I certainly don’t make any claims to comprehensiveness (and thus I beg the forgiveness of anyone whose contributions I’ve neglected to include in the list below). But here are some new pieces I came across, followed by a chronological list of corruption-coronavirus commentaries to date: Continue reading

Guest Post: A Defense of Anticorruption Orthodoxy

Robert Barrington, Professor of Anti-Corruption Practice at the University of Sussex’s Centre for the Study of Corruption, contributes today’s guest post.

The international anticorruption movement, which has been so successful over the last 25 years in putting this once-taboo issue squarely at the forefront of the international agenda, is suffering a crisis of confidence. The aspiration to eliminate corruption now seems to many like a fantasy from the dreamy era of the fall of the Berlin Wall. And what had appeared to be an emerging consensus about how to diagnose corruption, and how to respond, is fracturing. There has long been a lively debate within the anticorruption community about the best ways to understand and respond to corruption; and likewise, a growing challenge from several different quarters (including governments, businesses, journalists, and academics) on areas such as measurement, what has been successful, and whether the evidence matches the theory for fundamental approaches such as transparency. The debate and challenge have been broadly healthy, and have led to sharper thinking and improved approaches. But some criticism has veered towards attacking simplistic caricatures of the perceived orthodoxy, or launching broad-brush critiques that, intentionally or not, serve to undermine the anticorruption movement and provide nourishment for those that would prefer to see the anticorruption movement diminished or fail.

Take, for example, two common lines of attack against the “orthodox” approach to tackling corruption, one concerning the diagnosis of the problem and the other concerning appropriate responses: Continue reading