WAGs: What’s the Harm?

GAB is pleased to publish this Guest Post by Maya Forstater, well-known analyst on business and sustainable development, on a topic of continuing concern to scholars and activists working on corruption and development matters.

Are unreliable guesstimates  and made-up statistics mildly irritating, indispensably powerful  or potentially dangerous in the public debates on corruption? The topic comes up so often on the Global Anti-Corruption Blog that it has been given its own own three-letter acronym: WAGs (or Wild Ass Guesses).

Those at the sharp end of advocacy maintain, with some justification, that in the battle for attention, an arrestingly big number makes all the difference. But as Rick has argued, overinflated figures can also cause harm.

Something similar happens on the related topic of tax and illicit flows. One example of this is the widespread belief that ‘developing countries lose three times more to the tax avoidance by multinational companies than they receive in aid’. This much quoted WAG gives the impression of huge potential gains for the poorest countries, but is based on a chain of misunderstandings .  In practice the magnitudes of revenues at stake are likely to be several times smaller than aid  for the countries where that comparison matters.

Similarly, broad estimates of illicit flows or the scale of the black economy (“trillions”) are often presented in ways that suggest that the sums to be gained from tackling corporate tax avoidance are larger than any serious analysis supports.

I have written about these big numbers previously in a paper published by the Centre for Global Development here (or here  for the short version).

But what harm do such numbers do, compared to their power at getting people talking about the issues? Is it really worth pointing out misunderstandings and myths in pursuit of a more rigorous and careful approach to evidence? (Or as I have been asked‘ Do you ever wonder how much you help the tax abusers?’)

I see four key dangers from inflated perceptions of the numbers:  Continue reading

Alert: Director General of Zambian Anti-Corruption Commission Under Pressure to Resign

Rosewin Mutina Wandi, Director General of the Zambian Anti-Corruption Commission, is under pressure to resign. Upon returning from an overseas trip last week she was greeted by a demand from the leader of a political party that she quit. Since then others have joined in, and threats are being made to organize countrywide demonstrations to have her removed from office. All this follows the Commission’s investigation of a Presidential Aide and an alleged leak to the media of a letter she wrote to the President about that investigation.

Fortunately, the Commission is standing by her. Its Board has issued a statement condemning attempts to intimidate her and supporting the professional way she has conducted herself as Director General. The statement makes it clear that the Board considers the attacks against her to be attacks against the Board and the Commission as an institution.

It is not clear yet why the sudden effort to remove the Director General. Is it her candor in acknowledging that outside pressure can sometimes be of value in fighting corruption? Or the Commission’s effectiveness in combating corruption? Continue reading

Guest Post: Zambia’s Director of Public Prosecutions Describes Efforts to Unconstitutionally Remove Him for Prosecuting former President

Below is a February 16 letter Mutembo Nchito, Zambia’s Director of Public Prosecutions, wrote to fellow prosecutors recounting recent efforts to have him removed from office. Links have been added to some of the references cited.

Dear Colleagues,

I trust you are well. I have had an eventful 10 or so days that I feel duty bound to share with you.

As some of you may know Zambia lost its fifth President October 28, 2014. This is the President that requested me to join the public service as Director of Public Prosecutions. My mandate was to transform the Ministry of Justice’s Department of Public Prosecutions into an autonomous National Prosecution Authority. This I embarked on with a reasonable measure of success.

That said one of the main reasons I was hired was my history of anticorruption prosecution. Since 2002 I have prosecuted many cases of high profile corruption that have seen me indict two former presidents, a chief of intelligence,  a Zambia Army Commander, a Zambia Air Force commander and a commander of another defence force called the Zambia National Service. I also prosecuted a former Minister of Finance and his permanent secretaries for corruption and abuse of office among many other high profile individuals.

Except for the first president who was acquitted in very controversial circumstances most, if not all the cases I prosecuted, resulted in convictions. As you can imagine this has earned me very powerful enemies. Continue reading