In the past twenty years, international development has made increasing efforts to advance the fight against corruption. Yet, few of their standard instruments seem to work. After two decades with mixed results, the global anti-corruption movement needs to reinvent itself to move on.
A Comment by Niklas Kossow
Today, it is easily forgotten how new the fight against corruption is to the development agenda. Transparency International, the world’s leading anti-corruption organisation, was only founded in 1993. World Bank President James Wolfensohn’s famous 1996 address, urging the international community to deal with the “cancer of corruption”, is barely twenty years old. In Germany for instance, it was for a long time not only legal to bribe foreign officials, until 1999 businesses were even able to claim bribes such as a tax deductible expenses.
In many ways it seems that we have come a long way since then. The United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) entered into force in 2005 and has by now been ratified by 140 countries. Its signatories are obliged to establish legal provisions for the prevention and criminalisation of corruption. They agree to international cooperation in the fight against corruption and to assist in the recovery of stolen assets. Today, bribing foreign officials is thus illegal in most countries. December 9th, the day that UNCAC was signed in 2003, was designated by the UN as international anti-corruption day in order to raise awareness of the issue. Since 2015, Sustainable Development Goal 16 sets official targets for international development to reduce corruption and bribery and develop effective, accountable and transparent institutions.
Anti-corruption is on the international agenda: in many regards, the fight against corruption seems to be on track.
But Do Anti-Corruption Efforts Work?
Yet, it is hard to claim that the global campaign to end corruption is truly successful. Looking at those indices measuring corruption around the world, we see hardly any change since the 1990s. The world is just as corrupt as it was 20 years ago. Of course, there were stories of success. Estonia for instance, has introduced sweeping judicial reforms and embraced e-governance and government transparency since it became independent. It is now considered one of the least corrupt countries in the world. Uruguay has introduced a comprehensive set of political, administrative and economic reforms. In combination with changes to the state’s electoral system, these modifications steered the country away from particularistic politics. Legal reforms increasing judicial independence and political competition have also helped to make anti-corruption provisions in Taiwan much more effective. Anti-corruption Scholars and practitioners can learn from these contemporary achievers. However, they also need to learn from those many countries where anti-corruption reforms failed badly and where legal and institutional reforms were unsuccessful.
Classic anti-corruption instruments are not equally successful in every country. The establishment of an anti-corruption agency for example, is part of the strategy of many donors who push countries towards anti-corruption policies. These agencies ought to implement, oversee and coordinate anti-corruption reforms and disseminate information on anti-corruption measures. Yet, they very rarely proof to be acknowledged in fulfilling these functions.
Anti-corruption agencies remain very often nominally independent. Particularistic regimes undermine their independence by appointing cronies as their heads or by stopping legal proceedings through a less-than independent legal system. Om Yentieng, head of the Cambodian Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) for example, is a long-term ally of Hun Sen, the prime minister who rules the country for 30 years. Cambodia’s civil society could put pressure on the ACU to act and investigate on corruption properly, but civil society organisations themselves are under enormous pressure and face restrictions by the government.
What Difference does it Take?
There are legitimate doubts whether the members of the anti-corruption industry take these lessons into account: many anti-corruption instruments do not work if they are introduced in societal context which turn them into blunt weapons. For the future, anti-corruption practitioners thus need to focus less on established tools and more on changing local contexts. In some cases this would mean to scale back anti-corruption programmes, if a country does not have the right conditions for them to be implemented. Financial support for good governance is otherwise likely to fuel corruption through additional funds, rather than help fighting it. Research on anti-corruption reflects these experiences. Rather than relying on expert scores, scholars increasingly try to find objective and actionable data that can help practitioners to develop localised and comprehensive anti-corruption strategies.
The global anti-corruption movement should be proud of what it achieved. It managed to give the fight against corruption a firm spot on the international agenda. Furthermore, it sensitised policymakers for an important topic. However, it should also be frank about what it couldn’t achieve so far. Corruption is still endemic and few instruments seem to work against it. The anti-corruption movement must therefore reinvent itself.
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