What can we learn from trends in corruption and anticorruption?


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There is general agreement that corruption is harmful, undermining investment and exacerbating poverty, but can anything really be done about it?  The World Bank report launched last month, Enhancing Government Effectiveness and Transparency: The Fight Against Corruption, shows through detailed case studies of the application of various tools and sector approaches that curbing corruption is possible. Twenty-four years after the cancer of corruption speech, how has the discourse on corruption evolved? 

The report finds measurable progress in implementing the policies and institutions designed to control corruption. The move toward openness and greater public access to government-held information is clear: The number of countries adopting right to information laws has expanded, and the quality of those laws has also improved, and technology has made access even easier. International standards are being strengthened for transparency in a range of areas, from extractive industries to regulatory processes

Number of Countries with Right to Information Laws
Source: Author's calculations based on data from https://www.rti-rating.org.

Accountability systems are also stronger. Income and asset declarations by public officials are more prevalent, and more often the information is open to the public, than in the past, and many countries use electronic systems for declaration and verification. Technological advances are helping strengthen public financial management, limit the prevalence of ghost workers, improve monitoring of infrastructure projects, and strengthen transparency and efficiency of public procurement.

Our understanding of corruption has also advanced. Many issues continue to be vigorously debated, but some measure of international consensus is also apparent, reflected in the adoption of the UNCAC, more vigorous enforcement of foreign bribery laws, and greater recognition of the need to strengthen beneficial ownership transparency.

But have these improvements translated into lower levels of corruption? 

This is a trickier question, both because of the nature of corruption and because there can be different trends for different forms of corruption. Yet, understanding the trends is essential for designing effective programs.

Despite the common view that there is an abundance of cross-country measures of corruption, very few are well-suited for this task. The report eschews expert assessments, which may be subject to various biases, as well as surveys that focus on perceptions of some generalized notion of corruption or perceptions of trends. While it is helpful to understand perceptions of corruption, it is also important to track actual experiences. The report focuses on contemporaneous reports of behaviors associated with “corruption.” 

Among those that collect information on experiences in a systematic way that allows comparisons over time is the World Bank’s Enterprise Surveys (WBES). These surveys cover a broad range of topics, and great care is taken to ensure robust sampling. Due to the time and expense of surveying firms–good data doesn’t come cheap—the WBES is implemented periodically, but not for every country every year. 

As of this summer, 96 countries have been surveyed at least twice since 2006 when the WBES approach was harmonized. The questions most useful for understanding corruption trends examined the prevalence of informal payments (including “gifts”) related to taxes and procurement. In both cases, the average trend was in the right direction. In most countries there were also fewer firms saying that corruption was a major problem for doing business.

Informal payments to tax inspectors
Source: Author’s analysis based on data from https://www.enterprisesurveys.org.

The trends only reflect the transactional administrative corruption amenable to survey measurement. State capture, large-scale embezzlement, and sophisticated networks are not reflected. Nevertheless, the indication of some progress is heartening.

Corruption, though, continues to be a formidable problem. Even if the average trend in reducing administrative corruption has been in the right direction, it is not universal.  One third of the countries in the figure above had increases in the percentage of firms that reported experiencing corruption. Efforts to strengthen the policies and institutions that control corruption are often met by unethical officials and businesspeople trying to get around those rules, and massive corruption scandals continue to make headlines. 

The urgency of the response to COVID-19 exacerbates these challenges even further. Positive trends in transparency and openness are at risk of being undermined by emergency decrees. Even before COVID-19, there were growing concerns about shrinking space for civil society and the menace of state capture in many countries. Positive trends in controlling some forms of corruption are at risk of reversing as oversight is weakened and corruption risks evolve.

Still, knowing that anticorruption reforms can lead to results is encouraging and shows the usefulness of looking deeper, as the case studies in the volume do. (See the posts on open government approaches and customs.) As the cases focus on specific country examples, they can help reformers from government and civil society focus on the aspects of anticorruption most pertinent to them. The report is, in this sense, modular.

There is a risk that focusing on successful cases will lead some to naively mimic those approaches, with scant attention to the context that made that approach successful in the first place. The case studies sought to explain why a given approach worked or didn’t, not to sell that approach for any context. While the study is modular, it is not a menu.

Corruption continues to be a serious impediment to progress and fairness in many countries but there are things that can be done about it and, yes, in many countries, this is making a difference. 

Editor’s Note: This blog is part of a series that helps unpack our new  global report, Enhancing Government Effectiveness and Transparency: The Fight Against Corruption.

Pietronella VAN DEN OEVER
October 29, 2020

In response to the excellent October 23 blog post written by Jim Andersen, kindly allow me to share interesting lessons learned in an innovative COVID-response project in Northern Ghana. The project was conceived by a regional NGO, SAVE-Ghana, with support from the Washington, DC-based Partnership for Transparency. Active Citizen Engagement is the centerpiece of this initiative, which started in May 2020

Three overall lessons were recorderd after the first three months by Murtala Forkor, Sule Dintie and other SAVE-Ghana colleagues:

1. Interaction between different stakeholder groups increases collaboration and trust between these groups

A weekly local radio program entitled: "The People Must Know" provided an interactive platform for questions on the pandemic by callers who were invited to call in by cell phone to a telephone number free of charge. SAVE-Ghana staff acted as facilitators, and invited a variety of guests, such as government representatives, who explained the flow of money dedicated to the pandemic coming into the Municipal coffers, and health personnel explaining how to prevent oneself against coronavirus infection. At each radio emission, great excitement and appreciation was expressed by all parties, who seldom were provided an opportunity to interact with each other in a similar setting for a structured discussion, and a search for common solutions;

2. When given the opportunity, self-confidence of villagers increases; they speak up, ask questions and suggest solutions to various local problems

Both the radio program and village meetings (practicing social distancing) invariably led to a floodgate of people tabling the challenges of their daily lives, apart from the fear of the pandemic. Again, these meetings between different stakeholder groups provided an opportunity to villagers to voice their concerns, and press "power holders" to act on their behalf in the future. The "power holders'", on the other hand, felt appreciated by their audience and were eager to listen to their pre-occupations;

3. Initial enthusiasm needs to be sustained through follow-up action

With all best intentions in the world, enthusiasm tends to fade after the initial experience. Therefore SAVE-Ghana and village volunteers use a Community Score Card (CSC) approach, consisting of documenting decisions made in each meeting, agreements on a plan to implement solutions, and a timeline to monitor whether these solutions are actually implemented.

Manuel Augusto Greco
November 16, 2020

Yo no sé, si estas palabras son útiles para vosotros, creo que sí : pues Ustedes (como funcionarios de una tan valiosa herramienta como lo es el Banco Mundial) pueden utilizarlas en sus proyectos.

Me parece prioritaria la EDUCACIÓN.

Poder lograr que los niños y niñas de nuestro tan hermoso mundo, en todos los niveles educativos (primarios, secundarios, terciarios, universitarios, post universitarios, asistemáticos y de educación continua), deberían recibir nociones claras sobre valores y principios como el amor, la libertad, la justicia, la paz y la verdad, junto con la fe en sí mismos, la esperanza y la alegría, que son base de formación para poder encarar cuando les corresponda en la vida tener actividades donde se encuentre con situaciones donde encuentre señales de corrupción.

Hyam Nashash
October 29, 2020

Well written article.
I want to certain points
- Corruption is not about having laws or by laws to fight it , it’s about the enforcement of those laws and by laws
- Accountability and transparency Of the grants and loans as well should be more firm and clear .
-Although tools, techniques and plans to fight corruption became somehow advanced , corruption process also became highly advanced.
-The world Bank knows in many cases that the corruption evolved from the top of the pyramid and it’s ignored due to political concerns.
Thank you

October 29, 2020

I am happy to note that, according to the WBES, corruption is trending downward. You draw the right conclusion that despite this positive news , corruption remains a sizable problem. This problem will get excerbated due to the unprecedented amounts of COVID-19 response programs- many in countries where the accountability systems were weak pre-pandemic. The scale of COVID-19 responses around the world will stretch and more likely than not overwhelm the state accountability systems. In this situation the governments and the World Bank should do their utmost to enlist the help of civil society organizations and private sector to supplement the state and donors accountability systems.

Wiwi Dewi Kartini
November 05, 2020

The result of business just for company owner like be protected no for worker too

Sinnathamby Sukumaran
October 29, 2020

I live in Malaysia.I am 66 and anti-corruption activist. I am a certified Integrity Officer by Malaysian Anti-Corruption Comission (MACC). I read your article. It was interesting and relevant. Many many thanks.

ramaneswara rao rongala
November 05, 2020

“Corruption” a big disease in Emerging and LDCs, because of 1) No political will, 2) Low Education and 3)Less Transparency.

Basavaraj Jambagi
November 05, 2020

This was interesting,But the heavy black average trend line which is at the right direction ,means averagely its showing reduced, never think of this..
And let us know this the other linings those endpoints with each other trends..