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Looking for Silver Linings in a Cloud of Corruption

Anupama Dokeniya's picture

There is much to be discouraged by in Transparency International’s recently-released 2013 Global Corruption Barometer, the biennial global survey that gauges popular perceptions about the extent of corruption in public life. More than half of 114,000 people in 107 countries polled for the 2013 survey believe that corruption has increased over the last couple of years. And 27 per cent of the respondents reported having paid a bribe when accessing public services and institutions, an increase from the 10 per cent that reported similar incidents in the 2009, 2007, and 2005 surveys.
 
The intransigence of the challenge might not be news to international agencies, but it is certainly a cause for introspection. For a few decades now, aid agencies (including the Bank following the 1997 Cancer of Corruption speech by then President Wolfensohn), have aimed to help stem corruption through regulatory tools such as codes of conduct, access to information laws, standards for procurement and public financial management, conflict of interest and asset disclosure regulations, and by establishing oversight institutions such as anti-corruption agencies, audit institutions, and parliamentary oversight committees. More recently, in response to a recognition that such technical fixes are only half a solution, the “demand side” of governance has received much attention, and there are several examples of successful programs, as chronicled, for instance, by retired Bank staffer, Pierre Landell-Mills, in a recent compendium.

But clearly, the findings of the TI survey suggest the limited efficacy of these efforts in tackling corruption. In fact, the survey shows that some of the key checks and balance institutions – the parliament, the police, the judiciary – are themselves perceived as being among the most corrupt.  Admittedly, perception is an imperfect measure of corruption, and one used because of the paucity of more accurate yardsticks, and there might very well be discrepancies between perceptions and actual levels of corruption. For instance, while improvements in transparency serve as a deterrent to corruption, in the short term, enhanced transparency might actually heighten perceptions of corruption as information that was previously inaccessible comes to light. But this caveat notwithstanding, there appears to be little countervailing evidence to suggest that national and international efforts have made much of a dent in stemming systemic corruption.
 
Two global dynamics, however, might provide a hint of a silver lining to this intractable cloud. The first, as a recent piece in the Economist argues, is a proliferation of multi-stakeholder coalitions, global NGOs, and multilateral initiatives that have intensified international efforts against corruption. The second, is a powerful popular backlash against corruption in several countries around the world. Landell-Mills suggests that popular resignation to corruption might explain partly why the problem has persisted. “Too often,” he writes, “the man in the street accepted corruption as if it were a permanent societal disability to be borne with resignation.” But, he says, “now attitudes are changing….. (People) have become more aware of what is happening and they want to do something about it”
 
That is putting it mildly. Over the last three years, popular anti-corruption movements have surged in country after country - in western metropolises, in India, Brazil, Russia, and Turkey. These movements, as Acemoglu and Robinson argue, have different sparks and different origins, and have triggered different reactions. But they have rallied around very similar sources of discontent - state systems that seem configured for the benefit of a few, enriching the rich and impoverishing the poor, through both petty everyday corruption and more institutionalized forms of state capture.
 
In contrast to the new social movements of the latter half of the 20th century, that either represented the interests of specific groups (feminist and civil rights movements), or were organized by activists on issues of the commons (environmental, peace, anti-nuclear, and anti-globalization movements), the anti-corruption movements are truly “citizens movements” – spontaneous constellations of ordinary people, predominantly young and urban, mobilized around the demand for more equitable and inclusive governance systems. This expanding popular resistance is reflected in the TI report also - nine out of 10 people surveyed said they would act against corruption and two-thirds of those who were asked to pay a bribe had refused.
 
As a commentary on the protests points out the constant is that people was to fix a broken democracy, not replace it. And perhaps, such reform within a democracy, where gains are incremental and the demands somewhat diffuse, can be more challenging than a revolutionary transition to democracy, where the objective of change is much more clear-cut and concrete.
 
So, whether these movements will create enough pressure for systemic and lasting change is an open question. Reactions so far suggest a mixed prognosis. While there are signs that protracted demonstrations are yielding change, it is hard to tell how deep the impact really will be. In Russia, in an unprecedented move, an anti-corruption activist, who had been prosecuted and convicted of embezzlement charges, was freed on bail on following demonstrations by thousands of protesters against the verdict as being politically motivated, but his prosecution itself has been seen as muffling dissent. In India, a new law was set in place and oversight and review of the functioning of law enforcement enhanced after massive protests against governance failures related to the gang-rape of a young woman, but an earlier protest movement for the setting up of a people’s ombudsman has led to several promises, but little action. In Brazil, in response to massive protests, President Dilma Rousseff promised that she would battle corruption, create a national plan to improve urban transportation, and use oil royalties for investments in education, but the extent to which these promises will be implemented remains to be seen.
 
But certainly, the growing salience of domestic anti-corruption forces poses questions for external aid agencies on their role and relevance. In countries where such grassroots movements exist, should aid agencies simply get out of the way and let local dynamics play out their course? In countries where the political space for such activism is limited, should aid agencies foster an enabling environment for such movements to emerge? An evaluation of the Bank’s anti-corruption work in 2006 pointed out that interventions to improve governance have worked where homegrown grassroots community initiatives already existed, but where such mobilization did not exist, projects tended to be usurped by local elites. A recent report examines the limitations and challenges of induced participation for development goals. These findings should be important considerations in devising fresh approaches to governance and anti-corruption support that go beyond standard blueprints to more nuanced engagement that recognizes the complexities of local political dynamics. But the fact that urban, educated, middle class youth have been at the vanguard of anti-corruption movements might suggest at least one clear lesson - in the long run,  investment in education might be the most effective panacea to this persistent problem.

Photo Credit: Simone D. McCourtie / World Bank
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