Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency — a remarkable island of effectiveness

indonesia KPKIn countries where corruption is pervasive even at the highest levels of political and bureaucratic leadership, is it nonetheless possible to deter impunity? The dilemma, which I explored in a recent blog post, is that in many difficult governance environments the logic of power is centered around personalized deal-making.  A culture of deal-making can all too easily degenerate into extremes of impunity, with profoundly  corrosive effects on a country’s institutions – but where such deal-making has become central to the political culture stamping out corruption hardly seems plausible.   In such settings, might it nonetheless be possible to establish a credible tripwire capable of deterring the worst abuses?

A remarkable example from Indonesia, explored in  two  papers written this past fall by graduate students of mine at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, suggests that that given the right combination of circumstances and creative activism the answer can be ‘yes’.

Indonesia certainly fits the bill of a difficult governance environment. Estimates of the amount of wealth amassed by the family of President Suharto during his 33-year reign (from 1965 to 1998) range from $15 billion to $73 billion. In  2004, Transparency International named him the most corrupt leader of the previous twenty years. Though things have improved since then, over the past decade the Worldwide Governance Indicators consistently locate Indonesia in the bottom third of countries globally in control of corruption.

But, against that backdrop, (and with thanks to Jake Thomases for making available  his paper on Indonesia’s anti-corruption agency) consider the recent track record of Indonesia’s corruption-fighting agency, the  Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK). The legislation mandating the creation of the KPK was passed in 1999. The KPK began its work in 2003, after a four-year-long gestation.. Between 2003 and 2012, only 169 cases went to trial. The intensity of its efforts has increased over time — but even in 2013 only 81 cases were investigated. While superficially this track record might seem limited, the KPK has won increasing respect for its achievements, and admiration for its boldness. A 2008  poll showed that 82% of Indonesians thought of the KPK as the most trustworthy law enforcer. (The police and attorney general received 6% and 2% of the vote.)

The KPK  indeed appears to be a tripwire against impunity. The fish caught were ‘big’ Among those it successfully prosecuted and convicted between 2008 and 2013 were: 72 members of parliament; a close family member of the sitting president; senior officials of the ruling party; the chief of one of the state-owned oil companies; the religious affairs minister; the chief justice of the constitutional court; and (perhaps most popular of all among citizen tired of being harassed on an almost daily basis) the commander of the National police traffic division. Further, contrary to the experience of anti-corruption drives in other countries, there has been no sign of any systematic targeting of political enemies while turning a blind eye to friends.

How, in an environment rife with personalized influence-peddling and deal-making has this track-record been possible? A proximate explanation lies in some of the features of the KPK’s design, and early-stage implementation. These included:

  • Very broad investigative and prosecutorial powers that allowed the KPK to circumvent and overrule police and prosecutors. These powers included the right to tap phones without a court order, to impose travel bans, to freeze bank accounts, and to access financial records.
  • Very robust and transparent mechanisms for appointing KPK leadership and staff – with staff selected from within the regular police and prosecutorial offices, and appointed only subsequent to extensive background checks. (Of 34,000 annual job applicants, only about 150 pass the background checks.)
  • A very robust screening process before a case is brought to trial – but a requirement that once the KPK officially names a person as a suspect, it is required to reach the trial stage (a fail-safe arrangement to prevent prosecutors from dropping a case in exchange for a bribe).
  • A wholly independent anti-corruption court to hear the trial — comprising five panelists, including three ad hoc appointees, drawn from eminent lawyers, legal scholars or retired judges.

As Matt Andrews emphasizes (his book, The Limits of Institutional Reform, features the KPK as an example), from the early conception of the idea of the KPK into its implementation, the reform approach was consistently inceremental. “The aim”, Andrews suggests, “was to start activity, learn from it, and build toward larger interventions.”

A deeper explanation for the KPK’s success is to be found  in a happy combination of context and development entrepreneurship. As my SAIS student Chris Crow detailed in his  paper on Indonesia’s democratic transition, the Indonesian environment in the latter 1990s  offered a classic ‘window of opportunity’ for reform. (The law establishing the KPK was promulgated in 1999.) Suharto was forced from power in May, 1998. His handpicked successor, BJ Habibie, with virtually no independent power base of his own, tried to win legitimacy by turning to reformist segments of Indonesian society. Ryaas Rasyid, a young academic who had written his dissertation on democratic reform, was perfectly positioned for this moment. He had been appointed in the last years of Suharto’s rule to lead a task force of seven  political scientists to scope out a plan for political reform. In latter 1998, in an effort to strengthen his legitimacy, Habibie turned to this group to draft a new set of electoral laws. ‘Team 7’, in turn, capitalized on their newly-won status as successful refomers to advocate successfully for far-reaching decentralization of the political system.

Skillful leveraging of reform space  has consistently been central to Indonesia’s efforts to combat corruption, with momentum coming from a powerful network of allies in civil society. Indonesia Corruption Watch (established in 1998) and other activist groups played an important role in the initial push to establish the KPK. Its 1999 enabling legislation was drafted by a respected, reform-minded law professor, Romli Atmasasmita. Whenever the organization has been threatened, its allies have risen determinedly to its defense – including an episode in 2012 when in response to the KPK’s investigation of the police chief (and to quote Jake Thomases)  “the police threatened to raid KPK headquarters and arrest the investigator. Word spread on the street. By the time 300 armed offers showed up and surrounded the building, there were already scores of people blocking the entrances with their bodies. The police gave in and retreated.”

Among democracy advocates, at a difficult time globally, Indonesia is coming to be seen as a beacon of hope. Part of this sense of hope comes from the message sent by the KPK’s successes – that powerful leaders act with impunity at their peril. To be sure, the country falls far, far short of anyone’s depiction of “good governance”. But what stands out (and the KPK exemplifies) is the sustained, determined focus of reformers both inside government and in civil society on achievable objectives, rather than on rhetorical flourishes —  on a development strategy organized around what I describe in my recent book, Working with the Grain as “islands of effectiveness”.

“Hope”, I suggested in Working with the Grain, “can come in different intonations. There is the drumbeat of exhortation, of a world on the march to some more perfect destination on the horizon. But hope can also come in a quieter pitch: searching – encouraging deliberation, reflection, co-operation.” In its steady, incremental, cumulative progress, the KPK is an example of this latter kind of hope – as an important beacon pointing towards what is possible, even in difficult governance environments.

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Doing development differently — the rebirth of ‘the science of muddling through’

doing development differentlyIt is a commonplace that the pendulum of economic development scholarship and practice swings back and forth from one set of (faddish) ideas to another.  But beneath this back-and-forth cycling is another, longer cycle —  the tension between a search for grand, seemingly scientifically-grounded solutions, and an approach to problem-solving which self-consciously is more pragmatic, incremental. In recent decades, this long-cycle pendulum has swung powerfully in the direction of  scientism. There are, though, some striking signs that it may be swinging back. As a next step in crafting a way forward, a rapidly growing group of eminent scholars and practitioners have signed on to a “Doing Development Differently” manifesto.  I explore this swinging pendulum, and make the link to some of the earlier  intellectual roots of the DDD movement, in a blog post on the Oxford University Press website. You can access the full post by clicking here. (…..but before you go, though, do go to my blog home page, and sign up to receive email updates of future blog posts……..)

Puzzling over ‘anti-corruption’

anti-CorruptionI’ve been puzzling (yet again!) over the usefulness of anti-corruption as an entry point for engagement by civil society, donors and other developmental champions. 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’.  I list below three analytically strong arguments against using anti-corruption as an entry point– but also one compelling argument for its use. It would be terrific if this post could get some fresh new conversation underway on the dilemma.

 Here (to establish that I’m not coming at this as an apologist) is the argument ‘for’ focusing on anti-corruption. Impunity is corrosive. It can over time destroy a country’s entire development platform. In the absence of sustained vigilance, some political leaders might find themselves wading, step by incremental step, deeper and deeper into the mire of corruption – setting a tone at the top which progressively pervades layer after layer of a country’s institutions. The absence of a strong anti-corruption voice in society can help ‘enable’ this type of downward slide.

But here are the three arguments against leading with an ‘anti-corruption’ focus:

  • First is the logic of ‘limited access orders’ — as laid out in landmark work by Nobel-prize winning economist Douglass North and his co-authors. They show compellingly that in the large majority of countries today (and historically everywhere), before impersonal institutions have taken root, personalized deal-making among elites is the basis for political stability. They argue also that the development of a country’s institutions and its economy are interdependent, and that the process evolves incrementally. Taken together, as they argue, these insights suggest that “transplanting institutions [can] undermine the political arrangements maintaining stability, [and can] unleash disorder, making the society significantly worse off.”
  • Second is the logic of clientelism – spelled out in useful detail by Francis Fukuyama in his recent book, Political Order and Political Decay. Fukuyama argues that the allocation of public sector jobs to political allies will almost inevitably be present in societies that democratize before they build strong state capability. He suggests that in settings with democratic contestation but without a capable state  “clientelism should be considered an early form of democratic accountability and be distinguished from other forms of corruption – or indeed not considered a form of corruption at all.”
  • Third is the central importance of the ‘capacity to co-operate’ in achieving development outcomes – and, as per the path-breaking work of Elinor Ostrom (another Nobel-prize winner), the role of encouraging trust  and  mutual learning in building this capacity. In a world where (as she puts it) “there are some saints and some sinners, but mostly regular folk capable of both types of behavior….norms can evolve to support co-operation.” As Ostrom’s good practice principles for effective co-operation suggest, co-operation and trust are built by a combination of close monitoring and encouraging people to put their ‘best foot’ forward, even in the face of imperfection, not by punitive admonition. [Chapter 8 of my book, Working with the Grain  includes a comprehensive discussion of how we can bring Ostrom’s insights more into the mainstream of the development policy and implementation discourse; more information about the book is available on this website.]

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”.

Compelling, yes – but how can activists translate the above into a strategy which provides a ‘tripwire’ in the face of impunity but, at the same time, sustains a positive discourse for the development endeavor as a whole? Reflections appreciated – and more on this in subsequent posts….