Summer 2018 Bulletin

Combating Corruption: Dædalus Examines How to Halt Political & Corporate Graft

Countering Corruption in Nation-States

Corruption can be ruinous, destroying nations, institutions, communities, individuals, the environment, and the very notion of public trust. Corruption self-reinforces, respects no law or border, and reproduces like disease. Most important, though, is that corruption is a systemic malady. It originates from the top and permeates downward; misconduct at one level seemingly authorizes it at the next. In his introduction to the Summer 2018 issue of Dædalus, guest editor and Academy Member Robert I. Rotberg (Harvard Kennedy School) asserts that “integrity or its absence . . . seeps into the collective societal consciousness: either to make corruption an ongoing social practice and an essential (even if de jure forbidden) component of a governing political culture; or more rarely, to accomplish the reverse, creating legal and normative barriers to wholesale approval of corrupt practices.” Corruption is so pervasive that it accounts for a loss of an estimated $1 trillion annually – roughly 2 percent of global GDP – and disproportionately harms the countries and people that can least afford it. Yet there is room for optimism: corruption is not inevitable, and it is not unstoppable; the battle against pervasive and engrained corruption can be won.

Demonstrators protesting against South African President Jacob Zuma and calling for his resignation hold placards and shout slogans outside the Gupta Family compound in Johannesburg on April 7, 2017.
Demonstrators protesting against South African President Jacob Zuma and calling for his resignation hold placards and shout slogans outside the Gupta Family compound in Johannesburg on April 7, 2017. © 2018 by Gulshan Khan/AFP/Getty Images.

Anticorruption: How to Beat Back Political & Corporate Graft” explores the nature of modern global corruption – and how to defeat it. Highlighting examples from the United States, Brazil, Canada, China, Hong Kong, Nigeria, and Singapore, the authors in this issue – including both academics and law-makers – offer innovative, strategic, and practical recommendations to target public and private corruption. The authors recognize the enormity of their challenge, but focus on what is possible and what must be done: anticorruption successes are hard-won and difficult to sustain, but are essential for economic and social growth and political accountability.


Inside the Issue


Corruption is not only persistent and pervasive, but it is also difficult to solve, despite the multitude of anticorruption campaigns across the globe. Indeed, most countries have failed to move the needle on corruption over the last few decades. Yet Robert I. Rotberg (Harvard Kennedy School) begins the issue optimistically: the anticorruption effort is well-informed and there is a great deal of research on how countries have successfully beaten back corruption, including by establishing anticorruption agencies, increasing transparency, and creating merit-based bureaucracies. Although corruption is a tenacious problem, Rotberg notes that this collection of essays highlights a variety of anticorruption strategies – both successful and unsuccessful – and calls for innovative approaches to refine best practices.

In “Seven Steps to Control of Corruption: The Road Map,” Alina Mungiu-Pippidi (Hertie School of Governance, Germany) rethinks international development’s standard tools for reducing corruption. While aid conditioned on good governance seemed like a potentially useful component of the anticorruption toolkit from the perspective of international development agencies, recent decades have shown that most of the top recipients of conditional international aid have not progressed on indicators of corruption. This disappointment propels Mungiu-Pippidi to offer a new road map toward establishing standards of “ethical universalism” in governance, which includes diagnosing the norm of resource allocation in a particular country and identifying the human agency with the most to gain from spearheading anticorruption efforts.

In “Fighting Systemic Corruption: The Indirect Strategy,” Bo Rothstein (University of Gothenburg, Sweden) highlights the need to rethink unsuccessful “best practices” in fighting corruption. The principal-agent theory – based on the idea that corruption can be remedied if the honest “principal” changes the incentives for its corrupt “agents,” who will find that it suits their own best interest to avoid corrupt actions – is often used as a model for explaining corruption. But it does not work well as a guideline for reducing corruption, as it depends on the will of an uncorrupted leader at the top of states or organizations, a leader who does not exist in practice. Rather, Rothstein suggests thinking about corruption as a “collective action problem” or “social trap”: namely, the idea that people are willing to do the right thing as long as they believe others will do the same. The reverse also applies: when corruption is understood as a widespread, even sanctioned, phenomenon, people are more likely to engage with it. Thus, Rothstein finds promise in military theorist Basil Liddell Hart’s “indirect attack” approach: rather than a direct attack against corrupt leaders, an indirect attack (such as universal public education) finds and attacks the “Achilles heel” of corruption, better upsetting the social equilibrium that allows corrupt actors to act with impunity.

In “Reforming Reform: Revising the Anticorruption Playbook,” Michael Johnston (Colgate University; International Anti-Corruption Academy) takes a bird’s-eye view of the last thirty years of international anticorruption efforts, observing that although increased attention to corruption can only be a positive sign, standard practices for fighting corruption have yielded lackluster results. He questions a number of common suppositions espoused by anticorruption experts, including claims that increasing transparency and creating large anticorruption agencies will always ameliorate the problem. Johnston argues that corruption is best combated indirectly, by developing relationships of accountability between citizens and the government, such as through education and civil society. Johnston thus advocates for what he calls “deep democratization”: a holistic development of citizen engagement in which “citizens have a voice . . . and can defend themselves against official abuses.” Indeed, he opines, “integrating citizens and their needs and wishes into governing lends new meaning to the notion of integrity, evoking honesty and transparency but also wholeness.”

In “Getting to Accountability: A Framework for Planning & Implementing Anticorruption Strategies,” Matthew M. Taylor (American University) argues that anticorruption policies fail to translate to lasting success unless they are accompanied by a shift toward lasting accountability in state institutions. He identifies the need to standardize the process of institutionalization, presenting an “accountability equation”: namely, accountability is the outcome of transparency, oversight, and sanction, moderated by the degree of institutional effectiveness, and tempered by the degree of political dominance. This equation can be used to identify “transparency bottlenecks” and areas for institutional improvement in a number of sectors and contexts. He emphasizes the importance of generating societal trust and conducting ongoing, iterative evaluations of viable solutions.

In “Combating Corruption in the Twenty-First Century: New Approaches,” Paul M. Heywood (University of Nottingham, United Kingdom) identifies the lack of substantial progress on corruption in recent decades and questions anticorruption literature’s tendency to generalize, pointing instead to the fact that new technologies, forms of political organization, and economic trends have opened up opportunities for corruption that must be treated as unique and context-dependent. Heywood argues that, rather than focusing on unrealistic aspirations of defeating or eliminating corruption, anticorruption advocates must focus instead on promoting integrity: that is, values that encourage noncorrupt behavior. However, he notes that simply ensuring officials do not act corruptly is insufficient: “the absence of corruption does not imply the presence of integrity.” Thus, in order to build and promote a formal framework based on integrity, he calls for a better conceptual understanding of integrity in public life and its relationship to corruption.

In “Corruption & Purity,” Susan Rose-Ackerman (Yale University) explores corruption through a legal framework. Troubled by the prevalence of definitions that frame any violation of a person’s ideals as corruption, Rose-Ackerman defines corruption as any circumstance in which a steward of a public program operates in his or her own private interest in such a way that undermines the goals of the program. From this definition, she analyzes clear-cut cases of corruption, including petty corruption (bribery of officials) and election fraud, which can be remedied by changing certain private actors’ relationships to the state; as well as more ambiguous cases such as campaign finance, for which more nuanced policy solutions are necessary.

Demonstrators protest along Paulista Avenue in São Paulo, Brazil, on December 4, 2016, against corruption and in support of the Lava Jato anticorruption operation.
Demonstrators protest along Paulista Avenue in São Paulo, Brazil, on December 4, 2016, against corruption and in support of the Lava Jato anticorruption operation. © 2018 by Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images.

In “The Problem of Monopolies & Corporate Public Corruption,” Zephyr Teachout (Fordham University School of Law) turns the focus away from corrupt elected or appointed officials and toward private actors who selfishly exercise public power. She argues that when corporations exercise public power selfishly, putting profit above public interest, they are engaging in corrupt behavior. Her approach is prophylactic, centered not on targeting monopolies like Google, but on preventing future consolidation of corporate power and private corruption. As a remedy, Teachout focuses on opportunities for new antimonopoly and campaign finance laws. As she concludes, the problem is not with the existence of the corporation, the “problem is with concentrated power: a handful of actors who are sui generis; so large and powerful they can bend public power. The modern anticorruption movement chooses not to address these large actors, using formalism or legalism as an excuse, at all of our peril.”

In “Corruption & Illicit Trade,” Louise I. Shelley (George Mason University) details how illicit trade – including of drugs, endangered species, and people – represents a significant sector of the global economy and compromises the integrity of financial, ecological, and political systems. These transactions would be impossible without corrupt actors, from border officials to high-level politicians to entrepreneurs on the Darknet. The relationship between corruption and illegal trade is mutually enforcing. However, while the phenomenon she describes is “decidedly transnational . . . most strategies and legal frameworks to combat corruption are state-based and thus are woefully inadequate to the task.” She thus identifies potential strategies for disrupting this cycle, including increasing transparency in international financial institutions and supply chains.

In “The World Needs an International Anti-Corruption Court,” Mark L. Wolf (United States District Court for the State of Massachusetts) argues that part of the difficulty in addressing corruption lies in the fact that corrupt high-level leaders often do not have the incentive to hold themselves or their colleagues legally responsible for malfeasance. This problem also arose in another context: that of massive human rights violations perpetrated or sanctioned by state-level leaders. In response, we created the International Criminal Court, which has successfully prosecuted human rights cases following genocides and civil wars. Judge Wolf advocates for an International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC) and argues that certain incentives, such as making IACC membership a condition of World Trade Organization membership and a requirement of being a party to the United Nations Convention against Corruption and to major trade agreements, would improve participation in the court. Such a court, Wolf suggests, would make strides in repatriating stolen wealth and making corruption an exception, rather than the rule, in governance.

In “Preventing Systemic Corruption in Brazil,” Sérgio Fernando Moro (Thirteenth Federal Criminal Court of Brazil) details the ongoing anticorruption investigation known as Operação Lava Jato (“Operation Car Wash”) from the perspective of the federal judge overseeing its prosecution. Beginning as an isolated instance of corruption in the Brazilian oil company Petrobras, Lava Jato has grown into the largest anticorruption effort in Brazilian history, leading to, so far, more than sixty criminal cases brought against nearly three hundred defendants in Brazilian federal courts. Judge Moro shows how independent investigators and judges can follow due process to convict high-ranking corrupt politicians and business executives who were previously thought to be untouchable. Indeed, “the Lava Jato cases . . . represent a clear break with a past of impunity and with tolerance for systemic corruption” in Brazil. Moro highlights the fundamental parts of the investigation to offer lessons for anticorruption efforts elsewhere.

In “Corruption & State Capture: What Can Citizens Do?” Sarah Bracking (King’s College London) offers an account of the impunity with which South Africa’s leading cadre, led by former President Jacob Zuma, came to “capture” key sites of control in the country’s government and corporate sector and prey upon public coffers. Bracking details how Zuma’s clique defended its corrupt practices by taking advantage of lax international finance laws, capitalizing on the racial tensions of a postapartheid nation, and intimidating state workers and citizens alike with violence. Unfortunately, “the Machiavellian behavior of political elites in modern Africa, as elsewhere, often attracts little prosecutorial response due to the widespread practice of granting immunity to current and former officeholders.” However, Bracking identifies several reasons to hope that the situation can improve: South Africa still possesses a relatively independent private sector, media, and political opposition, all of which can close ranks to refuse to cooperate with corrupt cadres.

In “Strategies for Advancing Anticorruption Reform in Nigeria,” Rotimi T. Suberu (Bennington College) details how Nigeria’s severe political corruption has led to massive misuse of public funds; eroded public services such as education, water supply, and transportation infrastructure; and contributed to the rise of terrorism from groups such as Boko Haram. And while Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has promised a comprehensive disruption of corruption, he has not delivered. Suberu offers an in-depth analysis of the institutional failings, policy gaps, and structural challenges that created an environment for corruption to thrive, while also detailing some of the less-publicized successes of the Nigerian anticorruption movement. Ultimately, he suggests five innovative solutions: 1) creating apolitical anticorruption and oversight agencies; 2) curbing the discretionary power of political executives; 3) restructuring the Nigerian system of unconditional federal revenue distribution into a conditional grants scheme; 4) strengthening transparency laws; and 5) mobilizing extensive public participation in constitutional change.

In “Combating Corruption in Asian Countries: Learning from Success & Failure,” Jon S.T. Quah (National University of Singapore) highlights the successful anticorruption campaigns of Singapore and Hong Kong, despite widespread corruption among Asian countries. Quah mines lessons from these stories, pointing to political will as a major factor in the effectiveness of those countries’ anticorruption agencies (as indicated by public funding and staff-population ratios in those countries). He also points to the need to address context-specific root causes of corruption rather than curbing corruption in public displays; and to the critical importance of independence on the part of anticorruption agencies. He concludes with four lessons for policy-makers: 1) political will is essential for success in combating corruption; 2) policy-makers must initiate appropriate reforms to tackle corruption by addressing its root causes; 3) policy-makers much establish Type A anticorruption agencies (agencies tasked only with fighting corruption) rather than relying on Type B anticorruption agencies (agencies tasked with multiple responsibilities, including fighting corruption) or multiple, competing anticorruption agencies; and 4) ensure that Type A anticorruption agencies function as independent watchdogs.

In “How Not to Fight Corruption: Lessons from China,” Minxin Pei (Claremont McKenna College) uses China to explain how not to fight corruption. Judging by the numbers, General Secretary Xi Jinping’s ferocious anticorruption campaign can only impress: From late 2012 to July 2017, the drive has investigated and sanctioned or imprisoned tens of thousands of Communist Party and military and police officials, including vice ministers, generals, and deputy provincial governors, and other high-ranking officials. Yet this enforcement-centered strategy, Pei argues, is fundamentally a political purge of Xi’s rivals, and is neither sustainable nor durable. Pei recommends that China rebalance its enforcement drive with corruption prevention, passing mandatory rules of wealth disclosure and spending transparency, and relinquishing Party control of the economy. Although Pei believes that the Chinese Communist Party will not tolerate the political risks of such reforms, he creates a model for states that do possess the political will to build a successful long-term anticorruption program.

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“Anticorruption: How to Beat Back Political & Corporate Graft”
Summer 2018 issue of Dædalus

Accomplishing Anticorruption: Propositions & Methods by Robert I. Rotberg (Harvard Kennedy School)

Seven Steps to Control of Corruption: The Road Map by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi (Hertie School of Governance, Germany)

Fighting Systemic Corruption: The Indirect Strategy by Bo Rothstein (University of Gothenburg, Sweden)

Reforming Reform: Revising the Anticorruption Playbook by Michael Johnston (Colgate University; International Anti-Corruption Academy)

Getting to Accountability: A Framework for Planning & Implementing Anticorruption Strategies by Matthew M. Taylor (American University)

Combating Corruption in the Twenty-First Century: New Approaches by Paul M. Heywood (University of Nottingham, United Kingdom)

Corruption & Purity by Susan Rose-Ackerman (Yale University)

The Problem of Monopolies & Corporate Public Corruption by Zephyr Teachout (Fordham University School of Law)

Corruption & Illicit Trade by Louise I. Shelley (George Mason University)

The World Needs an International Anti-Corruption Court by Mark L. Wolf (United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts)

Preventing Systemic Corruption in Brazil by Sérgio Fernando Moro (Thirteenth Federal Criminal Court of Curitiba, Brazil)

Corruption & State Capture: What Can Citizens Do? by Sarah Bracking (King’s College London)

Strategies for Advancing Anticorruption Reform in Nigeria by Rotimi T. Suberu (Bennington College)

Combating Corruption in Asian Countries: Learning from Success & Failure by Jon S.T. Quah (National University of Singapore)

How Not to Fight Corruption: Lessons from China by Minxin Pei (Claremont McKenna College)