Another International Anti-corruption day passed this December.  The 9th of December is a day that commemorates the adoption of the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC). While the UNCAC was adopted on 31 October 2003 by the General Assembly, the Assembly also designated 9 December as International Anti-Corruption Day, to raise awareness about the effects of corruption and about the role of the UNCAC in combating and preventing corruption.  The 9th of December is a day when governments, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, the media and citizens around the world are encouraged to join forces and make some form of “statement” symbolizing the fight against corruption.  For the donor and international development community, this day gives an opportunity to showcase initiatives, projects, and programs that are contributing, in one way or another, to end and/or prevent corruption.

This year for example, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and the United Nations development Programme (UNDP) have developed a joint global campaign, focusing on how corruption affects education, health, justice, democracy, prosperity and development.  They want to raise awareness to the obstacles to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  Transparency International, just ended its 17th International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) in Panama early in December, showcasing the issues of ending impunity, and promoting justice, equity, security and trust.

The 9th of December is the day, or marks a week or weeks when some political leaders, some governments, some legal bodies and some constituencies, civil society groups and citizens do something to commemorate the day.  Anti-corruption advocates on this day organize events to engage audiences and send messages of hope, resilience and motivation. Over the years, I have participated and helped organize concerts, discussions, workshops, hackatons, as well as wrote speeches, gave speeches, and sent video messages through the World Wide Web.  I helped promote photo contests, essay competitions, and disseminated posters, flyers and other materials to increase awareness about the costs of corruption. I also used the 9th of December as a key day to launch and/or present reports.  On this day, I have also organized recognition events and ceremonies to pay tribute to people, projects and organizations for their anti-corruption work.

But thirteen years after the adoption of the UNCAC and more than a decade of international anti-corruption day commemorations, I cannot help to ask, are we helping and/or contributing to the cause? I know one day cannot make a difference in such a complex and multidimensional phenomenon that is corruption, but a lot of resources and efforts go into these types of commemorations, and it is fair to ask whether commemorating the day makes a difference.  My most inner and heartfelt thinking forces me to think that yes it is making a difference, perhaps not immediate, but cumulatively and for long-term, it is contributing to raise awareness and leveraging support for political reforms.  But my rational most inner thinking sprinkles some doubt into my heartfelt conclusions.  I am still surprise to see how many people, even within the international development and donor community do not know about this day or why 9th of December is International Anti-corruption Day.  I purposely underlined above the word some, because not all political leaders, governments, legal bodies, constituencies, civil society groups and citizens do something to commemorate the day.  For some, it is just another day to engage in corrupt practices, to ignore the consequence of corrupt practices, and/or to continue to express and spread cynicism and dismiss any effort against corruption as fruitless.

No doubt that over the past decades corruption has evolved from an obscure, taboo and internal matter, into an open, allowed, and external subject matter that is getting daily attention.  As I started my career in international development, I remember how formal and limited it was to bring the “c” word into the discussion table, both with governments and non-governmental organizations.  A decade ago, multilateral and bilateral donor organizations and international financial and development institutions did not consistently recognize corruption as a major challenge for democratic governance and development.  The word corruption was virtually unprintable in official publications.

Something began to happen in the 1990s and ensuing years.  In 1994 for example, the Organization of American States (OAS) began to study the issue of probity and public ethics.  In 1996 members of the OAS signed the Inter-American Convention against Corruption, the first international anti-corruption agreement.  Over the past couple of decades, many countries have also signed other international conventions against corruption, as well as other related treaties, and became formally committed to introducing reforms to control and fight corruption.  For example,

  • The Criminal Law Convention on Corruption, January, 27, 1999. Concluded by the Council of Europe, this treaty aims to coordinate criminalization of a large number of corrupt practices among members. It also provides for complementary criminal law measures and for improved international cooperation in the prosecution of corruption offences.
  • Civil Law Convention on Corruption, Nov. 4, 1999.  Concluded by the Council of Europe, the convention attempts to define common international rules in the field of civil law and corruption.

Corruption, today, is broadly recognized as a critical democratic governance and international development challenge not only for developing and transition countries, but for all countries, including the most developed.  Also, in response to domestic and international pressures, many corrupt politicians have been tried and put to jail. These and other facts, help support the glass half full theory about anti-corruption.

Nonetheless, many governments still do little to operationalize and institutionalize anti-corruption policies, and/or to prevent the risks of corrupt practices.  Although many countries have passed important anti-corruption legislation, most of this legislation remains un-enforced because of lack of political will or simply because political leaders do not see corruption as a major problem.  Many governments try to use the fact that they are a signatory of international and/or regional anti-corruption conventions as “window dressing,” without a serious commitment to do much more about preventing and/or controlling corruption.  We can find many case studies around the world, of how, laws that promote transparency and accountability are often curtailed.   Even laws and/or initiatives that were the collaborative product of civil society, the business community, the legislature and elements of the government, are nullified.  It is often the case that presidents or prime ministers do not favor anti-corruption laws and/or initiatives, but if there are widely publicized corruption scandal involving elements of their government, they are hastily signed or approved.  However, afterwards, governments issue regulations that all but negate most aspects of laws, rendering it practically useless.

Government inaction, particularly in developing and transition countries, has opened opportunities for multilateral organizations and the international donor community to support a wide variety of programs geared at improving public sector management (integrated financial management systems, civil service reforms, introduction of information and communication technology in government, modernization of tax administration and customs agencies) and promoting greater accountability and transparency in government (access to information legislation, open government, judicial reforms, procurement reforms, training prosecutors, strengthening civil society organizations, training journalists).  Moreover, donors have helped civil society organizations at the national and local levels to mobilize against corruption, encourage citizens to get involved in government oversight and to advocate in favor of reforms to fight corruption.

Although more research and empirical analysis is necessary to evaluate the impact of all of these initiatives, the initial results appear to be mixed at best (See also CGD Policy Paper and Berthin). One can find examples of programs and initiatives that succeed at first but that were undermined by subsequent governments or by economic or political crisis and/or constraints.  Moreover, anti-corruption strategies and approaches which seek to narrow the opportunities for corruption through administrative reforms while leaving untouched the inequalities of power, resources, and access tend to preserve corruption systems, opportunities for state capture and reproduce political exclusion.   Governments’ timid commitment to anti-corruption, and in some cases intimidation toward civil society groups further undermine sustainability of efforts. Moreover, many politicians accused of corrupt practices, are still in power and/or have not gone to trial.  All of these and other facts, support the glass half empty theory about anti-corruption.

There is technically evidence to support both arguments.   What is undisputed, however, is that corrupt practices are still prevalent today, and they are encouraged by a number of institutional, economic, political and social factors and practices, which remain untouched by reform and/or anti-corruption policy. They are divergent across countries and within countries, and they manifest in many forms that are an intricate part of specific contexts, but the symptoms in each manifestation share some similarities.  For example, wide and unchecked authority and power, monopoly of powers, and excessive discretion in the decision making-process generate opportunity for corrupt practices.  Very likely that where there is excessive rules, regulations and bureaucracy; where there is lack of transparency and accountability and unchecked powers related to public expenditure decisions and budget; where there is unquestioned control over the provision of key goods and services, and in the extraction of natural resources, corrupt practices are more likely to be omnipresent.

We have to be also be frank about corrupt practices being prevalent outside government.  In the civil society side, there are still some social attitudes and practices that prevent effective collective action and oversight.  If from this sector cynicism about the trustworthiness of government and questioning of the honesty and motives of officials is promoted, the end result is broad distrust in government and disrespect for the rule of law and the mistaken inclination towards populism, nationalism and authoritarianism.   Under such circumstances, very likely that individual interests over collective ones prevail, and the ends justify the means.   If we add to the mix, lax enforcement of criminal and administrative norms, and no serious enforcement of laws, the doors are wide open to sustain corrupt practices.  People will believe that they can disregard the law with impunity; or worse, perpetuate the notion that there is no trust in the impartiality of the justice system. Thus, preserving the notion that corruption is an “equalizer” of sorts.

The above analysis is of course over simplified, but highlights the broad challenges facing societies today when it comes to corruption. Moreover, the major political outcomes in 2016 seem to signal a step backwards for democratic governance all over the world.  Elections are no longer consequential in terms of accountability, and the bar for politicians and political life is so low, that unfortunately corruption in many places has been rendered as unimportant, and has been further embedded into political life.

To make matters worse, authoritarian regimes and tendencies are back in business in many countries around the world today.  To retain political power, these regimes use and encourage corrupt practices to reward supporters and/or co-opt opponents.  Patron-client relationships flourish in authoritarian regimes, and loyalties are driven by fear, lack if choices and/or simply disregard of democratic culture.

At the end, whether authoritarian or not, if the political context lacks adequate accountability and transparency systems, it is more likely that corrupt practices will prevail.   Without effective watchdog institutions, anti-corruption and control bodies, and checks and balances within public sector institutions, corrupt practices will thrive. If furthermore, transparency is not institutionalized in the government culture and as a social norm, the risk for corrupt practices will remain high. Furthermore, when governments make decisions in secret, curtail the media and freedom of the press, and control collective action and citizens’ rights, opportunities for corrupt practices will continue to prosper.

We have learned something over the past decades about corrupt practices; they are committed by humans, acting alone or in concert, and outside public scrutiny.  This is why I prefer to use the term corrupt practices over corruption, because we need to put human faces behind the acts. While in many countries bribes, conflicts of interests, influence peddling, improper use of information, mismanagement of public funds, improper use of public resources, tax fraud, illegal exaction, usurpation of powers, prevarication, unlawful appointments, and fraud, among others, have been criminalized and/or sanctioned as corrupt practices, in other countries corrupt practices have not been criminalized and/or sanctioned.

Corrupt practices are a human conduct that generally involves conscious infringement of legal or ethical frameworks, with the aim of obtaining personal benefits at the expense of common interest. It occurs in the public and private sectors, and some may even argue that corrupt practices have penetrated the very same organizations and institutions that claim to be fighting against corruption such as international organizations, donors, faith organizations and churches, the media, sports organizations, and civil society organizations.

The anti-corruption agenda has expanded over the past decades.  All one has to do is look at the agenda of the 17th International Anti-Corruption Conference.  I think it is positive that new anti-corruption topics and solutions can be constructed collectively, as well as for new actors and partners to be incorporated to the anti-corruption effort. But there is still some unfinished business to take care of that are at the root of corrupt practices.  If not tackled, these may undermine any future anti-corruption agenda. I would highlight three key issues that should be priorities in global, national and local anti-corruption agendas:

  1. Measuring progress of anti-corruption: During the last decade, there have been efforts to try to measure corruption more systematically and scientifically, using a wide range of methodologies.  All of these efforts have yielded an important body of data, which has helped not only to refine the understanding of the causes and nature of corruption, but also, and more importantly, to provide civil society organizations with powerful advocacy and monitoring tools for combating corruption.  Nonetheless, in spite of all that progress, we do not have yet enough systemic and more evidence-based measurement approaches to ascertain changes in corrupt practices.
  1. Political finance: It is important to recognize that many countries have begun to address challenges related to political-party finance reform. However, there are new challenges, that have to do with the weakening of political parties and reconciling on the one hand, the need for money to support free speech and competitive political campaigns — and, on the other hand, the possibility that rich donors (or anonymous wealthy donors) might unfairly influence or corrupt elected officials.
  1. Political legitimacy: Just as one can speak of “democratic legitimacy,” as a solid pillar that makes democracy “the only game in town,” political legitimacy can also be important, since people have to agree that there is no alternative set of structures or institutions, outside the political system, to able to make legitimate and binding societal decisions. As Beetham argues, “legitimacy endows governmental decisions with moral authority.”  It is the sense that rule-makers have the right to make laws, and that those laws ought to be obeyed.  More specifically, this sense comprises the belief that those in power have a right to make binding decisions because: (1) they are duly elected to that office by widely accepted procedures; (2) they exercise power in a widely accepted and accountable way; and (3) that the rules that govern the state reflect widely accepted values and norms. Legitimacy is what enables compliance for those decisions without having to resort to force or to authoritarian means.  As Easton suggested, legitimacy constitutes a form of “diffuse” support for a political system, a form of support that does not have to be earned and/or forced but rather embedded in the institutions of the political system rather than the current occupants of those institutions.  A legitimate political system is likely to be a more stable political system, as well as a more transparent and accountable. Legitimacy acts as a buffer to cushion the system against shocks from short-term dissatisfaction with policy and government performance. It should bring about more cooperative behavior, as citizens and public officials are more likely to obey the law and refrain from anti-system/establishment and clientelistic/populist behavior if they view democratic governance as a source of legitimacy.

So, this 9th of December I reflected as a way to commemorate International Anti-Corruption Day, on what is in everyone’s minds these days; the future.  A new administration in the United States; the resilience of non-democratic networks around the world; Russia’s global influence being lubricated by a network of state-sponsored corruption; the capturing of power by people and organizations that are anti-democratic; the weakening of international organizations; the normalization of low principled ideals or political mediocrity; and civic apathy, inaction and entrenched social disappointment.  Yes, there was much to celebrate and commemorate on International Anti-Corruption Day, but we cannot not afford to get our eyes off the target by investing so much in only one day of the year, and ignore the many days and years that lay ahead to resist and fight.  Protecting whatever minimal progress was made in anti-corruption, and encouraging young anti-corruption champions to lead a renewed effort, are key elements of anti-corruption at this time, but actively driving the political agenda to address the root causes should be the goal.  The new set of forces and dynamics that are beginning to align, will no doubt challenge the anti-corruption status quo.  If the anti-corruption community does not act more vigorously and strategically, it risks not having even one day of the year to celebrate and commemorate even small victories against corruption.

Written by Gerardo Berthin

This is a conversational blog written and maintained by Gerardo Berthin, a political scientist, who specializes in applied governance policy issues. This personal reflection is not intended to reflect the positions of organizations he is and/or has been affiliated with. All pictures unless otherwise noted are attributed to the author.

One comment

  1. Thank you for this article, which neatly summarises the scope of challenges to fighting corrupt practices globally. Corruption without doubt is one of main contributors to political decay that has plagued even liberal democracies, as you have rightly noted. International anti-corruption partnerships are important but I think that solutions should be localised, to take into account political institutions, culture and tradition. Take, for example, nepotism and patronage in the Middle East or Central Asia—they are tolerated by the society to quite a degree. Therefore, our anti-corruption assistance programmes should reflect those nuances, in order to set realistic targets. What we are aiming at is cultural change, and all those who have worked in the field know that it takes generations to happen, even if painstakingly pursued.

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