As I thought the topic of this article, I knew I wanted to be a reflection about where our world is in anti-corruption. But I wanted to frame it differently, so, I chose a dramatic title, using (slightly edited) and combining the names of two popular soap operas. As the World Turns was an American Television soap opera that aired for 54 consecutive years and Looking for Paradise/Buscando el Paraiso was a Mexican telenovela aired in 1993 by Televisa. Soap operas usually focus on situations in a town or a country, and they are frequently characterized by melodrama. A key element that defines the soap opera is the open-ended serial nature of the narrative, with stories spanning several episodes. Each episode ends with a promise that the storyline is to be continued in another episode, so the audience waits expectantly to see what happens to the story and the characters. Soap opera storylines run concurrently, intersect and lead into further developments. An individual episode of a soap opera will generally switch between several different concurrent narrative threads that may at times interconnect and affect one another or may run entirely independent of each other. What does this have to do with anti-corruption?
Episode 1: Anti-Corruption Efforts from the North to the South
There are some common running themes in soap operas whether they are made in the United States, Mexico or elsewhere — love lost, long-lost relatives, and yes corruption as well. Soap opera audiences, however, like their stories with all the loose ends wrapped up and a happy ending — justice being served and impunity ending finales are common. Today Netflix (for example with House of Cards) and other such streaming outlets are capitalizing on the soap opera approach and producing shows that explicitly focus their attention on corruption. When I started working in anti-corruption, the “c” word was not as mainstream as it is today. Also, anti-corruption had a standard flow from the global north to the global south based on the premise that “northern” and older democratic systems in the west had developed effective anti-corruption tools, institutions and best practices that could serve as reference and guidance to the “southern” countries, considered less-developed and that were just starting to build their democratic systems.
Over three decades ago, international organizations, multilateral and bilateral donors, and non-governmental organizations from the north, designed efforts to help countries in the south to improve governance and promote anti-corruption. At the time, anti-corruption was seen as innovative and compelling, as the empirical evidence showed that corruption discouraged private investment, limited economic growth, and inhibited poverty reduction efforts. Moreover, anti-corruption efforts funded mostly by the north, would help identify countries in the south priorities for reforms across corruption-prone areas, risk points in a given sector, and anti-corruption policy. Concepts like accountability, transparency, impunity, watchdog, compliance, and enforcement, among others, were transported to the south and translated into languages other than English, or often using and normalizing instead the original English versions due to lack of proper or compelling translation (accountability, compliance).
Throughout the older democratic countries, widespread and systemic corruption was a disease that like polio was thought to be a thing of the past. In the northern societies, while corruption was not fully eliminated, their political systems found a way to transition from a pre-democratic stage of government in which electoral participation was limited and the work of government largely invisible from the public, to a more mature democratic stage with expanding electoral participation and with a relatively more transparent and proactive policy processes. That relatively successful experience was being exported to the south via donor programs, regional and global anti-corruption conventions, and a plethora of tools, metrics, and advocacy strategies. It is important to recognize that this work has produced significant progress in many developing countries in the fight against corruption, as well as collaboration between the south and the north. As a result, today there is more awareness about corruption around the globe and its consequences, more local, national and international anti-corruption norms and legislation, tools that were adapted and improved, growing social accountability mechanisms, and more research, metrics, and evidence. Unfortunately, in spite of this progress, corruption persists.
Episode 2: The Pendulum Theory – Corruption Returns to the North
The Pendulum Theory is also known in physics as the pendulum law. It was discovered by Galileo in 1602, and describes the regular, swinging motion of a pendulum by the action of gravity and acquired momentum. The theory helps explain that trends in culture, politics, and economics, among others, tend to swing back and forth between opposite extremes. Today there is no day that goes by without news about corruption around the globe, but corruption headlines are also invading news in the U.S., the UK, Australia, France, Spain, and other older democracies in the north. Stories and opinion pieces can be found depicting corruption as the cause of reeling populist governments, inequality, and growing unethical behavior by elected and public officials. Conflicts of interest, nepotism, fraud, bribery, illegal enrichment, and impunity are words that like a boomerang, have returned to the daily vernacular in the north.
Back in the early days of anti-corruption, different experts and institutions developed a variety of definitions of corruption, but what was common in these definitions was the focus on the role of the state and state-society relations. Joseph Nye defined corruption as “behavior that deviates from the formal duties of a public role (elective or appointive) because of private wealth or status gains.” Today, it is widely accepted that corruption is seen as transactions between private and public sector actors through which collective public goods are illegitimately converted into private payoffs. Also, there is a wide consensus that corruption is not a matter of culture, but of opportunities and incentives that are directly related to the strength and resilience of the institutional setting in society. As such, corruption is a problem of governance across the globe, and not necessarily a product of a particular culture.
The system of checks and balances in government was developed to ensure that no one branch of government would become too powerful. For example, the framers of the U.S. Constitution wanted to ensure that the three branches of government—legislative, executive, and judicial—shared responsibility equally and included limits and controls on the powers of each branch. While their biggest fear was not corruption per se, the framers thought that a system of checks and balances would guard against tyranny by ensuring that no branch would grab too much power. The United Kingdom, France, and other older democracies found their own unique ways to ensure accountability and prevent the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.
While corruption is not endemic in many parts of the north (see maps of perceptions and risks below), that seems to be changing. Recent evidence points to growing vulnerabilities in anti-corruption systems in the north, as they have been exposed to a number of corruption risks. For example, in 2019, the U.S. slipped out of the top 20 countries perceived to have the least corruption, according to Transparency International 2019 report. Moreover, another report, shows growing frustration among citizens with the abuse of power in the U.S. Furthermore, according to another recent report, many state governments in the U.S. are riddled with corruption. Loopholes in ethics and open record laws, toothless enforcement of existing legislation, and opaque procurement processes are all becoming more common. In consequence, in many states growing risks include local officials being captured by lobbyists and corporations, public funds being misspent, and key public services (water) going undelivered. Moreover, in a landmark case in 2016 the Supreme Court of the United States invalidated the conviction of the ex-Governor of Virginia Bob McDonnell. As governor McDonnell had accepted US$175,000 in gifts and loans from a businessman who sold tobacco pills and other supplement products. The businessman had asked the governor for help convincing Virginia’s public universities to study his company’s supplement products, so that it could obtain approval from the Food and Drug Administration. In this case, the Supreme Court decided that none of what the Governor did was “an official act,” and thus he could not be guilty of a corruption crime. The latest scandal involving alleged corrupt crimes by the President of the U.S. and his administration, is creating further mistrust about accountability and transparency in government, and the ongoing scandals are exposing the limits of managing and dealing with high-level corruption.
Similarly, the UK has dropped three places in the Transparency International corruption 2019 report. Also, an EU review of the UK in 2018 found “serious weaknesses in the systems for holding top government officials – ministers, special advisers and senior civil servants – to account.” Moreover, a recent study about business practices in the UK also points to a growing corruption problem. In France, the influence-peddling case against former President Nicolas Sarkozy focused on claims that Sarkozy accepted illicit payments for his 2007 presidential campaign. Sarkozy is not the first ex-president to be prosecuted – his predecessor Jacques Chirac was given a two-year suspended sentence in 2011 for embezzlement and misuse of public funds during his time as mayor of Paris. In Spain, a growing number of politicians and business leaders are ending their careers in an unexpected place: behind bars. Almost 1,500 people in Spain faced trial for corruption between July 2015 and the end of 2016, according to official figures. Around 70% were found guilty. Similarly, Transparency International corruption 2019 report shows that Australia has failed to improve on its record low ranking, prompting renewed calls for a powerful federal integrity commission to be established. Australia’s integrity and transparency systems have faced routine criticism for their weakness. It is reported that political donations are not disclosed in real-time and failures in transparency face little to no punishment. Also, that there is no consequence for breaching federal lobbying rules, and the freedom of information regime is undermined by delays, costs, and record rates of refusals.
Episode 3: Grand Corruption in the North and Every Day Corruption in the South – Mutually Reinforcing
Anti-corruption efforts around the world have been adversely affected by growing corruption in the north, and most importantly by the inability of their systems to fight back. Let’s be clear, anti-corruption is about institutions, tools, prevention, and enforcement, but it is also about setting an example and leading by example. The culture of integrity will be as strong or weak as the tolerance for corruption. The annual Transparency International corruption 2019 report ranks countries and provides a static, picture or a snapshot of how people perceived corruption in their respective countries at a given time. As such, while useful to compare across countries the index cannot capture all of the corrupt practices operating around the world, in the north or the south. The index generally places more emphasis on challenges in the south than in the north and highlights grand corruption more than everyday corruption. But to be fair Transparency International (and others), has a number of other research that focuses on other corruption issues, such as transnational bribes and everyday corruption related to public services.
In the north corruption is not necessarily about cops asking for bribes or people paying bribes to access services. Although these practices happen, in the north corrupt practices are more closely aligned with grand corruption in the form of illegal political party finance, bribery of companies, capturing of politicians, tax fraud, and lobbying to influence decisions. After the Watergate scandal in the U.S., the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) was passed to consider for the first time the bribing of foreign officials for business purposes to be illegal. The U.S. became the first country to explicitly outlaw the practice, and others followed that lead. The FCPA makes it illegal for any “company or person in the U.S. to bribe or even offer to bribe a foreign official with anything of value to gain or retain business.” The law also gives the Justice Department the ability to prosecute a company — domestic or foreign — that uses the U.S. financial system to bribe, even if the infraction takes place entirely outside of territorial U.S. Many countries followed suit and outlawed foreign bribery. For example, the creation of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) Anti-Bribery Convention. Today, 36 OECD countries and 8 non-OECD countries have adopted this Convention. After recent high-profile cases reported, the European Union has also taken steps to prevent risks of corruption in structural funds. Moreover, the European Anti-Fraud Office (OLAF), which investigates matters relating to fraud, corruption and other offenses affecting the EU’s financial interests, concluded 197 investigations in 2017 and recommended the recovery of EUR 3 billion to the EU budget.
In the south, while the grand corruption scandals get most of the public attention, everyday corruption (also known as petty corruption) is a key challenge. It involves middle or low-level government officials who interact directly with the public in the provision of a service (health, justice, education, security, police). Everyday corruption may involve paying relatively small sums of money for accessing a service, but generally harms the most vulnerable sectors of society, as it harms people’s well-being, increases inequality, creates mistrust in institutions, and institutionalizes a vicious circle of corruption. Although grand corruption is viewed as having a more negative impact on the economy, everyday corruption, with its small sums of money exchange and other non-monetary costs, represents, when aggregate, a substantial amount of resources. Often grand corruption and everyday corruption tend to go hand in hand and to be mutually reinforcing in terms of generating high perceptions of corruption and mistrust. The global anti-corruption community must pay attention to both.
Episode 4: A Global Anti-Corruption Community as the Antidote to the Disease?
Corruption is back with a vengeance and today is not only perceived as a problem in the developing south, but also in the developed north. It is a global and localized problem, and a problem of individuals and of networks. The “Panama Papers” scandal sheds light on how embedded corruption is in the global system. The concern focuses on the negative consequences this new trend will have on anti-corruption, and its debilitating impact on institutional trust, justice systems, rule of law and other aspects of the democratic governance architecture that has accompanied transformation processes across the world over the past four decades. As the available evidence suggests, administrative, law enforcement, and institutional reforms can certainly make a dent in corruption. But such efforts are not sufficient and ultimately have to be complemented by deeper and more pedagogical anti-corruption efforts focusing on individuals or the people who opt to engage in corrupt practices.
While corruption practices involve individuals, partnerships, and associations, ultimately corrupt practices are committed by human beings. There is more evidence today to categorize corrupt practices and many countries have taken the bold step to criminalize various forms of corruption in their respective legislation, such as bribes, conflict of interests, influence peddling, improper use of information, mismanagement of public funds, tax fraud, illegal exaction, and unlawful appointments. Moreover, Chapter III of the United Nations Convention against Corruption encourages signatory countries to “adopt such legislative and other measures as may be necessary to establish as criminal offenses, when committed intentionally.”
Delineating the parameters for corrupt practices is a key aspect of anti-corruption because it helps determine the extent human beings’ conduct and choices involve conscious infringement of a legal or ethical framework, with the aim of obtaining personal benefits at the expense of a common interest. While individual causes of corruption can be identified, it is also important to understand the interaction and synergy between them that create the incentives for corrupt behavior and identify solutions to repair relations between democratic governments and citizens. The good news, in spite of the bad news, is that over the past decades the collaboration between anti-corruption stakeholders from the north and the south has given way to strategic results and evidence that help to better understand the multiple causes that explain the resilience and growth of corruption across the world. There are strategic reflections on what can work and what does not work. Today the focus of corruption risks is no longer only the south, but the north as well, and as such the response must be holistic involving all anti-corruption forces that can fight the disease of wherever it flourishes.
At the macro level, the main causes of corruption are known. For example, the excessive powers of presidents in presidential systems; the lack of checks and balances in presidential and parliamentary systems; and the absence or weakening of the oversight role among legislators, which can encourage them to play along, and even to benefit from corrupt practices. Corruption risks increase when relatives, friends, and cronies of Presidents or Prime Ministers have a role in government with the approval of the legislature, as cabinet ministers, advisers, ambassadors and to serve on the Supreme Court and other judicial institutions. This results not only in inefficient and opaque policy decision-making processes, but also in a judicial system without essential political independence. Moreover, when there is a growing perception of impunity for those found guilty of corruption, and a growing perception that democratic governance produces more opportunity than consequences for the corrupt, the entire system is prone to corrosion and cracks are open for corruption to flourish.
At the micro-level, we know corrupt practices are not like natural disasters that are caused by natural forces. Rather, corrupt practices are carried out by people, whether they are presidents, prime ministers, legislators, cabinet ministers, public officials, members of anti-corruption organizations, representatives of international, regional and private organizations, or citizens. This is reflected in everyday corruption, which involves mid and lower-level public officials who demand “speed money or other types of currency” to issue licenses or official documents (passports, driver licenses), for example, or to allow access to schools, hospitals or public utilities. This practice tends to affect the daily lives of a very large number of people, and more so the most vulnerable, normalizing a behavior that is justified by greed and need; the public servant’s greed to profit, and the victim’s need to receive and/or get access to the service. But there are other contributing factors as well. One is underfunded public services, and another one is the weak management of the service delivery itself. Both sustain an atmosphere where corrupt practices may flourish.
None of these potential causes of corrupt practices, however, is sufficient by itself to account for the entire dynamic and scope of the problem. It is the synergy among the causes that produce the magnitude of the problem and its resistance to a sustainable solution. A tendency to treat corruption as a single undifferentiated problem has been a blind spot in the analysis. Corruption thrives in conditions where accountability and institutions are weak, and where there is a shared expectation of corrupt behavior. Promoting a degree of vitality and resilience in anti-corruption require careful attention to both institutions and behavior. This means, among other things, building more independent national, local, regional, and international institutions that can protect against politicization and be more effective in interpreting and acting in favor of democratic governance. But also, creating an incentive system in government, civil society organizations, international and regional organizations that truly rewards accountability.
Developing and implementing sustainable anti-corruption measures we know now is undeniably challenging, whether in the north or the south. It may involve, not so much a range of new policies or institutions, as new ways of thinking. We know no country is immune to corruption and that if unchecked it can erode people’s trust in democratic government and institutions. Over the past decades, a lot of anti-corruption work has been done by both older and new democracies. But a key lesson is that like any disease or epidemic, there is no easy cure for corruption. However, successful treatment can result in corruption going into remission, which means that all signs of it have gone. Prevention, vigilance and education can significantly improve the chances of remission. This, however, is just another way of saying that as much as corruption is a problem deeply embedded in human behavior, effective reform must begin at an equally fundamental level; human beings. Unlike four decades ago, today there is a global anti-corruption community in the north, south, east, and west, more knowledge, tools, and lessons, and there are countries and societies that have managed to resist the worst excesses of corruption with considerable success. This is a solid platform to build and launch the next generation anti-corruption agenda. Corruption is often like a soap opera that goes on forever, with all the twists and turns. What is the next episode? Would it have a happy ending? Would the constant turn of corruption stop? Would the paradise and impunity for the corrupt end? Tune in to the next episode to find out (to be continued…).