Prompting Procurement Law Reform: The World Bank’s Benchmarking Public Procurement Series

No government activity is as vulnerable to corruption as public procurement. The procedures governments employ when deciding what to buy, how much of it to buy, and from whom to buy it provide countless opportunities for greedy officials and their private sector accomplices to profit at citizens’ expense. No serious effort to curb corruption can therefore avoid a careful scrub of a nation’s procurement law.

The best scrubbing tools are found in the World Bank’s series Benchmarking Public Procurement.  As the name proclaims, each report in the series provides standards against which the quality of a nation’s or even a province or local government’s procurement law can be gauged. Begun with a 2015 pilot examining public-private partnership contracts in a handful of countries, the most recent volume, published in 2020, assays the rules for letting PPPs in 140 jurisdictions and the rules in 40 for the award of infrastructure contracts from public funds (a 2017 report covers publicly-funded procurement contracts in 180).

Procurement is a devilishly complex area of policy. Untutored anticorruption advocates looking for corruption-reducing reforms can quickly find themselves stymied by the maze of rules governing procurement decisions and the status quo-bias of procurement staff and government suppliers. Benchmarking offers a way around these obstacles. A way to open a discussion about procurement policy and where laws or practices need changing between anticorruption reformers and the procurement community.

The 2020 edition examines how countries fare against standard practice on 160 plus areas. Not everyone will agree that all 160 plus benchmarks are best practice, and many will wish for explicit anticorruption benchmarks like those described here were included. But the critical step is to begin a dialogue on reforming a nation’s procurement law, and the Bank’s Benchmarking series is the best vehicle yet for sparking one. I hope a new updated and expanded edition is in the cards.

Guest Post: Do Governments Have a Clue About the Money Laundering Risks They Face? UPDATE

UPDATE: the World Bank hosts a discussion on the report that is the subject of this post May 30, 12:00 noon EDT. Link to register here.

Today’s guest post summarizes an April World Bank study of money laundering risk assessments. The first step in preventing money laundering is identifying where it occurs and how likely it is to occur. In short, the risks of money laundering. The Bank study evaluated risk assessments eight governments had conducted in accordance with the methodology prescribed by the Financial Action Task Force. For reasons that will become plain, the post’s author has chosen to remain anonymous.

The title from a new World Bank report on money laundering risks could scarcely be blander: National Assessments of Money Laundering Risks: Learning from Eight Advanced Countries’ NRAs.  The content is anything but. Authored by Joras Ferwerda of Utrecht University and Peter Reuter of the University of Maryland, the report concludes that not a one of the eight money laundering risk assessments examined, all done as the report’s title advertises by “advanced” countries, is worth a damn. Not a one merits a passing grade from the two professors, both highly regarded money laundering experts. What’s worse, despite close to a decade of experience doing such assessments, the two find that no government seems to have learned a thing from the mistakes of others.

This raises a fundamental question about the existing AML regime. How can it be effective if national authorities lack an understanding of the money laundering risks their countries face?

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Guest Announcement: Invitation to Join the Symposium on Supranational Responses to Corruption

Today’s guest post is from Alexandra Manea, Legal Counsel at the World Bank’s Office of Suspension and Debarment, and Jamieson Smith, the World Bank’s Chief Suspension and Debarment Officer.

Across the world, states play a fundamental role in shaping and enforcing the global anticorruption framework and agenda. But what happens when a state is unable to effectively counter corruption within its borders for various reasons? Are there supranational anticorruption mechanisms and remedies that could supplement the state’s response?

Experience shows that over the past two decades both public and private actors have developed supranational tools to tackle the “demand” and “supply” sides of corruption. A few examples include the sanctions systems of certain multilateral development banks, including the World Bank Group, which endeavor to protect development-intended funds from corruption by blacklisting corrupt contractors; the recently established European Public Prosecutor Office, designed to protect the European Union’s finances against corruption by prosecuting corrupt behaviors across EU member states; the exclusion mechanism of the Norwegian Government Pension Fund, the largest sovereign wealth fund with investments in over 9000 companies worldwide, that may divest from companies that engaged in corruption; and international corporations that have implemented robust integrity compliance programs across their affiliates at nationals levels.

To study these and other examples and to devise new opportunities for supranational remedies against corruption, a call for papers was launched last year, and was also published on this blog. We received hundreds of paper proposals from academics and practitioners from across numerous sectors and regions. The selected papers make up a rich agenda for our upcoming symposium, bringing together scholars and professionals from the private sector, international organizations, government, and civil society.  With this background, on behalf of the World Bank’s Office of Suspension and Debarment, the OECD’s Anti-Corruption Division, and the American Society of International Law’s Anti-Corruption Law Interest Group, we would like to invite all GAB followers to join the symposium on Supranational Responses to Corruption, on April 28-29, 2022. The event will be held in a hybrid format with about 30 presenters on site in Vienna, Austria, and hopefully with many of you attending online.

The main objective of the symposium is to study and reflect upon current and prospective anti-corruption efforts that transcend national boundaries or governments. The symposium will take stock of the current supranational anti-corruption mechanisms and standards, assess how to facilitate a multilateral understanding of these efforts, and discuss whether, to what extent, and how supranational anti-corruption institutions can move towards creating regional and/or transnational anti-corruption ecosystems that can effectively combat corruption irrespective of the actions, or lack thereof, of a specific state.

This symposium has been organized with the support of multiple organizations and professionals and we would like to thank them all for their valuable efforts in making this event possible. The International Anti-Corruption Academy, the World Economic Forum – Partnering Against Corruption Initiative, the Austrian Federal Ministry for European and International Affairs, and the OPEC Fund for International Development (event host in Vienna) provided important support.  Special thanks to GAB’s very own Matthew Stephenson, who generously helped us from the early stages through today, with sharpening the symposium’s focus, tailoring the agenda, and giving us the opportunity to invite GAB’s specialized audience to the symposium.

The full agenda is available here. You can register for April 28 here and for April 29 here. We hope to have many of you join the discussions!

Highway Robbery: Preventing Corruption in U.S. Infrastructure Investment

Last November, President Biden signed into law the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), a $1.2 trillion package that earmarks $110 billion for repairing and rebuilding roads and bridges. This is the single largest investment in U.S. roads and bridges since the construction of the interstate highway system in the mid twentieth century. And though it is a federal project, much of the money will be distributed to state governments, which will determine how best to use the money to address their infrastructure needs. As state governments receive the IIJA money, we can expect the states to launch a public tender frenzy.

In all the extensive discussion and debate over the IIJA, there has been relatively little focus on the corruption risks inherent in this sort of spending program—even in an affluent, reasonably well-governed country like the United States. After all, corruption in large construction projects, and infrastructure projects like roadbuilding in particular, is all too common. Unfortunately, the IIJA’s design exacerbates rather than reduces these corruption risks. While it is too late to address those flaws in the statute, there are some measures that the federal government can and should adopt now to mitigate the inherent corruption risks. Continue reading

Keep the Dogmatic Privatization Argument Out of Style

It used to be trendy to talk about privatization as the solution for corruption. The World Bank, for example, declared back in 1997 that “any reform that increases the competitiveness of the economy will reduce incentives for corrupt behavior. Thus policies that lower controls on foreign trade, remove entry barriers to private industry, and privatize state firms in a way that ensures competition will all support the fight [against corruption].” (See also here, here, and here.) Although this theory declined rapidly after its peak in the 1990s, anticorruption policy ideas, like fashion, seem to be cyclical. Even as the privatization dogma has become démodé in Western anticorruption circles, it has gained new life elsewhere. As “privatization as a solution to corruption” debates reemerge in India and the Philippines, it’s worth reexamining the flaws in such policy proposals that made them fall out of favor twenty years ago.

The logic behind the idea that privatization inherently(or at least usually)decreases corruption is the notion that private shareholders are more interested than government bureaucrats in the efficient usage of whatever resources they control, and are therefore more likely to crack down on corruption. Relatedly, competition in the private market should favor those entities that can provide a service most efficiently—and if graft is inefficient, as many believe, market competition should drive corruption down. On top of this, private organizations also reduce corruption by offering more competitive wages, which means that employees aren’t forced to turn to corrupt means to supplement their incomes.

That’s the theory. The problem is that it isn’t supported by empirical evidence. Starting in the early 2000s and continuing well into the present, scholarship examining the aftermath of the privatization wave of the 1990s has repeatedly found that privatization has been largely unhelpful, and in some cases outright detrimental, to efforts to bring corruption under control (see here, here, here, here, here and here, to cite but a few sources). Why is this? Three main problems stand out:

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ASIL/World Bank/OECD Symposium on Supranational Responses to Corruption–Call for Papers

The Anti-Corruption Law Interest Group of the American Society of International Law (ACLIG), the World Bank’s Office of Suspension and Debarment (OSD), and the OECD’s Anti-Corruption Division are organizing a symposium on “Supranational Responses to Corruption,” tentatively planned to be held in person in Vienna, Austria on November 18-19, 2021, with the possibility to participate remotely. The theme of the symposium–which is described in greater detail here–is “supranational responses to corruption.” In other words, the symposium will focus on current and prospective anticorruption efforts that transcend national boundaries or governments. Themes of this symposium may include, but are not limited to:

  • Efforts that can transcend national boundaries or governments structures when it comes to generating and operationalizing anticorruption policies and measures undertaken by intergovernmental organizations, regional organizations, institutional investors, donors, and private sector firms;
  • Efforts to establish regional/global investigative, prosecutorial, and adjudicatory anticorruption institutions;
  • Efforts to enhance coordination and collaboration among the actors undertaking anticorruption efforts at the international level.

The organizers are inviting proposals for both full papers (minimum 5,000 words) and short essays (minimum 2,500 words) from scholars, private sector professionals, international organizations professionals, policymakers, public officials, civil society organizations, and the broader international anti-corruption community. The deadline to submit a proposal is May 15, 2021 (a month from today). A proposal should be between 250 and 500 words, and should indicate how the proposed paper or essay relates to the themes of the symposium. To submit a proposal, you should send it (together with a brief biographical statement) to Successful applicants will be informed by June13, and the deadline for submitting the full paper or essay will be September 25, 2021.

This sounds like a great event on an important set of topics, so I hope that many of you will consider submitting proposals!

Guest Announcement: The World Bank Office of Suspension and Debarment’s Fifth International Debarment Colloquium

Today’s guest post is from Alexandra Manea, Legal Counsel at the World Bank’s Office of Suspension and Debarment.

The World Bank Group (WBG) sanctions system is a critical part of the institution’s multi-faceted anticorruption effort. Comprised of independent decision-makers, the sanctions system investigates allegations of misconduct in WBG-financed projects and, if those allegations are substantiated, can debar culpable companies and individuals from engaging in any WBG -financed activity for a period of time. The impact of a WBG-imposed debarment is amplified through a cross-debarment agreement with other Multilateral Development Banks (MDBs), including the African Development Bank Group, the Asian Development Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, and the Inter-American Development Bank.

With the unprecedented amount of multilateral financing and public spending going toward crisis aid and recovery efforts, governments and aid agencies can use debarment to ensure that they work only with reliable and ethical business partners. In times of crisis, it is crucial to facilitate knowledge-sharing among stakeholders to increase the impact of connected efforts to fight fraud and corruption.

During a series of webinars over five consecutive weeks starting on September 22 (this coming Tuesday), the WBG’s Office of Suspension and Debarment (OSD) will host the fifth edition of its International Debarment Colloquium series, a flagship event that showcases developments in debarment systems worldwide and examines the various uses of debarment in the procurement and anticorruption contexts. Representatives from multilateral organizations, government, private sector, non-governmental organizations, and academia will discuss: Continue reading

World Bank Monitoring of Repatriated Assets Should Be Part of Major Settlements

The issue of repatriating the proceeds of corruption to the countries from which they were stolen has attracted substantial commentary, including in multiple posts on this blog (see here, here, here, here and here). Much of the discussion focuses on whether and how to return funds to countries that still suffer from systemic corruption or outright kleptocracy. In these cases, the risk that the assets, if simply returned, will be stolen again is, in the view of some critics, unacceptably high. In some cases, despite these risks, the government that seized the assets nevertheless repatriates the seized funds directly to the government from which they were originally stolen; the US Department of Justice (DOJ) has done this in several cases, including asset returns to Peru, Italy, and Nicaragua. In other cases, by contrast, the seized funds have been funneled to a local NGO rather than to the government. This was done in the agreement among the United States, Switzerland, and Kazakhstan regarding the transfer of corruption proceeds to Kazakhstan (an agreement which created a new NGO called the BOTA Foundation). This mechanism was also included in the DOJ’s settlement with Equatorial Guinea over the disposition of assets stolen by the President’s son, Teodorin Obiang. Another approach, which we saw in this past February’s trilateral agreement among the United States, Jersey, and Nigeria regarding the return of $308 million in assets stolen by former Nigerian dictator General Sani Abacha (which I discussed at greater length in a previous post), entails the earmarking of the repatriated funds for specific infrastructure projects, coupled with oversight by a yet-to-be-determined independent auditor and yet-to-be-determined independent civil society organizations (CSOs), with both the auditor and the CSOs selected by Nigeria, but subject to a veto by the United States and Jersey.

The inclusion of these various conditions is understandable. Notwithstanding the sovereignty-based objections advanced by the so-called “victim countries”—which often assert that they have an absolute right to the unconditional return of assets stolen from their national treasuries—returning huge sums to corrupt or weak governments without any safeguards would be irresponsible. Nevertheless, there are many pitfalls involved with leaving oversight largely to the victim country government and local CSOs, and the ability of countries like the United States to monitor compliance with the terms of repatriation agreements in foreign countries is limited. The best way to address these concerns is to involve an international institution—such as the World Bank, or possibly one of the regional multilateral development banks—in monitoring the terms of repatriation agreements.

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Must the IMF Quantify Grand Corruption? A Friendly-But-Skeptical Reply to Global Financial Integrity

The World Bank and IMF held their annual meetings last week, and it appears from the agenda that considerable attention was devoted to corruption—an encouraging sign that these organizations continue to treat this problem as both serious and relevant to their work. But does addressing the corruption problem effectively require that these organizations make more of an effort to quantify the problem? In a provocative post last week on Global Financial Integrity’s blog, Tom Cardamone (GFI’s President) and Maureen Heydt (GFI’s Communications Coordinator) argue that the answer is yes. In particular, they argue that the IMF should “undertake two analyses”: First the IMF “should conduct an annual assessment of grand corruption in all countries and publish the dollar value of that analysis.” Second, the IMF “should conduct an opportunity cost analysis of [] stolen assets”—calculating, for example, how many hospital beds or vaccines the stolen money could have purchased, or how many school teachers could have been hired.

This second analysis is more straightforward, and dependent on the first—once we know the dollar value of stolen assets (or grand corruption more generally), it’s not too hard to do some simple division to show how that money might otherwise have been spent. So it seems to me that the real question is whether it indeed makes sense for the IMF to produce an annual estimate, for each country, of the total amount stolen or otherwise lost to grand corruption.

I’m skeptical, despite my general enthusiasm for evidence-based policymaking/advocacy generally, and for the need for more and better quantitative data on corruption. The reasons for my skepticism are as follows: Continue reading

Returning Stolen Assets to Kazakhstan: Did the World Bank Flub It?

In 2012, Kazakhstan and Switzerland agreed to return $48.8 million that Switzerland had confiscated in a money-laundering case involving Kazakh nationals. This is the second time Switzerland has returned stolen assets to Kazakhstan. In the first, out of a fear the funds might be stolen again, the two had created an independent foundation with stringent oversight mechanisms to administer the money (details here).  This time the two decided to rely on the World Bank alone to see that returned funds were not misused.

One of the projects being funded is a $12 million grant program to instill a public service ethic in the nation’s youth, and a consortium of Kazakh NGOs has been selected to manage it. Although the consortium only recently began making grants, questions about the integrity of the grant-making process are already being raised.  In February, the Corruption and Human Rights Initiative identified several apparent irregularities. Among them: 1) The consortium’s lead NGO is headed by Dariga Nazerbayev, at the time of the award to the consortium she was the daughter of the country’s president and is now Speaker of the Kazakh Senate; 2) The youth wing of the ruling party was awarded a grant for “awareness-raising activities among vulnerable youth groups” across the country in seeming violation of the ban in the World Bank’s charter on political activities; 3) numerous grants have been awarded for an amount just under that which would trigger World Bank review; and 4) program managers have coached grant applicants on how to circumvent Bank procurement rules.

A full report on the irregularities is here. At the request of the Swiss government, the World Bank is said to be investigating.