Anti-corruption – reaping the whirlwind, navigating the terrain

tornado_with_lightningCrusades can over-reach – and anti-corruption crusades are no exception. The news offers an ongoing flow of whiplash-inducing examples. Here are two:  the news of the near-landslide plurality (just short of an absolute majority) of votes won in  Brazil’s presidential election by  right-wing, anti-constitutional populist Jair Bolsonaro (with his campaign fueled, in part, by backlash in the wake of the country’s massive ‘car wash’ corruption scandal); and the news from South Africa of the resignation of the country’s  widely respected finance minister, Nhlanhla Nene, who stood up bravely against former president Jacob Zuma when it really mattered (refusing, for example, to sign onto a likely ruinous nuclear power deal negotiated by Zuma with his friend Vladimir Putin) – but who it turned out had also cosied up some with the notorious Gupta family.

How can we navigate this fraught terrain?

For the past half-dozen years, subsequent to leaving the World Bank, (where I had spent some years as head of its GAC – an unlovely acronym for “governance and anti-corruption” – secretariat), I have been writing about the dilemmas posed by the fight against corruption. Here, distilled from these writings, are seven guideposts which I have found helpful:

1: Ask ‘why’ – and work to separate the necessary from the venal.  A 2015 piece,  “puzzling over anti-corruption”, explored the distinctions between personalized, discretionary behaviors which are part of the institutional logic of stability, and those which are a manifestation of greed run rampant.   In thinking this through,  I have been influenced by the work of Nobel Prize winning economist Douglass North.  In the piece linked above, I lay out the logic. I’ll surface the issue here with an anecdote:

A few years ago, I began asking colleagues within the development community how one might tell the difference between those political and bureaucratic leaders who were doing what was necessary to achieve developmental goals in settings where formal institutions were weak – and those who had crossed over to the ‘dark side’ of impunity and predation. It took many months before I finally came across a colleague who (based on his many years of experience in an African country which had experienced both types of leadership) provided a compelling answer.  “It’s easy”, he said. “In the former case, the informal rules of the game are clear, and the leaders play by them. In the latter, the rules are not clear – and, whatever, they might be, they do not apply to the leaders themselves”.

2: Call things by their true name. Not all acts of corruption are equal; there is a continuum.  At the far end of that continuum lie predatory kleptocracy and institutional breakdown. I explored this continuum in a piece published in The Conversation in mid-2017, as South Africa’s descent into state capture seemed to accelerate. As I put it in that piece:  “the tension between rule-boundedness and patronage is a game of inches, one which plays out incrementally over the medium term. But at the far end of the continuum lie predatory kleptocracy and institutional breakdown. If the forces currently struggling to protect South Africa’s imperfect, but functional institutions were to lose to predatory kleptocracy, then watch out below.”

(As another uncomfortably contemporary, and perhaps controversial example, I find unavoidable the question of where the United States currently finds itself in the continuum between disagreements over policies, law-breaking corruption, and state capture.)

3: Wield a scalpel, not an axe. There’s no shortage of corruption in Indonesia – yet, paradoxically (as I summarized in this piece), the country’s anti-corruption agency, the KPK, has a remarkable track-record of taking on powerful players.  A key source of its strength is its focus. It functions as a ‘tripwire’ against impunity. The number of cases it takes on each year are few, and carefully chosen. It discomfits the powerful. It enjoys widespread support across the country – indeed civil society support has been key to its resilience.

4: Evoke individual ethics. As I put it in the 2015 ‘puzzling’ piece:  “always and everywhere, behaving ethically is surely crucial to meet the most important test of all — the ‘look oneself in the mirror every morning’ test. The question for activists is not whether we should model ethical behavior — an obvious “yes” —  but what are the pros and cons of an anti-corruption ‘framing’”

5: Avoid sanctimonious ‘maximalism’ . This, as I explored in a piece on aid agencies and anti-corruption linked here, is the trap in which many aid agencies found themselves. For organizations such as the World Bank to have ‘zero tolerance’ against corruption by their staff is necessary. To turn this into a crusade against all corruption everywhere is to take on the impossible – and in the process to debase the meaning of words.

6: Lead with results and hope, rather than anger.  This, it seems to me is vital, if societies are to thrive rather than (as in our current moment of political distemper) descend into bitterness and recrimination. Charles Kenny of the Center for Global Development makes a similar point in his evocatively-titled recent book, Results not receipts: counting the right things in aid and corruption.  As I argued a few years ago in a piece which appeared  in Foreign Policy: “Political and economic elites are rarely willing to give up their special privileges in settings where they enjoy enormous power. Practitioners could more usefully focus on achieving concrete results via ‘islands of effectiveness’  rather than on across-the-board overhauls – building coalitions with stakeholders, focusing on outcomes.” (See this link for  more on the analytical underpinnings of an ‘islands of effectiveness’ approach.)

7: Beware of crocodile tears. Over the years, I have become wary of the ulterior motives of crusaders whose crusades end up delegitimizing the public domain. Are those crusades genuine efforts to improve how things work, or is delegitimizing the public domain the point – crocodile, rather than real tears as they expose how things go wrong? (In this, as per here and here, I have been sensitized by the US political discourse of recent years.)


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