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.


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

polis: Can ‘Co-Production’ Bring Infrastructure to Informal Settlements?

polis: Can ‘Co-Production’ Bring Infrastructure to Informal Settlements?.

I came across this blog post while (re)rewriting one of the essays for my dissertation.  I was intrigued because it was written by a master’s student working for SPARC, an organization in Mumbai that I have been a fan of for a while now.  The topic of the blog is co-production in slum upgrading, focusing on evidence from Nairobi, Kenya (I’ll be examining co-production-ish activities in slums in Guatemala City).  The author highlights the real possibility of co-production schemes solidifying informal (and second class) service-provision arrangements, but notes that “But when done well, [co-production] can address gaps in services and policy that government or private firms alone can’t solve.”  However, if one posits that governments (or private firms) “can’t solve” a challenge like urban service provision to slum communities, the caveat must be added “under the dominant paradigm of neo-liberal urban governance”.  I’ll again refer back (this is becoming a habit) to Raj Desai’s piece I reviewed a few weeks ago.  The issue for governments isn’t so much “can’t” as “isn’t induced to”, because the urban poor do not (generally) constitute a cohesive political block that can effectively wield political agency.  City budgets respond, to a greater or lesser extent, to those with political clout (which can also take the form of financial clout).  Case in point: on the outskirts of Guatemala City the government constructed a new $3 million overpass to facilitate the entrance and exit to a gated community for wealthy families.  Three million dollars were invested to shave a few minutes off the daily commute of (at the most) a couple hundred people.  How many families living in Guatemala City’s many slums could have been provided with basic water and sewer service for $3 million?

Retail Democracy in Guatemala

So my intention in starting a blog was to write in it at least once a week (I know all my readers await my posts with bated breath). However, I’ve been going back and forth a bit with USAID because there is a possibility that the powers that be need to approve my blog posts.  But I figured I might as well forge ahead, while the situation gets resolved.

Last week I posted an editorial written by friend of mine that I found quite provocative (Spanish readers can find the article here) in Facebook.  I would like to consider that piece in more detail here.  Essentially, the author goes through a list of the shortcomings of Guatemala’s democracy, including:

  • Unaccountable congress in which legislators change parties frequently and where private interests are at the heart of the legislative agenda
  • The new head of the congress, who has clear ties to the country’s economic elite
  • The new human rights ombudsman, who negotiated his election with political parties and surely has favors to pay back, and has taken no action in the wake of the massacre of campesinos by the military during a protest in Totonicapan in October

This is clearly just a sample of Guatemala’s democratic deficits and dysfunctional public institutions.  The author could have gone into the corruption of public servants, the ineffectiveness of the justice system, or the complicity of elements of the security sector in the trafficking of drugs, weapons and human beings.  Yet the few examples provided are enough to remind any reader familiar with the Guatemalan context of the superficiality of country’s democracy.  Retail democracy, according to the author, is not the selling of democracy so much as it is the treating of the state as a business that exists for the private benefit of those elected or appointed to be its custodians.

The author laments that Guatemalans complain of the situation in which their country languishes, but do not set foot out the door and become part of the change.  He cites movements against austerity in Spain and of students demanding public education in Chile, and correctly points out that citizens must safeguard democracy, rather than leaving that most important of tasks up to the government (particularly governments enmeshed in the very democratic shortcomings elaborated earlier).

The solution to democracy’s problems, it has often been said, is more democracy, and often more participatory democracy.  That is what the author is arguing.  Citizens must participate in order for democracy to function.  Fair enough.  But how?

Lets look at some recent examples of citizen participation in Guatemala over the past couple of years and see if they represent a nascent movement that might address the country’s flawed democracy.

  1. Totonicapan campasino movement.  The protests during which 7 campesinos were murdered were rejecting constitutional reforms proposed by President Otto Perez Molina.  One of the reforms would change the way electricity is billed.  The protesters claimed it would raise electricity prices.  It seems that there exists a potent and capable organization of communities in Totonicapan, with the capacity to turn out thousands of members, as was well demonstrated by the protests of the constitutional reforms and the subsequent protest of the killings, in which thousands descended on the capital.  Yet there are also accusations that the movement was manipulated by opponents of the government, seeking to scuttle the reform proposal and thus weaken the president politically.
  2. Broader campesino movement.  The National Coordinator of Campesino Organizations (CNOC) has organized several marches on the capital to highlight the desperate plight of the country’s rural indigenous poor.  They have succeeded in maintaining dialogue with the current administration and keeping important items, such as a rural development law proposal, in the spotlight.  Concrete results have not been as forthcoming, but CNOC seems to realize gains will only be realized if they continue to press their case (though without blocking highways, as other movements, including the Totonicapan protests, have done).
  3. Cristina Siekavizza movement.  Cristina, from a well-off family in Guatemala City, disappeared from her house in 2011.  Her husband, who also disappeared along with the couple’s 2 young children, is widely assumed to have murdered her. After Cristina’s disappearance, a movement formed to pressure the government to solve the case and bring her husband to justice.  The core of this movement is made up of Cristina’s family and friends, from Guatemala’s middle and upper classes, who have maintained the visibility of Christina’s case and continued to demand justice.
  4. Rosenburg Murder protests.  Thousands of young people took to the streets of Guatemala City in 2009 to demand the resignation of then-president Alvaro Colom in the wake of the death of a prominent lawyer, who left a video message days before his death claiming that the president was responsible.  This bizarre case (Rosenburg actual hired hitmen to kill himself; an excellent article about the story can be found here) involved elements of Guatemala’s far right, intent on removing the only “leftist” leader the country has seen in the past half century.  The protesters, the vast majority of whom represented the country’s middle and upper classes, were clearly duped and politically manipulated.  Yet there antipathy for the then-government was real and seemingly primarily based on the then-presidents stated agenda to focus on the country’s rural and indigenous poor, thus making him a leftist (apparently owning a number of low-wage maquila garment-assembly factories does not bar one from being considered a leftist).
  5. Mining rejection referendums.  Over the past half decade or more, dozens of communities in Guatemala have held community referendums, sanctioned in the municipal code, to reject mining (and also large-scale hydroelectric) activities in their areas.  In almost all cases, 90% or more of those who participate in such plebiscites vote against mineral extraction.  Communities have cited concerns about groundwater contamination and not receiving any benefits from the millions of dollars such mines produce every year (Guatemala collects one of the lowest rates of tax on mineral extraction in the region, possibly in the world).  The central government has ignored these referendums.  In some cases this has led to protests and blockages of the mining sites.  Local residents have blocked the entrance to  one gold mine near Guatemala City for months, claiming that the benefits promised by the mining company were siphoned off by corrupt community and political leaders.

What, if anything, can we learn from these different citizens movements that have arisen in Guatemala in recent years?  The first is that there do exist circumstances under which Guatemalans will take to the street and raise their voices.  In most of the cases above, the issue at hand relates directly to the quality of life of those involved in the movement or protest.  In the other cases it was the death of a loved one, and subsequent impunity, or latent anti-Colom sentiment that found an outlet in the accusations against the then-president.

The second lesson is that middle and upper class individuals are more likely to form spontaneous movements, whereas the poor often need some kind of organizational base to generate and maintain citizen involvement.  This  lesson is neither surprising nor new.  Yet it does focus attention on the need to strengthen organizations working to mobilize those with legitimate grievances, but less capacity to participate.

Third: movements are prone to political manipulation.  The Rosenburg death was orchestrated by anti-government elements and the subsequent protest utilized by the opposition, both with the intent to weaken, if not overthrow Alvaro Colom.  In the Totonicapan protest, it seems that a legitimate movement was somewhat manipulated by opponents of the government, again with the objective of weakening the president.  In this case, it is unclear what, if any, complicity community/organizational leaders had in this manipulation, but in any case it leads to another point.

Fourth.  Movements need to be accountable to their base.  Historically, organizations in Latin America have been hierarchical and leaders have been authoritarian.  Unfortunately, this legacy persists, and even organizations espousing egalitarian ideals and authentic democracy fall into this trap.  When transparency and accountability mechanisms within a movement or organization are weak or nonexistent, the possibility of manipulation or corruption increases substantially, benefiting a few leaders at the expense of other members.  (This point applies universally in Guatemala, as many community organizations face the same challenges)

Fifth, and finally, Guatemalan governments are not particularly responsive to citizen’s movements.  If we leave aside the Rosenberg protests, which unraveled as facts about the case emerged, the remaining 4 movements have little to show for their efforts.  The constitutional reforms are moving ahead (if haltingly), the rural development law and other proposals have yet to materialize, Christina’s killer remains at large, and mining operations have expanded at an ever-quickening pace.

Why have these organizations and movements struggled to achieve their explicit goals?  Does this imply that such efforts are in vain?  To address the second issue first: no, clearly not.  The pressure generated by these movements has resulted in some gains.  The Justice for Cristina movement led to the arrest and charges of obstruction of justice of Christina’s husband’s mother, a former head of one of Guatemala’s high courts.  This was no mean feat.  Some of the mining protests have kept mines shut down, keeping money out of the pockets of owners and politicians alike and (hopefully) making a negotiated arrangement more likely (especially in the wake of the Totonicapan massacre, which led to a ban on military involvement in protest activities).

Yet, there is an important caveat.  Only the anti-mining referendums have used a legal mechanism to channel their demands (however ineffective this has been).  The other movements have indeed taken to the streets, but have not generated the number to paralyze a country, such as recently demonstrated in Spain and Argentina, or even give vote-conscious politicians pause for thought.  One key difference, between the aforementioned countries and Guatemala, in the former, powerful unions were involved in the protests.  Guatemala lacks such unions (the most visible is the teachers union, which is a textbook, pardon the pun, case of the capture of an organization by corrupt and unaccountable leaders).  The CNOC is not a union per se, but rather a federation of organizations, which can mobilize thousands, but not hundreds of thousands.

In each of these cases (again, leaving out the Rosenberg protests), the government has made symbolic (and perhaps even authentic) efforts to listen to protesters’ demands, but ultimately, has not felt compelled to take significant actions.  Why?  It is the difference between the Occupy and Tea Party movements in the United States.  The former took to the streets, and stayed there, the latter took to the polls and elected dozens of law makers.  In Guatemala, diverse protests and movements have not made meaningful political alliances that would allow their demands to be more meaningfully considered within the states decision-making apparatus (in either the legislative or executive branches).  Opposition leaders have been glad to utilize movements and then discard them, but have made little effort to bring protesters into the party as constituents.  This is due to the weak and fragmented nature of the political party system in Guatemala, in which parties are built around money and personality, rather than any policy platform, much less explicit ideology (though the overwhelming majority of Guatemala’s 2 dozen or so parties are clearly to the right of the political spectrum, representing the interests of their financial backers).  Thus, citizen’s organizations and movements have few possibilities of channeling their participants’ votes in way that would generate the changes they are seeking.

Political parties and elections are the primary means of translating popular demands into policy and holding governments accountable in most democracies.  In Guatemala’s case, both components of this mechanism are dysfunctional and must be strengthened.  Citizen’s movements and organizations would be wise to press for the passage and implementation of the current reform proposal for the country’s Political Parties and Elections law, which could be an important, although likely modest, step forward.  Citizens must also take advantages of organizations like Accion Ciudadana, which trains volunteers to monitor congresspersons’ votes so that they can be held accountable.  Other transparency efforts might diminish the public money channeled into vote buying schemes, thus forcing political candidates to address meaningful issues in order to win political support.  Increasing use of social media, while not making a (second) Guatemalan Spring likely, does present an opportunity to build awareness and strengthen participation of young people (with the Rosenberg case again serving as an important warning of potential manipulation).  Finally, strong citizens movements must be internally democratic, instituting mechanisms of accountability and inclusive decision-making, if they are to remain credible and effective.

To conclude, I will mention that is is the urban popular classes that perhaps lack a clear movement or organization that might serve to channel their interests.  And it was likely to this population that my friend was speaking in his editorial when he urged greater participation.  This points back to Raj Desia’s work on the political agency of the urban poor, which I reviewed last month.

Citizen’s efforts must take place both within and outside of the democratic system, and must use varied strategies, both protest and collaboration, in order for meaningful change to result.  Movements should also look at avenues for action at the local level as well, particularly on issues such as mining or development.  In sum, more Guatemalans do need to step out into the street if their country is to become more democratic, but the capacity of democracy-seeking organizations and movements must be built and strengthened as well, if citizens are to have a mechanism to channel such participation that is (reasonably) free of manipulation and can enhance the agency of individuals to be instruments of change in the public arena.

Review: The Political Economy of Urban Poverty in Developing Countries

So I thought I would get the ball rolling with some brief observations and thoughts on a study that I came across a while back, but one which I continue to refer back to in both my academic writing and in my professional work.  The report, by Raj Desai, is entitled The Political Economy of Urban Poverty in Developing Countries: Theories, Issues, and an Agenda for Research (and can be found here) and was published by the Brookings Institute Wolfensohn Center for Development in 2010.  The reason I find myself referring so often to this report is that the author highlights the need to focus on relationship between the urban poor and governing institutions and elites.  This isn’t a groundbreaking insight in itself, but Desai very cogently frames the problem as one of political agency.  In short, the urban poor generally lack political agency and are thus unable to exert influence on policies, resulting in political-economy obstacles to urban poverty reduction.   Desai defines political agency as “the capacity of the poor to select, reward and sanction the leaders, institutions, policies, formal rules and informal norms that directly affect their lives (p. 2)”.

According to the author, “the urban poor in developing countries – with few exceptions – vote in order to secure public goods and services that they otherwise lack, rather than to express policy preferences (p. 9)”.  Further, the urban poor are unlikely to engage in political action beyond voting, within a clientelist framework, due to obstacles to collective action stemming from “social and political fractionalization in poor communities”.  This does not mean that the urban poor are completely passive.  In some cases the urban poor, and the organizations that (claim to) represent them, engage in multiple, often simultaneous, strategies of collaboration, contestation and patronage seeking, in order to try to meet their needs.  Yet this is not the norm, for in general, this population is reluctant to join groups or engage in political action.  Additionally, due to the informality of the labor market in which the majority of the urban poor are entrenched, they lack unions and the threat of a strike to advance their policy preferences (in stark contrast to the history of the US and Western Europe).  The informality, and illegality, of the land tenure situation of much of the urban poor adds an additional layer of vulnerability.

On the institutional side, weak, personalistic, clientelistic and fragmented parties/political machines prevalent in cities of global south and undermine formal democracy and the improved services to the poor that democracy generally entails.

Desai points to decentralization, membership organizations of the urban poor, and urban microfinance as areas of potential, but ones requiring further research to demonstrate their impacts across a range of contexts.  Finally, he emphasizes the fact that proposing new urban anti-poverty projects without addressing power relations may simply reinforce status quo inequalities and structures.