My article on Guatemala in Democracy & Society

See the link below for latest issue of Democracy and Society with my (short) article on security and governance in Guatemala entitled:

“State Fragility, Transnational Crime &  External Intervention in Guatemala:  Regional Security as a  Governance Challenge”


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.

10 Things To Know About Rule of Law Reform

These are important insights about promoting institutional change in developing countries. The emphasis on informal dynamics (power, incentives, culture, politics) rather than just formal rules and functions is applicable to public sector institutions more broadly. Donors need to support broad change coalitions over the long term and take advantage of windows of opportunity. Finally, reform and change needs to be, above all else, relevant to the local population.

Reinventing the Rules

Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld, Founder of the Truman National Security Project, discusses techniques to improve the rule of law sector.

[Posted from INPROL’s blog]

1)     The most important elements to change are a country’s power structure and culture –its popular and professional norms.  Most first-generation rule of law programs focused on improving laws and institutions.  Reformers would build new court buildings, providing equipment to police, rewrite commercial laws, and provide computers to improve case management.  But no matter how badly it appears that these material goods are needed, second generation reformers have discovered that they are secondary to real reform.  Until power structures and professional and popular culture support the rule of law, politically powerful individuals can ignore it, and laws and institutions will continue to malfunction.  Therefore, the crucial realization of second generation reform is that countries lack the rule of law not because they are ignorant…

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Review of “Development Aid Confronts Politics: The Almost Revolution” by Thomas Carothers and Diane De Gramont

I recently finished reading “Development Aid Confronts Politics: The Almost Revolution”, by Carothers and De Gramont.  I found it to be a comprehensive and insightful look at the interaction between international development practice and politics.  By politics, the authors refer to political analysis and politically-informed interventions, as well as explicitly political goals, such as promoting democratic governance.  This book is extremely relevant and timely, coming as moment when the international development industry is in a state of flux driven by budget austerity in Western nations, loud criticism and skepticism about aid from numerous sectors, and competition from investment from countries such as China and massive flows of remittances to poor countries.

The authors demonstrate that the history of incorporating political goals and methods into international development practice dates back at least five decades.  Criticism of the technocratic and apolitical nature of development has existed since the inception of the foreign aid enterprise, yet beginning in the 1990’s movement to more meaningfully address politics began to gain traction, driven by voices calling for reform both from within and outside development institutions.  The authors trace the rise of policy statements on the importance of politics and governance throughout international development work, but the very uneven progress of integrating more political analysis, methods and goals into development practice.  Indeed, although discussion of “governance” issues has spread throughout most aid institutions and across development sectors, much “governance work” is undertaken through profoundly apolitical methods, such as “technical capacity building” of state institutions and personnel while ignoring incentives and power structures that affect the way such organizations and their staff operate on the ground.

Many development organizations, including USAID, have begun to pay more attention to political economy analysis to inform goals, strategies and interventions.  Yet the authors argue that political analyses, particularly at the country level, often raise more questions than they answer and seldom have clear programmatic implications.  These analyses can often be considered “interesting, but impractical” by development professionals, and quickly find their way to the archives.  Nonetheless, the authors see the continued spread of political analysis as a potentially positive step, but note that the incorporation of politics into development practice involves sailing against strong headwinds:

“Politically informed methods thus imply a whole set of operational characteristics— such as flexibility, open-endedness, toleration of uncertainty, labor intensiveness, significant investments in preparatory analysis, and devolution of control— that cut directly against many of the central imperatives and habits of mainstream aid organizations….taken together they represent a fundamental challenge to long-established ways of operating.” p. 263

The authors believe that the conversation about politics within the international development community is a step forward, but warn that the road towards truly politically-informed development practice will be both long and challenging.

“The movement over the last two decades to incorporate political thinking and action into development aid is not a fad. It is not one more item in the seemingly ever-changing series of development fashions that capture the attention of aid providers before quickly fading away. It is, potentially at least, a fundamental advance in the aid community’s conception of the substance and process of development itself and how outside actors can play a useful role. But as we have attempted to show in this book, it remains a partially realized revolution, at best.” p. 275

Hopefully, however, the progress thus far will mean that there is no turning back now.  For as the authors state in their conclusion:

“Political methods and goals do not provide any magic bullets— developmental change is always complex and usually difficult. Although political approaches are not sufficient for sustainable development progress, there is good evidence that taking politics more fully into account is necessary.” p. 284

My new column on politics and international development

For most of my post-graduate time at Virginia Tech, I have been affiliated with the Institute for Policy and Governance, run by Dr. Max Stephenson (who also chairs my dissertation committee).   The Institute recently began a weekly column for graduate students.  Please have a look at my post entitled Politics, Political Change and International Development.  

As always, comments are very welcome.


Vote Buying in Urban Guatemala: Some Evidence

Vote buying is a phenomenon found all over the world.  Vote buying differs slightly from clientelism in that the latter often entails more durable relationships based on repeated interactions, relationships and symbolism.  The buying of votes, on the other hand, can be viewed as a more episodic and transactional event.  As a political strategy, clientelism is infinitely preferable, as it is associated with much high predictability of outcomes.  A Mexican PRIista or Argentinian Peronista has likely been supporting the same party for years and is well enmeshed in a system of favors, relationships, symbolic exchanges and functions to demonstrate expressions of party loyalty (see studies by Javier Auyero for the case of Peronist clientelism).

In Guatemala, however, political parties do not have nearly the resources, organization, or ideology to establish such structures and relationships.  Guatemalan political parties are incredibly ephemeral, often functioning for only 2 or 3 elections before fading into irrelevance and being disbanded.  Thus, parties often rely on more abstract promises and proposals to influence voter preference.  But parties have also had a long history of offering more tangible inducements, such as food, fertilizer, building materials, etc.  A recent (2012) study the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Accion Ciudadana and the University of Notre Dame examined the phenomenon of vote buying in Guatemala and provides some concrete evidence on the prevalence of this activity.

The investigation found that 37% of respondents reported being aware of vote buying in their locality.  Only 4.4% of respondents reported that their vote was influenced by vote buying activities however.  Due to the likelihood of under reporting  the study utilized a methodology to establish a more accurate estimate of actual participation in vote buying, arriving at a figure of 17%.  Given Guatemala’s poverty and lack of established political parties, one might view this figure as rather low.  It would seem logical that the cost of a vote for Guatemala’s poor majority would be rather economical for political parties versus the rather high cost of advertising, especially buying television air time.  Yet vote buying is unpredictable.  Individuals may accept material inducements from many parties and vote for none of them on election day.  Improvements in electoral practices, particularly disallowing individuals to enter with cell phones, and thus photograph their ballot to confirm their loyalty, have reduced the efficiency of one-off vote buying transactions.

Yet in certain localities, vote buying is prevalent.  The following table presents the results of a survey in 7 neighborhoods of a low income urban area on the periphery of Guatemala City.  Survey respondents were asked to identify any of the following 4 activities undertaken by political candidates and parties in their neighborhood during the most recent elections in 2011: General promises and commitments; Promised personal benefits; Campaign paraphernalia, food and trinkets; and materials or a community project.

Neighborhood General
promises/   Commitments
Materials/ Project
A 49% 82% 49% 55%
B 43% 52% 29% 10%
C 95% 75% 55% 80%
D 95% 66% 66% 14%
E 73% 41% 45% 23%
F 83% 83% 83% 17%
G 10% 90% 25% 10%
AVERAGE 64% 70% 50% 30%

The evidence from the survey shows that political candidates and party operators are much more prone to promises, of a general or personal nature, than to opening the coffers to provide tangible benefits.  And when they do opt to make use of campaign funds for material inducements, they are more likely to be of an insignificant nature (party shirts and hats, food, etc) than a contribution of materials to a community project, or carrying out a project on their own.

Is this good news for political consolidation in Guatemala?  Its hard to say.  If it is a demonstration that political parties are shifting away from vote buying to more ideological and policy based platforms, this would be a positive step.  However, if it is simply a political calculation that investing in material vote buying is less cost effective than broader advertising campaigns, then it may not signify any improvement in Guatemala’s weak political party system.  In either case, in the absence of more stable political parties that represent the interests of the majority of Guatemalans, the country’s democracy will remain fragile and even superficial.

polis: Governance is Key in Addressing Urban Poverty

polis: Governance is Key in Addressing Urban Poverty.

Check out my post on the blog Polis related to urban governance.  It draws a few quick and basic lessons from my dissertation research on low-income urban areas in Guatemala.  The basic idea is that a lack of transparency and accountability mechanisms at the municipal level, combined with little organization and political agency by the urban poor, leads to a situation where such communities are not well served by local infrastructure and services and subject to political manipulation by local political actors.