Among its numerous responsibilities, the U.S. Agency for International Development measures and analyzes international corruption patterns and trends. World Policy Journal editor emeritus David A. Andelman sat down with Ken Barden, certified financial crime specialist and senior anticorruption and good governance advisor with the Governance and Rule of Law Team at USAID, to discuss recent trends and anti-corruption measures.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: So, USAID. When did USAID become interested in anti-corruption?
KEN BARDEN: Actually since its inception. Because obviously, we have a responsibility to American taxpayers, and how well our investments perform. Secondly, a lot of our developing country partners want to improve their own accountability. It’s obviously a big issue internationally—a lot of revolutions and public unrest have their roots in corruption.
WPJ: You must have seen some trends, since you’ve been doing this for a long time. Where would you say the trend-lines are heading? Are they heading up? Are they heading down? Are they diverging? Are they converging in different regions? Where would you say the level of corruption is? Do your results differ from European group Transparency International’s?
KB: They’re comparable. Transparency International publishes a corruption perceptions index. So that’s a survey of perceptions. Perceptions don’t always match up with actual levels. But, they are a fairly good indicator of where a country stands in relationship to public confidence in government.
WPJ: So you measure actual corruption. How do you measure that?
KB: There are several ways you can measure, actually. Nobody can perfectly measure corruption, because it’s a crime and it’s hidden, and part of the purpose of corrupt individuals is to keep it hidden, so it’s not like you pay your taxes and there’s a record and stuff like that. So the true nature of corruption probably cannot be measured. But there are ways that you can get a sense of how corruption is. I guess I would also caution about what corruption means. We talk about corruption as this megalithic monster that we take out the sword and kill. In its reality, it’s got a lot of permutations. You’ve got grand corruption, you’ve got petty corruption, you’ve got systemic corruption, you’ve got individual corruption, so a number of different things. Now, which way the trends are going? I think in some aspects, it’s getting better. I think in terms of individual corruption, bureaucratic corruption, in a lot of countries that’s been reduced because systems have been improved. For instance, if you’ve got a very bureaucratic licensing process, and you reduce it from 50 steps to three or four steps, you’ve reduced the opportunities for corruption.
WPJ: So in what kind of countries would that have been the case?
KB: A lot of Eastern European countries. After the fall of the Soviet Union, they had very bureaucratic registries where you’d have to pay a little bit … and obviously, if you reduce the number of steps, you’re reducing the number of people you have to interact with that could [take a cut]. But, being a crime, and knowing how criminals operate—they are always a step ahead, and very innovative. The nature of corruption is like that. If you read about illicit finance and try to track assets, that’s all changing. The Patriot Act and all the anti money-laundering efforts post-9/11 were very effective in finding where that money was going through a banking system, but now you’re finding different ways where corruption manifests itself.
WPJ: That’s talking about American corruption, right, but we’re also talking about overseas corruption. Have there also been comparable efforts in some countries to reduce that? We have the sense that some of the most corrupt countries, some of them are concentrated in Africa, and perhaps to a degree in Asia or Latin America. So is that still the focus of the corruption locus for the most part?
KB: Oh, a lot of it. So you’ve got a number of different factors there. One thing that you’ve got now that they didn’t have 20 years ago was the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which just celebrated its 10th anniversary. So that sets the bar of what countries are expected to have in terms of anti-corruption systems and registration and things like that. Some countries have done it better than others. Some countries where you’ll find the best-written laws are also some of the countries that are most corrupt. In terms of corruption in Africa and Asia, some of that’s the legacy of colonial years, when the Western powers set up governing systems that were very hierarchical and incentivized power-grabbing and corruption. But, as you can see, in a lot of these countries—Indonesia and Philippines are pretty good examples—the public has protested and has required a lot of change, which takes time.
WPJ: Has it been successful?
KB: “Successful” is a tricky word.
WPJ: We had an article in World Policy Journal several years ago from Indonesia, and my sense was that the policies there … it’s just been terrible trying to eradicate corruption because it has filtered so far down into society, all out into the provinces, in the military, and so on. And it’s just been difficult, if not impossible, to root out.
KB: We tend to think of corruption as this big monolith that we can kill. I think that’s probably impossible. But you can break it down into components. You can break down into components how registry processes work. Yes, you can show some examples in some countries. There are a lot of efforts in anti-corruption and accountability into health systems, such as medical clinics and pharmaceutical supply chains. And there are some countries that have had better results than that. But how do you determine success? If you’re looking at whether we are getting rid of corruption, you can say that this is a shining example. Can you show projects or programs or activities that have made an impact on corruption? Yes, there are a lot, and that varies from country to country.
WPJ: Who spearheads that effort? Is it the U.S. embassy in that country, or another agency?
KB: It’s a variety. Both U.S. government and USAID—both through diplomatic and development arms—certainly play a part where it’s appropriate. In other countries, it may be the World Bank, it may be the European Union, the OECD, a number of other regional groups such as the Inter-American Development Bank—a big leader in anti-corruption in Latin America. And the African Union to a certain extent in Africa. Also, most countries have signed on to the U.N. Convention against Corruption, and there are peer reviews. And those peer reviews, which are done on a five-year cycle, then point out where areas meet international standards and where improvements can be made. So that adds pressure, and sanctions against some countries have had results. But there are a few countries with impunity.
WPJ: Are there any punitive measures or any enforcement measures that the international community or the U.S. have been able to take?
KB: Yes, sanctions.
WPJ: For the most part, sanctions are looked to be directed against people who have done something horrible to the international order, like try to make a nuclear bomb or conquer their neighbors, but are there other sanctions?
KB: Yes, those are the big ones, like the Syrian sanctions, and the Iraqi sanctions, and Iran, and so on. But there’s also a presidential directive that allows the U.S. government to deny visas to family members of corrupt officials, which has been very effective. So if a foreign official is suspected of bribery or corrupt activity, and their kid wants to go to school in the United States, we can deny that. And that’s been really effective. It’s personal.
WPJ: So who puts a person on that list? Is it a U.S. endeavor or is it the host country?
KB: Under that one, it’s the U.S., because that’s U.S. law. There are other international initiatives that are starting to consider more of this, I expect. But most of those sanctions are just U.S. national laws.
WPJ: But effective?
KB: Yes, they’re hitting hard.
WPJ: And personally.
KB: Yes, it’s going to hit that particular person. The other thing is, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of the United States has a long arm in terms of extradition and judicial reach. In Mexico, more Mexican officials have been prosecuted for corruption by the U.S. government than by Mexican prosecutors. And, if you look at some of the more recent cases in the ICPA [International Compliance Professionals Association] involving foreign penalties, hardly anything goes on right now without the U.S.
WPJ: I notice you’ve done a practitioner’s guide for anti-corruption programming. Take us through this a little bit. What do you suggest to the practitioners that they need to look for and turn to? What are some of the takeaways on what they need to do?
KB: One of the recommendations we make now is that USAID field officers and development officers do a political economy analysis. And other donors would do that for their donor officials. The political economy analysis looks at the stakeholders, the factors, the circumstances that allow for corruption to exist, and identify potential champions for reform. It looks at the environment in which the situation exists because every country is unique. We found that the standard “just because this worked in one country, we can apply it here” doesn’t necessary ring true. So the first thing to do is to understand the environment and then to have a balanced approach to corruption. One of the harmful features of corruption is that it creates mistrust between citizens and the government. So to approach and address corruption, you have to build that trust. You need to have both efforts on the demand side, which is the public, as well as the supply side, the government, that go jointly toward greater accountability. Just doing a public awareness program without changes in the government is not going to be as effective. Likewise, if you have just changes in the government, but it’s not trusted or understood by the public, those aren’t going to last very well. So that’s the new approach—understanding the incentives and disincentives. Basically, you’re addressing human nature. We all respond to what’s good for us and what’s bad for us, so to change your behavior, you have to understand why it’s in your interest to change it, what benefits you’re going to get from changing that behavior. Or if you don’t, what bad things are going to happen to you. That’s an important part in our program.
WPJ: Understanding that the bad things that could happen would be denial of visas, funding for programs could be withdrawn, that sort of thing?
KB: Well, beyond that, if you’re a public official in a foreign government, and you have to look at the bigger picture. I think most government officials should—if they don’t already—feel a responsibility for ensuring the future of their country.
WPJ: Or their own futures, in some cases.
KB: Well, yes, but that’s very shortsighted. And understanding a little bit about short-term benefits versus the reality that the public comes in as an important factor. The public will understand if someone rips off a ministry to enrich his own pockets and then they can’t get roads and bridges and things built because of that. They’ll quickly understand. The official needs to also understand the detriments that are caused by [such decisions].
WPJ: I’ve seen this in cases like Mobutu in [the Democratic Republic of the Congo]. Mobutu Sese Seko. He was totally corrupt, and he had billions squirreled away in banks. So if someone comes to him and says, “you know, it’s not going to be good for the future of your country,” he would say “I am the future of my country.”
KB: And some people don’t care. What I found interesting in the Arab Spring is, if I were a corrupt official, losing my life would be the ultimate deterrent. And yet, you some of these officials didn’t care, and weren’t even thinking rationally. Look at Gadhafi—he had chances to step away. Mubarak in Egypt. These are people who were so power-hungry that it blinds them. Even to the extent that they’d rather die holding on to their gold than exercise prudent reason.
WPJ: Could you identify any countries that you think have made important steps toward eradicating corruption in recent memory? Countries that you’ve been working in, for instance.
KB: I think Indonesia to a large extent has. And the Philippines. In both cases, you’ve had a strong motivation at the leadership level for changes, and if they didn’t change, the public was going to demand change. Obviously Singapore and Hong Kong have made great strides. Mexico is undergoing that right now—they have a large anti-corruption program going. Then there are probably a lot of countries that might not have gotten publicity for addressing corruption, but have vastly improved their accountability. Tanzania is a good example. They’ve made a lot of information available to the public and the confidence of the public in public services is much greater. So those examples exist, but it’s a long, hard slog.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
[Photo courtesy of futureatlas.com]