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.

Duncan Green on Working with the Grain

fp2p blogDuncan Green’s review of Working with the Grain on his widely read From Poverty to Power blog (CLICK HERE TO ACCESS THE REVIEW) usefully points towards the two very different goals I aimed to achieve in the book.

One goal was to write, anchored in my lived experience, an accessible tour d’horizon of the current, cutting edge of development thinking and practice — and how it got that way. A second goal was to provide an analytically robust conceptual framework as a foundation for moving that thinking forward — bringing together  a variety of theoretical contributions which rarely are considered in an integrated way. As anyone who has labored through the work of Mushtaq Khan, Douglass North, Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson knows, this involves a lot of seemingly arcane terminology – but the payoff can be high.

I have tried to use the analytical concepts to help push the analytical foundation of development practice beyond the tired polarities of Bill Easterly’s best practice, technocrat ‘tyrant experts’ and his bold ‘searchers’, plunging, gloriously free, into the unknown. Rather, as the FP2P review highlights, I use the book’s conceptual platform to identify four distinctive country-types – each characterized by distinctive incentives and constraints to development policymaking and implementation. The aim is to give content to the idea of “good fit”, by exploring in depth how both reform priorities and effective approaches to implementation vary radically and systematically across the country-types — thereby directing attention away from off-the-shelf blueprints and hopefully laying out a practical, analytically grounded set of options that can help us engage constructively with the governance ambiguities of our early 21st century world.

South Africa — where democracy and inequality collide

khayelitsha-cape-townAre governance and inclusion mutually reinforcing  or  at odds with one another? An optimistic perspective suggests that over time, participatory and accountable governance institutions will move economic policy and performance in a more inclusive direction. A  pessimistic view is that no-holds-barred contestation for limited elite privileges and increasing discontent among an excluded majority  will result in the gradual, cumulative erosion of governance institutions. Nowhere is this tension between governance and inequality starker than in South Africa; I’ll be heading back there in less than two weeks. (I spend part of each year teaching and researching, based at the University of Cape Town). While there, I  expect to post a number of blogs on how this tension is playing out. Meanwhile, as a baseline for forthcoming pieces, the links below will take you to two blog posts which I wrote from South Africa a few years ago – and which remain strikingly current.

The first post frames the tension between democracy and inequality from a broad, comparative perspective – highlighting some striking parallels between the way in which Mexico’s Party for Institutionalized Revolution (the PRI) governed the country for close to 60 years, and some emerging trends in South Africa under the African National Congress which, since 1994, has consistently enjoyed a sweeping electoral mandate. In Mexico, patronage came to dominate. In South Africa, will patronage, populism or a happy combination of inclusion and economic dynamism win the day? For further discussion CLICK HERE TO ACCESS MY POST FROM A FEW YEARS AGO ON “WHEN DEMOCRACY AND INEQUALITY COLLIDE”.  (Note: the Gini coefficient of expenditure inequality quoted in the piece, i.e. after taxes and transfers,  is incorrect; the correct number for 2010 is 0.66, not 0.59.)

The second post highlights the centrality of basic education (and skills acquisition more broadly) to reducing inequality – and points to some of the large, continuing challenges South Africa confronts in this area. (I currently am co-leading  a major research project on the politics and governance of education in South Africa and other developing countries, supported by the University of Manchester’s, DFID-funded  Effective States and Inclusive Development  programme – so more posts to follow in this area.)  CLICK HERE TO ACCESS MY POST ON “EDUCATION AS LIBERATION”. More on both topics in the next few months……but before leaving this site, do sign up to subscribe to my blog…..

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….

The Chad-Cameroon Project — a glass partly full??? (WWG Implementation series #1)

chad cameroon pipelineI increasingly find myself wondering whether those of us who have tried to achieve development gains in difficult governance environments have framed our interventions in ways which almost ensure that they are judged as failures – and leave us (and the development community more broadly) feeling dispirited. But perhaps beneath the blanket judgment of ‘failure’, if one looked closely one might find valuable partial successes – which, if we were willing to embrace as such, could offer a sense of hope and possibility.  (Surely, in a complex, difficult world partial successes are worthwhile!). Take the example of the Chad-Cameroon Pipeline Project.

[An extract of the discussion of  the Chad Cameroon pipeline project in Working with the Grain is available in the “specific themes” section of this website. Click here for easy navigation to the detailed Chad-Cameroon discussion. ]

Many of us will remember the Chad-Cameroon project  as an enormously ambitious, and enormously controversial effort to support a very large investment in oil extraction, in a very weak institutional environment – and to do so in a way which ensured that Chad would realize the fiscal benefits, and leverage them to support poverty reduction.  But, with the  World Bank pulling out prematurely in 2007, we are likely to also think of it as a grandiose, expensive, hubristic failure.

Interestingly, though, when I teach the case to my students at Johns Hopkins SAIS students, this is not their conclusion. (The average student in SAIS’s International Development program is in his or her late 20s, has spent time in the developing world, and is committed to a career in international development; fewer than half are Americans.)  I explain the design and intent of the project, and detail what had been the impact as of 2010 (what I found on this came as something as a surprise to me…..).  I then ask them whether (i) knowing what the World Bank did at the time it was right to support the project? And (ii) knowing what was the project’s consequences, they nonetheless think it was worth supporting? Strikingly, the vast majority come out in favor of the project.

I am eager to hear from others who are familiar with the project whether you agree with my students, or think that they (and I) are being blindly overoptimistic. So do please post a comment – either here or on my blog site, where you will find further detail on the project and some of its consequences. (And while you’re at the blog site, I’d be thrilled if you signed up to receive the blog on a regular basis — on one of the links at the side or the bottom of this page.

Also, for a comprehensive  elaboration of the idea that we are unwilling to embrace as worthwhile outcomes where the glass is half-full, take a look at my new book — by exploring the other pages of this website, or purchasing the book itself (including a Kindle version, available at Amazon).

Development strategies — the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ controversy…….

Development practitioners bring very different lenses to our work. Some of us are pre-occupied with ‘best practices’ approaches (‘what’ should be done); others prefer to focus on the influence of political and institutional realities (‘why’ things work out the way they do); and yet others emphasize the importance of giving priority to getting the learning process right (‘how’ to engage). Two recent posts on the World Bank’s “Future Development” blog — one by Shanta Devarajan, and the other by me — are, I hope, useful in clarifying some of the inter-relationships between these approaches. Here are links to the two posts:

“Its not the how, it’s the why” by Shanta Devarajan

And here is my post in full (best read in conjunction with Shanta’s):

“Multiple pathways — How ‘why’ matters” by Brian Levy

For convenience, I am also copying the full text of my post below:


Once upon a time, development seemed straightforward. Sound technical analysis identified what to do– and the rest followed. But experience has taught us that it is harder than that. As Shanta’s recent post signals, there are three competing camps – the ‘whats’, the ‘hows’ and the ‘whys’. I wonder, though, whether in clarifying the differences, we might be missing the chance to learn across these different perspectives?

Certainly, the differences are large. At one end are the old-time-religion ‘whats’, who confidently prescribe ‘best practices’ to help countries stay on the right path – and who sometimes turn to the ‘whys’ to identify  the political and institutional blockages to good policies.  At the other end, the ‘hows’  argue that every country is unique, that the crucial knowledge for shaping and implementing policy is local, and tend to be dismissive of  efforts (especially by outsiders) to analyze political and institutional obstacles.

My new book, Working with the Grain tries to steer a middle ground.  The book explores a small number of alternative development pathways that are very different from  each other – with each characterized by a distinctive set of political and institutional incentives and constraints, and thus distinctive options for policymaking and implementation.

The first, more familiar, pathway is the ‘long route’ of the accountability triangle introduced in the 2004 World Development Report, which is organized into two links – ‘voice’ which links citizens to politicians, and thence to policymakers, and a ‘compact’ that links policymakers and service providers. Politicians and policymakers have to structure the ‘compact’ relationship so that it provides incentives for providers such as schoolteachers and doctors (their ‘agents’) to deliver services. In turn, citizens (as principals) need to exercise ‘voice’ over their agents (politicians and policymakers), through the ballot box and other means. Failures of ‘voice’ emerge as the underlying political constraint to achieving development results. So, as per Shanta’s post,  the key interventions are to strengthen voice. [Note, though, that the principal-agent pathway can also work if the principal is a developmentally-oriented authoritarian leader, as was the case in, say, South Korea from the early 1960s to mid-1980s.].

In many countries, however, the platform for a nested set of principal-agent relationships to function effectively is absent. And historical experience tells us that  it takes decades for a well-functioning long route to take root.  Instead, interactions are personalized, not anchored in rules that apply to all.  The discretionary conferral and  withdrawal of favors is the glue which holds things together. Sometimes the outcome  can be wholly predatory, driven by agreements to share the spoils among insiders. But at other times,  personalized relationships can provide just enough stability for economic development to move forward, and democratic institutions to strengthen.

This brings us to the contrasting, second way of understanding a country’s political and institutional patterns – through the lens of ‘collective action’ among principals (to use Nobel-prize-winner Elinor Ostrom’s term). In  contested governance settings, these can permit “islands of effectiveness” to thrive, even where the broader governance environment is difficult. For this to happen, two conditions must be met. The first is the familiar, ubiquitous challenge of facilitating cooperation among participants to achieve joint benefits, in a way that limits the classic free rider and other moral hazard problems. The second, explored in depth in Working with the Grain, is the ability to successfully trump predation.

All collective action initiatives have multiple interested stakeholders. Some are protagonists of the collective endeavor; others are predators who seek to capture for their own private purposes what the protagonists are seeking to build. As I explored jointly with Michael Walton in a 2013 paper, the dynamics between predator and protagonistthey can play out in the many layers between top-levels of policymaking and the service provision front-line where rule-setting processes are likely to be contested, trade-offs between competing goals left unresolved, and agreements subject to weaknesses in both monitoring and sanctions.

At each of the ‘intermediate’ levels where outcomes are indeterminate, there is the risk of public sector dysfunction – but also an opportunity for the emergence of an “island of effectiveness” organized around strong partnerships among developmentally-oriented stakeholders. Examples include: schools that produce remarkable results in unlikely settings; Kenya’s tea sector; and (in an historical example of striking relevance for contemporary nascent democracies) activist officials in the United States Forest Service and other public agencies who, during that country’s Progressive era of the 1880s-1920s, went beyond their formal mandates to forge coalitions with reformist allies outside government — and, in the process, helped foster a cumulative transformation of America’s public sector.

My intent in highlighting the relevance of principal-to-principal interactions is not to argue that the principal-agent perspective is wrong. In some country and sectoral settings, a principal-agent perspective can serve us well in clarifying the development pathway, and options for policy and institutional reform. But in others, we would do better to alter our angle of vision, and consider the pathway and reform constraints and options through a principal-to-principal lens. (And, sometimes, both lenses can be helpful.)

All of which brings us back to potential synergies between the ‘whys’, the ‘hows’, and the ‘whats’. A central  goal of Working with the Grain is to explore the relative effectiveness across different settings (the ‘why’) of different approaches to fostering change (that is, of alternative whats’). The aim is not to  prescribe some mechanical  formula, but rather to provide a guide for helping a  country identify which of a broad array of alternative interventions are most relevant as points of departure for subsequent learning – that is, for the exploration of ‘how’.