Doing Anti-Corruption Differently

By Alan Hudson, Executive Director, May 11, 2016

panama

Corruption and how to tackle it is center-stage in London this week, with the spotlight brighter than ever as a result of the Panama Papers. This is welcome news. The Anti-Corruption Summit, hosted by the UK’s Prime Minister, David Cameron, can play an important role in the fight against corruption, building on progress that has been made in recent years – including at the UK-hosted G8 in 2013 – on enhancing transparency in the extractives sector, as regards company ownership, and as regards taxation.

The Summit has already generated useful momentum, with, for instance, the US Government putting in place a number of measures to strengthen its stand against corruption (see this assessment from the Global Anti-Corruption Blog). And London is a fitting venue, given the role played by the City of London and the UK’s tax havens in hiding and laundering the proceeds of corruption; as well as welcoming leaders from some “fantastically corrupt” countries, David Cameron needs to get his own house in order, including its tropical and not-so-tropical tax and secrecy havens.

But behind the talk about the importance of tackling corruption, the anti-corruption agenda is “having a moment” as Heather Marquette put it in her must-read written evidence to the UK Parliament’s International Development Committee (see also the oral evidence). There is confusion about the multiplicity of issues that fall under the umbrella of “corruption” (see Paul Heywood’s written evidence to the IDC). There is dissent about how big a problem corruption really is. There is frustration with the limited impact of anti-corruption efforts. There is uncertainty about how best to tackle corruption, despite considerable investment in research and evidence (see, for instance, here and, in the pipeline, here). And there are questions about the role that external actors can play, and about how serious they are about tackling kleptocracy (see Sarah Chayes’ essay here).

This provides an excellent opportunity to nudge thinking, policy and practice, in order to sharpen the effectiveness of anti-corruption efforts. International commitments on beneficial ownership transparency, on open contracting, on regulating the pinstripe army of lawyers, bankers and accountants that facilitate corruption, and on investing additional resources in law enforcement, are an important part of the mix. The Summit can deliver important wins on these issues, with leaders held accountable for turning words into actions. But careful consideration also needs to be given to what an anti-corruption agenda properly informed by the latest research and evidence on governance reform and development – a “grown up conversation” about corruption, as Alina Rocha de Menocal provocatively puts it – would look like.

At Global Integrity, our work on governance reform is informed by three key insights. First, that governance reform is inherently political. Second, that effective reforms are necessarily led by domestic champions. And third, that “cookie-cutter” approaches to governance reform are seldom effective. This sort of thinking is increasingly common – the World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability has seven parallel sessions on adaptive learning at its Global Partners Forum next week, for example, and the World Development Report for 2017 goes way beyond “best practice” – but it has yet to seriously shift the conversation about tackling corruption.

However, the contours of an approach to doing anti-corruption differently are steadily coming into view. From our perspective, they include the following:

  • strengthening the focus on open data, so that citizens and governments have the information they need to prevent, detect, investigate and sanction corruption (see here and here);
  • supporting efforts to tackle corruption through cycles of trying, learning and adapting towards solutions that might work in a particular context, rather than by defaulting to anti-corruption commissions and associated “best practice”;
  • involving civil society and the private sector as equal partners (not just the day before – livestreaming here from 8.30 UK time, 10th May), working alongside governments to tackle corruption, as per the Open Government Partnership’s model of multi-stakeholder engagement;

Nudging policy and practice on anti-corruption is not easy. Aid agencies have a hard time being honest about corruption, preferring to talk “zero-tolerance” rather than acknowledging the complexity of the issues. But changes are afoot. Donors are beginning to see that “zero-tolerance” for the misappropriation of development assistance must be accompanied by greater realism about the nature of corruption (see Mushtaq Khan’s evidence to the International Development Committee). And, they are beginning to understand that adaptive approaches to governance and development, and thinking and working politically, may make sense in relation to tackling corruption too.

We look forward to playing our part in the evolution of the anti-corruption agenda. This will be a long term project, but with some important milestones in the coming months. These will include close engagement with the Open Government Partnership’s Anti-Corruption Working Group (see also their post on how OGP can deliver on the promises to be made in London) and the International Anti-Corruption Conference in Panama in December. Watch this space as we – with a focus on impact and effectiveness – apply our adaptive learning and open governance perspective to the anti-corruption agenda.

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