National Digital Currencies Raise New Risks of Grand Corruption

In 2017, you may have heard of this thing called blockchain. The technology, which works by creating a decentralized, encrypted, and independently verifiable ledger of transactions distributed over a network of computer systems, has allowed innovations in the design of secure systems for recording votes, registering land ownership, and confirming digital identity. The most famous application of the blockchain, however, has been the creation of digital currencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Ripple. Many private individuals consider these currencies to be the way of the future, and the death knell of the central banker: universal, transparent, and valued according to mathematical laws rather than political preferences, cryptocurrencies—according to their proponents—will bring with them immeasurable benefits, among them making the fight against corruption easier by allowing all interested parties to “see the entirety of any transaction instantly and accurately.”

But private citizens aren’t the only ones who have heard of the blockchain: the same central bankers who are meant to be rendered irrelevant by the advent of cryptocurrencies have also taken notice. Several governments, including those of Israel, Russia, China, Estonia, Sweden, and Venezuela, have announced plans to create their own national digital currencies (NDCs) based on blockchain technology. While there are several sound economic reasons for introducing an NDC, governments frequently cite the same anticorruption benefits mentioned above.

However, there are crucial differences between NDCs and cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. Rather than open architectures enabling full financial transparency, most NDCs currently plan to use some form of centralized ledger, giving government authorities (and only them) the ability to see and police transactions. While such centralized transparency will give honest governments a much-needed boost in the fight against corruption, it will also give oppressive and kleptocratic regimes another tool with which to steal from and oppress their populations. Continue reading

India’s Political Party Finance Reform Falls Short of Ensuring Complete Transparency—But Is Still a Step in the Right Direction

On March 1, 2018, India began its latest effort to clean up the financing of political parties and elections. This efforts involves the sale of so-called “electoral bonds” at select state banks across the country. The term “electoral bonds” is a misnomer, for these “bonds” are not linked to elections, nor do they involve paying back a loan or yielding interest. Rather, these instruments are simply a new means to facilitate financial donations to political parties, and are intended to displace the undocumented cash transfers that form the lifeblood of Indian politics. As India’s Finance Minister argued, this cash-based system causes two problems: First, “unclean money from unidentifiable sources” facilitates corruption and money laundering. Second, the reliance on cash allows parties to underreport both their budgets and spending. These concerns led the government last year to reduce the limit on anonymous cash donations from $300 to $30. Electoral bonds intend to further disrupt the system and achieve at least some increases in transparency of political spending.

Announcement of the new system has generated significant commentary, with the few admirers crowded out by the numerous detractors (see, for example, here, here, and here). The main focus of criticism is the new scheme’s guarantee of donor anonymity: Electoral bonds will carry no name and nobody, other than the bank and donor, can know who made the donation unless the donor willingly discloses her identity. The government has defended the anonymity guarantee as a way to prevent reprisals against donors, but critics understandably argue that the lack of transparency means that much political financing will continue to come from “unidentifiable sources,” allowing big business to keep lobbing money in exchange for policy favors while the public remains in the dark. (Moreover, the government’s emphasis on fear of reprisals as the rationale for anonymity suggests the government is unduly concerned with protecting the only class of donors for whom this would be a significant concern, namely large capitalists.) The electoral bond scheme has thus been painted as a move that potentially strengthens the crony capitalism responsible for India’s dire economic situation.

This strong negative reaction to the electoral bond scheme is, in my view, overwrought. True, the new policy does not solve the deep and serious problems with political finance in India. But it does have some notable advantages over status quo. Additionally, critics of the electoral bond system sometimes seem to treat donor transparency as an unalloyed good, when in fact donor transparency may have some drawbacks as well (even if one doesn’t take too seriously the government’s official line on political reprisals). Let me elaborate on each of these points: Continue reading

Argentinians Cry Out “Cambiemos,” But Can They?

In early January 2018, five prominent Argentinian officials were arrested on corruption charges, including Amado Boudou, Argentina’s former vice president. These arrests come on the heels of President Mauricio Macri’s landslide victory on a “Cambiemos,” or “Let’s Change,” platform—a promise to root out public corruption. Late last year, Argentina’s Congress passed a new anticorruption law, which punishes companies for corruption by blacklisting them from public contracts and levying fines of up to five times the amount companies have obtained by illegal means. The new law also requires corporate compliance programs for the first time. But, while these reforms are welcome, the Argentinian judiciary remains an obstacle to genuine progress in eradicating the rot of corruption.

While the Macri government should be praised for making steps in the right direction, its efforts will fall short unless something is done about Argentina’s judicial system. More specifically, Argentina’s judicial institutions suffer from three problems that impede effective anticorruption efforts: Continue reading

Do Mandatory Asset Declarations Reduce Corruption? And If So, How?

The United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC) calls on States Parties to adopt asset declaration and financial disclosure regimes for their public officials (see Article 8, paragraph 5 and Article 52, paragraph 5), and most states have complied with this commitment in one form or another. Indeed, according to a report by the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative, there is a continuous upward trend in the number of states that have enacted financial disclosure laws (see Figure 1.1 at page 8). Yet the near-universal popularity of mandatory asset declarations does not mean that this tool is actually effective. True, there have been a few high-profile cases where asset declarations played an important role in anticorruption efforts, such as the impeachment of the Chief Justices of the Philippines and Sri Lanka, as well as the resignation of the Vice Rectors of a prestigious university in Thailand and the top brass of a state bank in Portugal. But such high-profile cases are rare and may not be representative of the larger picture. In a previous post on this blog, Rick Messick expressed some skepticism about the extent to which asset declarations and other forms of mandatory financial disclosures actually contribute to anticorruption efforts, and criticized what he saw as extravagant and unrealistic claims about the effectiveness of such disclosures as anticorruption tools.

So what does the existing research actually say about the effectiveness of asset declarations on anticorruption efforts? While there are only a few studies on this topic, the evidence they supply nevertheless offers valuable insights.

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Lessons from the “Isolated Capital” Effect for the Fight Against Public Corruption

As numerous commentators have written on this blog and elsewhere, the New York state legislature suffers from a serious corruption problem (see, for example, here and here), with six corruption convictions of government leaders in eleven years, and suspicions that the rot runs much deeper. Would things be any better if New York’s capital were in New York City rather than in Albany? While it’s impossible to say for sure, research suggests—perhaps surprisingly—that the answer might be yes. In an influential paper, Filipe Campante and Qhoc-Anh Do found that, on average, corruption (as measured by federal corruption-related crime convictions per capita) is higher in states where the state capital is more “isolated”—that is, farther from the state’s major population centers. (States with relatively isolated capitals include not just New York (Albany), but also Illinois (Springfield), South Carolina (Columbia), Nevada (Carson City), and Florida (Tallahassee), among others.)

Of course, states are very unlikely to relocate their capitals, but understanding the likely mechanisms that explain Campante and Do’s surprising finding may help us better understand the sorts of policy levers that might help reduce corruption in state government. So why might it be the case that states with more isolated capital cities might have more corruption? Continue reading

“Right to Information” or “Right to Intimidation”? The Unfulfilled Promise of India’s Right to Information Act (RTI)

On July 18, 2017, Rajesh Savaliya, a 31-year-old activist, left his home in Surat, India to visit a friend’s construction site. The next day, he was found severely injured on the side of a highway, and doctors pronounced him dead later that day. Mr. Savaliya was murdered because of his attempts to expose corruption in his hometown schools, including the education mafia extracting money from students and schools operating without proper licenses and approval letters. As part of his campaign to expose this corruption, Mr. Savaliya had filed multiple requests for information about the local schools pursuant to India’s Right to Information Act (RTI). Sadly, Mr. Savaliya’s story is not unique: Since 2005, over 60 activists have been killed, and hundreds of others have been assaulted or harassed, for filing RTI requests.

Freedom of Information laws like India’s RTI Act can be a powerful pro-transparency tool for combating corruption and mismanagement in government. The RTI Act, which was adopted following a nationwide grassroots campaign, provides every Indian citizen the right to request information from a public authority—a right which is invoked by 4–6 million citizens each year. Yet the RTI Act is unlikely to be effective in exposing serious corruption—especially in cases where criminal elements have infiltrated or coopted state organs—unless those filing RTI requests are adequately protected and insulated from intimidation.

Not only are current protections for RTI requesters inadequate, but India seems, if anything to be moving in the wrong direction. Early this year, as a part of a package of proposed updates to the rules governing the RTI Act, India’s Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) proposed a new rule (Rule 12), which would allow RTI requestors to withdraw their appeals of decisions refusing disclosure, and would also require all such appeals to terminate upon the death of the requestor. Proposed Rule 12 has been widely criticized (see here, here, and here), in part because these changes would further incentivize threats and violence against RTI requesters like Rajesh Savaliya. As the Human Rights Initiative noted, “Draft Rule 12 will only legitimize such attacks and embolden vested interests who wish to keep corruption and maladministration under wraps.”

Instead of adopting counterproductive measures like Draft Rule 12, the DoPT and Indian Parliament should instead amend the Act and governing rules to better promote the safety and security of RTI requesters. Here are three potential changes—in order of likelihood of success and impact—that would serve this objective:

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How Transparent Should Prosecutors Be About Investigations Into High-Level Corruption?

Today’s post is going to be one of those ones where I raise a question that I’ve been puzzling over, without having much to offer in the way of good answers.

Here’s the question: How open and transparent with the public should the officials investigating serious allegations of high-level corruption be about the progress of their investigations?

To be sure, no competent investigator or prosecutor would or should be completely transparent, as doing so might well tip off the targets of the investigation to what the investigators know, their investigative and legal strategies, and so forth. But even with that constraint, there’s a fairly broad range of options. Investigators could be absolutely tight-lipped about everything. Or they could hold regular press conferences covering significant developments in the case (and perhaps even going further to comment on the larger issues that the investigation implicates). Or something in between.

I was prompted to think more about this question in part by an exchange I had with Jose Ugaz at last month’s Harvard conference on Populist Plutocrats. I was asking Mr. Ugaz about his experience serving as Peru’s Ad Hoc State Attorney investigating and prosecuting high-level corruption in the Fujimori regime, and in particular how he dealt with concerns that his investigation might be perceived as politicized. Those who are interested can watch the video of our exchange (which starts around 7:15:55), but the key part of Mr. Ugaz’s response (slightly edited for clarity) ran as follows: Continue reading