Syndicate content

Add new comment

The Critical Publics of the International Investigator

Sina Odugbemi's picture

International investigators are the anti-corruption sleuths who work in many international institutions. Their job is to investigate corrupt practices within and around the projects funded by their institutions that are being implemented in different parts of the world. They have to be hard, tough and clever. Because of that they may frighten the people who know about what they do and might come under their gaze. But can they be successful as lone rangers? Do they need friendly, collaborative publics? It is easy to think that they don't; but it turns out that if they really want to be effective there are publics that they need to have with them one way or another.

I found this out towards the end of May here in the World Bank.  The Bank hosted the 12th International Investigators Conference, and the organizers had the foresight to include two sessions on the subject: Managing Your Public Message. My colleague, Dina El-Naggar, who is the communication advisor in the Bank's Institutional Integrity Vice Presidency --- where our own investigators reside -- led the sessions, and she was kind enough to ask me to join her in delivering them. Each session lasted for an hour and half, and we started each session in a participatory manner by asking the assembled international investigators a simple question insistently: Which publics are critical to your effectiveness?

Over the two sessions, here is a rough sketch of what they shared:

I. Colleagues within the relevant international institution are of vital importance for a variety of reasons. First, investigators are not as known within as they would like to be, including what they do and what their contribution to the overall mission is. Second, colleagues may unintentionally be sources of damaging leaks of reports to the media. Third, the transparency revolution sweeping the world is a challenge: what can be disclosed and when about investigations as disclosure policies become increasingly liberal? Fourth, investigators want their colleagues to talk more to them, report cases of corruption, join the fight. About this more later.

II. In the countries in which the organization the investigator works for is implementing projects there are critical publics. First, investigators have to be on good terms with officials in partner governments, and this can be complicated if powerful political figures are implicated in the cases being investigated. Second, the media and NGOs are always on the look out for scandal, especially if it involves influential figures and they want the 'facts' even before the investigation is completed. Some want drama, others results. Third, beneficiaries of projects are vital because corruption usually means they have not derived the advertised benefit from the project. They are angry and they want somebody to 'do something'!

III. Global public opinion matters hugely to international investigators. First, on the boards of these international organizations are representatives of major countries and scandals around projects can lead to negative reactions from board members, partly because in some of these countries public opinion will compel a reaction. If the organization depends on donor funding, as many do, that can be put at risk by scandal. Second, global NGOs and global news media -- especially in these days of multi-platform, 24-hour news -- represent potential sources of risk.

IV. Finally, the need that surprised me. International investigators are not on average publicity-hounds. In fact, they mostly struck me as publicity-averse. But it turned out that they do think that to be effective they need colleagues in their organizations as well as broader publics to actively support their work by reporting cases of malfeasance willingly and generously. Well, as we made clear to them, that will not happen without a sound, strategic public engagement effort.

On the whole it was fun interacting with the investigators, and Dina and I learned a lot from them.

Photo Credit: Flickr user olarte.ollie

Follow CommGAP on Twitter