Some thoughts on tackling corruption

I’ve been seeing a few things coming up on corruption lately, so I thought I would try to pull them together with some thoughts of my own.  A recent post on the World Bank’s “People, Spaces, Deliberation” blog discusses the state of global corruption.  The author notes that there are some indications that global corruption has increased over the past several years.  At the same time, however, there are a number of more promising trends in the struggle against corruption, including:

  • Moves by rich countries to target tax havens
  • A multitude of novel approaches to addressing corruption around the globe
  • Perhaps most importantly, a new generation of social movements, largely middle class, throwing off the resignation of corruption as ‘business as usual’ and taking to the streets in places like India, Brazil, Turkey and elsewhere

The article concludes by noting that international organizations seeking to address corruption are more effective when the support these existing efforts, than when they try to create such initiatives from nothing.

However, in order to address corruption, we must know must know where it exists and how it impacts citizens.  Alex Cobham of the Center for Global Development argues that the most widely-cited corruption indicator (which is also utilized by the World Bank blog’s author), Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), is deeply flawed.  He observes that the CPI draws on too few ‘expert’ opinions and has too much room for bias, and instead calls for ‘barometers’ that draw on a diverse population and utilize a number of questions that reveal citizens’ experiences of corruption in each country.  While citizens certainly experience demands for bribes and other direct expressions of corruption, they may not have a full understanding of the depth of corrupt practices that occur behind closed doors.  Corruption is often a hidden practice, after all.  Thus, a broad survey of citizen perceptions could be buttressed by a more robust expert analysis, perhaps along the lines of the Global Integrity Report, in order to guide policy makers towards the most prevalent, and pernicious, forms of corruption in each country.

Finally, once the dynamics and sources of corruption have been established, international organizations need effective tools to combat it.  As mentioned, building off existing efforts and movements is key.  Too often, international actors have focused exclusively on helping countries strengthen formal laws and institutions to address corruption.  Yet corruption persists.  According to the Global Integrity Report, Guatemala’s legal framework for combating corruption scores 90 of 100, while the implementation of those laws rates at 43, a massive gap between form and function.

Over the past several years, however, research and analysis has revealed improved principles for catalyzing meaningful institutional change through foreign aid.  The Fragile States Research Center highlights several recent books, articles and reports that argue for a new thinking about how to support institutional reform.  The authors of these pieces agree that promoting real institutional change involves focusing on the informal aspects of institutional functioning, such as organizational culture, power relationships, incentive structures, etc.  The authors note that international aid agencies have struggled to put these new insights into practice, despite new analytical tools to examine political economy factors, for example.  Thus, the challenge remains for development decision-makers and practitioners to incorporate the latest learning in order to help support what may be a rising tide against global corruption.

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