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Number 1 essential to fighting corruption: political will

Deborah Perlman's picture

Former Hong Kong anti-corruption administrator Bertrand de Speville was at the Bank recently, speaking about political will on anticorruption.  According to de Speville, there are seven essentials to fighting corruption:

1.    Political will
2.    Our values clearly stated in law
3.    A national anticorruption strategy - clear, concise and comprehensive
4.    An effective mechanism for implementing it
5.    Community support
6.    Resources
7.    Endurance

His talk focused on the first of these essentials, which de Speville sees as a prerequisite to the others.  He advocates gaining the support of cabinet members along with the public, and has suggestions for dealing with those complicit in past corruption cases.  Given his experience as anticorruption administrator in Hong Kong, his approach makes sense:  Hong Kong was extremely successful in transforming its exceptional level of corruption to an exceptional lack of corruption, and achieved this transformation through a top-down, government-led approach.

The talk generated several interesting questions about how appropriate this approach might be for other countries, including others in the East Asia and Pacific region:

  • How effective is top-down anticorruption? (That is, anticorruption efforts designed and led by high-level government officials.)  In particular, how well does this work in states with weak governments?  In countries with low government capacity, what does it mean for there to be “political will” for anticorruption?  What is the best way to gain and use public support for anticorruption?
  • What is the relationship between anticorruption and good governance work?  Assuming that they should be separate but complementary efforts (as de Speville asserts), how should the World Bank balance its efforts in these areas?  Does anticorruption work in contexts where citizens have little trust in their governments to deliver services? 

What do you think?


Submitted by Steven Kopits on
The key to fighting corruption is the aligment of interests between politicians and the public. Society, broadly speaking, can be governed by three objective functions: egalitarianism, liberalism and (social) conservatism. Democracy does not, of itself, determine which of these functions will dominate, and this lack of determinism tends to lead to a breakdown of control by the public over politicians. Put another way, when an agent can choose more than one objective function to maximize, the principal loses effective control over the agent. For example, in a business setting, a manager could be enjoined to maximize profits (a liberal value), but not lay off any employees (a socially conservative value), and to do so without raising prices (an egalitarian value). This is the typical situation of a state-owned enterprise. Such goals are inherently contradictory, and therefore provide the agent (in our case, the management) broad lattitude to select which function to maximize. Indeed, the agent may choose to maximize his own personal welfare in such a setting, rather than maximizing the principal's welfare (since the principal has not provided unambiguous guidance on this matter and virtually any outcome can be dressed up as meeting some goal of the principal). The result is corruption, ie, the usurpation of institutional capabilities by its management for management's individual benefit. If you want to solve corruption, the first step is to provide a single objective function. In the case of politics, this implies a single function incorporating egalitarian, liberal and socially conservative values. There's more on this. Drop me a line if you're intereted.

This is a great point - principal-agent problems are often key to good governance and anti-corruption efforts. How do we ensure that elected or appointed politicians or civil servants do the work they've been hired or appointed to do, rather than enrich themselves? It's not always easy to even keep track of what civil servants are doing. The larger the country, the more complex these problems may become. Reconciling the interests and values of politicians and the public can be extremely difficult. In many cases, there is no single public value system, or the values of the majority may not respect the needs and rights of the minorities. Also, in some situations the top public priorities are maintaining public safety or ensuring delivery of certain services - and fighting corruption is not necessarily an immediate path to improving those services. Improved public education about governance issues and more civil society activity and oversight may support better alignment of the interests of politicians and the public.

The issue of political will is paramount in any fight against corruption. Now, what is political will? This is a difficult problem. Difficult because, like on the question of human rights and democracy, most entrenched dictators in the 1990s transformed themselves into preaching democracy and human rights publicly while killing opponents, intellectuals, journalists and refusing basic rights and freedoms. I am afraid that we risk falling into the same trap insofar as the fight against corruption is concerned. The biggest thieves ruling Africa are today fighting corruption. How can a thief who has not repented and restituted his booty fight against his gang members? Can a government sustained via corruption nurse and sustain the political will to combat corruption? If political will implies, the zeal, the desire, the committment to rollback corruption, then it must start with genuine democratic reform, then, governments that rig elections all the time cannot fight corruption, because; electoral corruption is the root of all forms of corruption in Africa. (See author for unpublished work on:From Institutionalized Electoral Rigging to Advanced Corruption and Impunity). Ratifying international anticorruption treaties, creating national anticorruption commissions and putting in place national anticorruption strategies in themselves will not lead to any results, if much energy and resources are not invested in building genuine democractic institutions and the rule of law through which citizens can hold those in power accountable. Afanyi Ngeh Founder, The Foundation for Human Rights and Development (FHRD),-a civil society association, Yaounde Cameroon,researcher and activist, anticorruption and human rights.

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