Why an Anti-Corruption Commission is a Bad Idea for Libya

I started a virtual stopwatch in my head when I first saw the images of rebel troops entering Tripoli this week. The stopwatch measures how long it will take until I receive a “confidential” email from aid donors requesting Global Integrity’s input on a draft bill to establish an anti-corruption commission in Libya.  Based on our experience following the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, I should be receiving that email any week now.

Here is what I will tell them (quoting from an email I sent to colleagues after reviewing a similar proposal from Egypt following the January revolution):

I am not… a big fan of national anti-corruption committees or commissions, which is what I see being proposed here.  Despite all the best intentions, those sorts of centralized mechanisms tend to fail miserably except in Southeast Asia.  In Africa they tend to be even less successful than elsewhere. If I had my druthers, I'd rather see a temporary commission put together to develop and pass the proposed reforms, and to then leave enforcement to other/preexisting enforcement bodies (perhaps a revitalized attorney general).

The basic problem is that high-profile, centralized anti-corruption commissions are on average a failure globally; they can be especially problematic in post-conflict countries. The bigger problem is that they appear to be irresistible to foreign actors looking to “do something” about corruption in post-revolutionary countries, and even to civil society and opposition groups themselves. If Libya is lucky, perhaps the Transitional National Council (TNC) and its supporters can find an alternative path.

The sex appeal of anti-corruption commissions

What makes centralized anti-corruption commission so appealing is their ostensible simplicity. You identify a small group of Elliot Ness-style “incorruptibles” (former judges are a favorite archetype), draft legislation that provides them with a wide mandate to investigate the bad guys whenever they want, and generate some media attention to inspire confidence in their mission. Greedy bribe takers, beware!

In practice, the problems are often not with the model but with its implementation. The majority of anti-corruption commissions we have researched and run into over the years are vastly underfunded and understaffed. It sounds great to provide an anti-corruption commission with a limitless mandate to investigate corruption anywhere they come across it, but unless the country is tiny (think Hong Kong, one of the few centralized commission success stories) it’s simply impossible for a staff of, say, 35 to investigate “corruption” (which might include everything from complex defense tender rigging to leakage in massive social safety net cash transfer programs) in a country of tens of millions or more.

Another major challenge is coordination within the government. Centralized anti-corruption commissions are often established alongside existing anti-corruption investigative and enforcement bodies such as internal auditors, special police units, ombudsmen offices, and special prosecutors. Lines of authority are often not clear, and resentment and sniping often ensues between the various factions. In a post-conflict country, these tensions are exacerbated given the typically decimated state of government institutions; the disparate anti-corruption bodies are then left to compete with each other for the same pot of limited donor funds. This does not lead to productive outcomes, to say the least.

A different path for Libya?

A question that is not asked enough, which the Libyan TNC and its supporters might consider, is whether establishing a separate, new anti-corruption commission provides real value-add in the fight to establish transparency and accountability in the country. Another way of asking the question, which provides for the alternative to the centralized commission approach, is why beefing up the capacity, leadership, and mandate of existing anti-corruption investigative and enforcement bodies wouldn’t be a suitable and potentially more efficient way forward.

There may be very good answers to that question in Libya and other countries, in which case we’re all ears when it comes to listening to proposals for a new, high-profile anti-corruption commission. But if there aren’t, please think twice before hitting Send on that email.

— Nathaniel Heller

— photo credit B.R.Q. Network

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