Investigative journalists and the fight to unearth the corrupt

Former Sussex student Juan Leopoldo Martinez explains why investigative journalism really does need to be at the forefront of the anti-corruption fight 

When facing state, judicial or parliamentary inertia or a lack of effectiveness in fighting corruption, investigative journalism is one of the main tools societies have left to fight graft. However, investigative journalists faces two main problems when trying to do justice to this honourable aim.

The first is the overflow of information in societies that receive important news minute by minute. This becomes an obstacle to in-depth research; there is no time for details, only for the next major event that happens somewhere in the world.

The second problem is more complex: the threats against those who investigate the events, for those journalists who go beyond the known or told facts, for whom it’s not enough to take the statements made by politicians and public figures, but who want instead to reach the truth behind the discourse. By pursuing this truth, they touch important interests of powerful people who are not willing to accept any risks to their business, especially if their activities are dishonest or if disclosing certain information would damage their reputation.

Reporters Without Borders have reported that, during 2017, at least 47 journalists have been killed worldwide while 183 social communication professionals have been imprisoned. To those, we should also add the risks taken by citizens who help journalists and media assistants; in this group, at least 13 have been murdered and 182 put in jail. There are no statistics on the amount of intimidation.

One recent example of such horrific crimes against journalists is the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, one of the journalists who led the investigation of the Panama Papers and the corruption that it brought to light within her country, Malta. Even when she informed the police around two weeks before her murder that she was receiving death threats, security forces were not able to provide the protection needed and her life ended tragically.

The threats against investigative journalists are not just based on violence. Reporters Without Borders also publishes the annual World Press Freedom Index, a measure that considers several factors to determine “the level of freedom available for journalists”. By their analysis, the level of freedom has worsened considerably even in democratic systems. But the most disturbing fact, as per their report, is that the attacks on the media and newspersons are increasing worldwide.

Despite the danger, the risks reporters take are valuable. Investigative journalism is a key factor in the fight against corruption, with the capability to prompt real action by the state to prosecute graft or to stimulate collective action initiatives when sectors of society consider that something must be done against such problems.

Investigative journalism is essential to anti-corruption, and is often the last bastion of scrutiny in the most corrupt environments.  It is a fundamental instrument for good governance and a pillar of democracy. From that, it can be understood that investigative journalism is a fundamental factor to the improvement of the democratic system. But for investigative journalists to play their role, it is essential that journalists -and the media- are protected and free. Society should make efforts to promote the kind of journalism that brings positives outcomes as put public resource management under surveillance, and all the subsequent collective benefits that such actions involve.

Juan Leopoldo Martinez

 

Juan Leopoldo Martinez studied for an MA in Corruption and Governance at the University of Sussex in 2016-17. Previously, he graduated with BA in Journalism and MSc in Organizational Communication in Venezuelan universities. His work experience includes an internship at the APPG on Anti-Corruption of the UK Parliament, PR Director at the regional parliament of Carabobo in Venezuela and advisor at the same institution. He has a background working for private media, political and not-for-profit organizations.

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When is an anti-corruption campaign not an anti-corruption campaign?

When does an anti-corruption campaign do enough to justify the claims made of its supporters? How, in other words, can we know that anti-corruption campaigns really are about tackling corruption? SCSC Director Dan Hough outlines how we might begin to see the wood for the trees.

Anti-corruption campaigns are once again in the news. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (or MbS, as he is often known), the ambitious heir to the Saudi throne, is at the centre of the most recent attempt by a country to root out high-profile corruption. MbS heads up a new, powerful anti-corruption committee that, within hours of its creation, prompted the arrest of a clutch of rich, powerful and previously untouchable Saudi princes and assorted others. Even close family members of King Salman have not been exempted; two of the King’s nephews have been detained as has the brother-in-law of the late King Fahd (who passed away in 2005). 30 plus members of the ultra-elite are now in some form of custody. MbS appears to mean business.

Yet it has not taken long for dissenting voices to question what’s driving this sudden quest for probity. On 6 November the UK’s Financial Times, for example, noted in a leader column that what the FT called a “purge” was “all about consolidating power”. Martin Chulov in the Guardian, meanwhile, described the arrests as part of a broader “revolution” of reform that had the much large goal of shifting internal bases of power.

Similar claims have been made about Xi Jinping’s efforts to fight corruption in China, where, despite the arrest of over a 100,000 people (including a significant number of high-ranking officials), there remains a strong suspicion that the campaign in the Middle Kingdom has rather more to do with maintaining stability (and indeed Xi’s personal powerbase) than it does about genuinely getting to corruption’s root cause.

Politicising Anti-Corruption

Working out what’s really going on in either Saudi Arabia or China is difficult. Neither are states that where politicians are naturally open to rigorous questioning. Indeed, hereditary monarchies and communist autocracies remain instinctively averse to being open about their inner workings.

However, getting to the bottom of why anti-corruption campaigns take place in democracies is actually not that much easier. India’s anti-corruption movements, for example, have often been criticized for being middle class vehicles for defending their own (privileged) positions in society, whilst the Kaczynski twins in Poland were widely criticized for what looked much like their overtly political anti-corruption initiatives of the late 2000s. The USA’s constant pushing of the OECD to adopt an anti-bribery treaty has also been criticised for being rather more about defending the interests of US business than genuinely clamping down on corrupt practices. Political imperatives and anti-corruption campaigns often appear to sit uneasily side-by-side.

There may well be (very) good reasons to be sceptical of the motives of politicians who launch large-scale anti-corruption initiatives. Beware, for example, those who ‘wage war on corruption’. If we learnt anything from the tenure of George Bush Jr’s time as US president, we should know that waging war on abstract nouns (terror, in Bush’s case) gets you nowhere. Corruption is, for better or worse, part of the human condition. Attempts to understand under what conditions it flourishes and what can subsequently be done to counteract it subsequently tend to be better served by nuance rather than bombast.

Furthermore, fighting corruption is not simply a technocratic challenge. It is not the case that if politicians simply showed a little more gumption then progress would inevitably be made in stamping it out. Many (no doubt well-meaning) anti-corruption activists misunderstand the challenge to hand. It is easy to assume that there are ‘right answers’ when tackling graft, but in the cold light of day there is plenty of politics involved. Anti-corruption is not like mail-order shopping; it is not possible to pick the right policies from a catalogue. Politics, of all sorts, complicates matters.

That is not a defence of the corrupt. It is an attempt to acknowledge that anti-corruption is political and that politics itself is messy, difficult, unsatisfying and at times unedifying. People disagree (often fundamentally) on what is right and what is wrong. Revelations in both the the ‘Panama‘ and newly the ‘Paradise’ Papers have, for example, led to loud calls for reform to prevent power brokers corrupting away their allegedly ill-gotten gains. Off shore jurisdictions have come under sustained fire for helping the rich and powerful in effect mitigate their tax liabilities. For some, this is corruption in all but name. Yet a plurality of UK citizens, as even the pro-reform Tax Justice Network (TJN) acknowledges, are happy for the UK to compete with the EU on the basis of tax competition (or ‘tax war’, as the TJN prefers to call it). A significant number of UK citizens, in other words, are quite happy to act in ways that many see as not just dishonest and unethical, but also plain old corrupt.  As I say, anti-corruption can be difficult.

Focusing Anti-Corruption Efforts

If the way forward is not necessarily high-profile and top down then what indeed should the focus be? If one is going to try and make a difference, it makes sense to be specific about what exactly the corruption problem is by defining the terms that are relevant to it. Successful reform, in other words, requires the identification of specific goals and a clear explanation of (i) why these reforms are necessary and (ii) how these reforms are going to be achieved. In a world of ever more verbose rhetoric, it is much better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around.

The most thoughtful NGOs in this area realise this. Transparency International in the UK, for example, focuses on the problems in specific sectors with a view to finding out what drives corrupt practice before then suggesting specific reforms to achieve specific goals. That TI UK doesn’t always get it right is a given. But the logic of the approach is surely correct.

The mass of anti-corruption literature that now exists tells us that the best reforms are those that bring a broad range of actors together to pursue sets of agreed aims. Sometimes this involves talking to power-holders or power-brokers who have interests that need to be respected. This may involve talking to people who ideally would be avoided. But in many states there is no way around the fact that those in power could potentially have much to lose if genuine reforms were to be enacted. Expecting them to give up what they have and even agree to things that could lead them or their allies into conflict with the law is simply unrealistic. Turkeys do not vote for Christmas, after all.

The real challenge is working out what progress is possible where. Policies that help citizens find out just a little more about how decisions are made and how they can legitimately defend their own interests as well as hold those in power responsible for their actions are likely to be steps forward. However, do not expect them to be simple steps or ones that those with something to lose will take lying down. The road to reform is incremental and confusing, and it often involves spending considerable time lost down cul-de-sacs.

Evaluating MbS’s reform agenda

All this leads us back to Saudi Arabia. As things stand, we know too little about what Saudi Arabia will look like (or indeed is supposed to look like) by the time MbS’s work is done. The current push is almost certainly ensnaring some people who more or less everyone would understand to be ‘corrupt’. But one swallow a summer does not make, and that is certainly not enough for us to be able to say in good faith that this really is all about corruption.

We’ll learn much more when (or indeed if) the anti-corruption committee’s work translates in to detailed policy. Will we be able to learn more about who generates wealth and how they do it? Will we be able to make more sense of who takes which decisions and why they take them? Will the process of governance reform lead to (slow, but steady) changes in political culture? It’ll take time for answers to these issues to be forthcoming. Only when they do will we really begin to know whether MbS’s drive is going to lead to sustainable changes in behaviour.

Dan Hough, University of Sussex

 

Don’t take norms for granted. The case of the USA’s ‘adieu’ to the EITI

In the first week of November the United States announced that it would cease to implement the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), thus choosing to exit an international club that has spread the norm of transparency with considerable success. In this post, Liz David-Barrett reflects on what this means for extractives globally and what it tells us about how international norms spread.

The EITI is a voluntary initiative through which governments commit to disclose the payments they receive from companies in the extractives sector – oil, gas, forestry and mining – as well as simultaneously compelling the companies operating on their territory to publish what they pay. The logic is that this transparency, overseen by a multi-stakeholder group comprising government, the private sector and civil society should help to curb corruption. That in turn will mean that more of the revenues earned from resource wealth reach the people, combating the ‘resource curse’.

There is a lively debate on whether the EITI works or not. Some researchers argue that it is not much more than ‘cheap talk’, a cynical effort to signal good intentions on which governments never follow through.  The EITI is seen as a sham particularly in countries where governments repress civil society, undermining the ability of the multi-stakeholder group to hold the key actors to account. Then again, the fact that US oil companies fought it so hard – the withdrawal is a victory for companies that lobbied to keep their tax affairs secret – suggests that implementation of the EITI standard does change the power balance among citizens, governments and companies.

Ken Okamura and I have argued that, even if the evidence is mixed on whether the EITI curbs corruption in implementing countries, the initiative has at least served to spread norms about transparency and disclosure in the extractive sector. We find that the promise of reputational benefits is a key motivation for governments to join and that the reputational capital earned through implementing the standard translates into material rewards such as increased aid. But that does not undermine what the initiative has achieved in terms of increasing the level of transparency and scrutiny of a sector that is highly vulnerable to corruption.

One of the key factors in the EITI’s ability to spread the norm of transparency was the fact that it had a wide membership which included some key players.  The value of different types of new members has varied over the initiative’s life. At the beginning, it was critical to have some big oil-producing countries on board, and countries which were rated as ‘highly corrupt’ on indicators such as the TI Corruption Perceptions Index. Nigeria and Azerbaijan, as pilot countries, were a good choice to get things started. These were, in the terminology of Finnemore and Sikkink, ‘norm entrepreneurs’. Subsequent joiners were inspired partly by a desire to ‘keep up’ with their neighbours – there was a flurry of West African interest following the Nigerian role model.

After some years though, critics began to argue that the initiative was the rich global north imposing values on the poor global south. Few developed countries were implementing the standard themselves, attracting charges of hypocrisy. In response, at the G8 summit in 2013, all of the G8 countries made at least some form of commitment to move towards implementation. Transparency in the resource sector seemed to have reached the third stage in Finnemore and Sikkink’s life cycle – internalisation. It was even institutionalised in law in the United States (the Cardin-Lugar amendment to the Dodd-Frank Act) and in an EU directive, although the former ran up against legal challenges more or less immediately.

And that is why the US decision to leave is such a blow. The United States has said that it will continue to be involved at the international and board level. But it will be impossible to be constructive or serve as a role model when it has walked away from the initiative itself. Now, when trying to attract new members, the initiative will not be able to sell itself as a prestigious international club striving for universal values. Even the argument that greater transparency is inevitable – and hence it is better to earn reputational capital by getting ahead of the game – will flail. Indeed, the EITI is also in trouble in the UK, where a protracted crisis in the multi-stakeholder group has recently come to a head and the civil society network has walked out. It looks like the initiative’s reputational pull is diminishing fast.

More broadly, the US decision is a reminder that the diffusion of international norms is not a unidirectional or inexorable process. Sometimes things go into reverse.

Liz David-Barrett, University of Sussex, E.David-Barrett@sussex.ac.uk

 

 

Lesotho government’s new-found political will is welcome, but can it solve endemic corruption?

One of the reasons a national budget speech is such an important occasion is that it reflects the mood, goals and priorities of the administration. A budget speech transforms political rhetoric and campaign promises into concrete policies that address practical problems. In Lesotho, and other developing countries, the speech provides a benchmark against which development partners can gauge how far politicians are prepared to go, to literally put money where their mouths are.

Last week, Lesotho’s newly appointed minister of finance, Dr Moeketsi Majoro, a former employee of the IMF, made his maiden budget speech, and emphasised once again the new government’s commitment to the fight against corruption and wasteful spending. The four political parties in this coalition government — the second in three years — campaigned on a strong anti-corruption ticket.

Depoliticising bureaucracy and strengthening procurement regulations are some of the measures that the new administration is lining up to tackle endemic graft. Perhaps, the clearest sign of commitment to anti-corruption is the 40 per cent increase in the budget of the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO).

These efforts are commendable.

Old wine, new bottles?

But, it is not the first time Lesotho’s finance minister acknowledges extensive venality in the public service and commits the government to rooting it out. One wonders why we should be optimistic about the government’s fresh commitment to tackling corruption.

In the budget speech of 2005, for instance, the finance minister and former employee of the World Bank, Dr. Timothy Thahane, announced that the government was “committed towards identifying and removing public service delivery bottlenecks and rooting out corruption” (see here). The following year, the minister made a further commitment “to reduce the scope for systemic corruption at all levels of government”.

As many waited for Thahane to lead the way, corruption charges were, instead, filed against him, his Principal Secretary (i.e the chief accounting officer in the ministry of finance) and a local businessman. They were accused of defrauding the government of 19 million Maloti (approximately 1,500,000 US Dollars).

Further to that, under Thahane’s watch Lesotho was confronted with one of its biggest corruption scandals as it emerged that a $30 million deal with an Israeli company to supply electronic national documents was not above board. An Israeli court later found this company guilty of bribing a foreign official, and fined it NIS 4.5 million ($1.15 million).

Tim Thahane and others before him failed to rein in corruption under highly favourable conditions of a dominant party system. During this time, the stability of government did not depend much on the use of ‘patronage’ as it will under the coalition government that Majoro finds himself leading.

Majoro and his colleagues may be eager to avoid the mistakes and failures of the past administrations, but the political realities on the ground will weigh heavily on their good intentions and the drive to tackle corruption.

Political imperatives over good intentions

The four-party coalition government has too many people queuing up for the disbursement of patronage of one form or other. There is a frightening legion of young people with college qualifications looking to the government for decent jobs. Some have been waiting for close to a decade to find meaningful employment in the civil service — Lesotho’s biggest employer. They are hungry and their patience has run out.

Yet as qualified as they are, their large numbers relative to job opportunities make it difficult to rely on merit alone for recruitment into the public service. The allocation of job and other resources on particularistic criteria will inevitably complicate the efforts to fight the high levels of nepotism, favouritism and cronyism (see here for shocking details on nepotism in Lesotho).

The unemployment crisis has forced many into the business sector. Yet, economic stagnation and the declining business opportunities mean that many of those trying their luck in the private sector increasingly rely on doing business with government through the tendering process. Many will not qualify for tenders if procurement regulations are strictly enforced.

Coupled with an extremely high inflation rate, the stagnant salaries in the public service provide strong incentives for public officials to continue tendering for government contracts — a practice that has brought Lesotho’s procurement process into serious disrepute. It will not be easy to convince most public officials, including chief accounting officers, to support whatever measures are put in place to eliminate such tender irregularities.

All coalition partners — particularly the newly formed Alliance of Democrats (AD), whose leader and the new deputy Prime Minister has prime ministerial ambitions — are eager to build their base and compete effectively in the next general election. Where the link between a political party and society is weak, and is currently the case with the AD, patronage, clientelism and corruption become integral elements of party building.

Members of parliament will continue to be under pressure to fulfil social expectations to cater for the personal needs of their constituents. One only needs to spend a few minutes in rural communities or on popular social media platforms to understand the expansive role that Basotho assign to their representatives. There is a widespread expectation that an MP must intervene personally, and using his/her own funds, in the personal problems of constituents. This creates a strong incentive for MPs to get involved in all manner of illicit dealings to meet the ever-growing financial demands that attend these expectations.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, the ‘political will’ is not enough to tackle corruption where it is endemic and performs the basic function of maintaining political stability. The current economic and political climate is not conducive for a serious assault on grand corruption. We should brace ourselves for more allegations of nepotism, fraud and kickbacks.

By Moletsane Monyake

University of Sussex

Data, Software and Talent: Turning Open Data into a useful Anti-Corruption Tool for Africa

For years, campaigners have lauded the benefits of transparency as a policy solution to corruption. That message was gradually refined as researchers noted that transparency was effective as an anti-corruption tool only if it led to increased accountability, and that this only happened in conditions where the overall institutional environment was conducive.

More recently, open data – data about the activities of governments and public officials which can shine light on whether they perform their duties with integrity – has again been paraded as the variant of transparency that will make all the difference.

Again, it quickly became clear that open data only helps detect and deter graft in certain conditions: first, the data must be good quality, second, there must be a group of interested and informed users, and third, there must be a way of getting the results heard, investigated, and acted upon. If open data is to work as a global anti-corruption tool, that implies a major effort to improve the quality of data that governments publish, empower actors to use the data to uncover misconduct, and then lobby governments and donors to listen to and act on the findings.

In the last few months I have been involved in a project, led by Oxford mathematician Balázs Szendrői, that helps empower an important but often overlooked set of potential users – African mathematicians, whose statistical analysis skills are key to forming an evidence base for future public policy-making. The project collected new procurement data, developed a new software tool for analysis and trained the maths students in how to look for corruption indicators.

Aid and National Procurement

The data concern how aid money is spent through national procurement systems. As part of the British Academy/DFID-funded project that Mihály Fazekas, Olli Hellmann and I are working on, Curbing Corruption in Development Aid-funded Procurement, we have collected contract-level data from three major donors. This was a lengthy exercise, involving scraping data from a number of disparate documents and files, checking for missing data and resolving numerous irregularities. Yet we now have a dataset comprising more than half a million contracts and stretching back almost 20 years.

The tools are analytical and statistical. We utilise a method developed by Mihály to identify ‘red flags’ in the data which might be indicative of corruption risks in the procurement process – that is, ways in which a supposedly open competition can be manipulated to favour a certain company. However, using the method to analyse data requires statistical skills and software. Both are in short supply in Africa – mathematicians have not traditionally received a very strong training in statistical methods, and cash-strapped universities have generally lacked the resources to fund and update licences to software packages that facilitate such analysis.

Maths as Anti-Corruption

The African Maths Initiative (AMI), a Kenyan NGO that works to create a stronger mathematical community and culture of mathematics across Africa, has helped to solve this problem by developing a new open-source software for statistical analysis. Based on the widely used programme, R, their package provides a ‘front end’ that makes R much more user-friendly and accessible. The software, R-Instat, has been funded through crowd-sourcing and developed in cooperation with African mathematicians. Still in development, it is on track for launch in July this year. In the meantime, we have worked with AMI to develop a menu on R-Instat that can be used specifically for analysing procurement data and identifying corruption risk indicators.

So, we have the data, we have the tools, what about the skills? For data to be useful as an anti-corruption tool, we need to bring together two groups: people who understand how to analyse data, and people who understand how procurement systems can be manipulated to corrupt ends – the latter is where I came in. In March I visited AIMS Tanzania, an institute that offers a one-year high-level Master’s programme to some of Africa’s best maths students. In a one-day workshop, I spent the morning teaching the maths students about how academics study corruption. We took our time with getting definitions right to make sure everyone was on the same page, and then launched into the ways in which the procurement process can be corrupted and how that might manifest in certain red flags, such as there being only one bidder for a contract. The students were a great pleasure to work with – highly engaged and posing thoughtful questions that related to their own experiences of corruption.

But the real excitement came in the afternoon when we tried out R-Instat. Students formed teams while David Stern and Danny Parsons, two of the software’s developers, asked them to develop research questions that could be investigated using our World Bank dataset. They could then use R-Instat to run analyses on the data and find answers to their questions. I was on hand to answer corruption-specific queries and suggest what else to look for, while Danny and the R-Instat team members helped them navigate the software.

Data, Statistical Skills and Anti-Corruption Knowledge; A Powerful Mix

This was a corruption nerd’s idea of paradise. Even the simplest analyses revealed interesting patterns in the data. Why did one country’s receipts from the World Bank drop off a cliff one year and never recover? Discussion revealed a few possible reasons: perhaps a change of government led donors to change policy, or the country reached a stage of development where it no longer qualified for aid? The students became more and more motivated as they realised how statistical methods could be applied to identify, understand and solve real-world problems that had seemed intractable and inevitable.

Some of the teams came up with really provocative questions, such as the group who wanted to know whether Francophone or Anglophone countries were more vulnerable to corruption risks. Their initial analysis revealed that contracting in the Francophone countries was more associated with red flags. They developed the analysis to include a wider selection of countries, and maintained broadly similar results. With a little more time, we could have introduced controls for development levels and other factors.

Another group found that one-quarter of contracts let in the education sector in one country had been won by just one company. We investigated further: it was important to look at the value of contracts, too, not just the number. This analysis revealed a yet more worrying result: more than half of total contract value in this sector had been won by three companies, all of which had suspiciously similar names. Again, there might be perfectly innocent reasons for this, but in just a couple of hours, we had a set of preliminary results that pointed up a number of directions for future research. Imagine what we might find with a little more time!

Liz Dávid-Barrett

Revolving doors in Westminster? Forget that, they’ve blown the bloody doors off!

What do we know about the revolving doors in Westminster that we did not know a month ago?

Well, for a start we have seen that for some this is a laughing matter: on 20 March, when an urgent question was tabled in the Commons on his new role as editor of London’s Evening Standard, former Chancellor George Osborne joked that his presence in the House meant missing the newspaper’s deadline.

And why not take a light-hearted view? In 2014 the Telegraph reported that about 180 MPs (or 27 per cent) had more than one job – Osborne just appears to have six.

It’s not unusual

The revolving door phenomenon – the movement of individuals between legislative and regulatory roles and the industries affected by them – is not exclusive to Westminster. Neither is the practice of politicians holding second jobs: some of Europe’s politicians have gone as far as arguing that banning the practice would be a violation of their fundamental rights, although the rules were tightened on lobbying jobs in December 2016.

What’s more – so the argument goes – politicians engaging in second jobs can have a positive impact on politics; it’s a bulwark against the encroachment of the political class, it brings current experience and expertise to their roles, and it keeps them in touch with the real world. And yet, with Guardian analysis showing 20 politicians declaring over £100,000 a year from their part-time engagements, it is perhaps not quite the real world the majority of their constituents live in.

What’s the problem?

Money is important, of course. There’s an implied insult in watching those we’ve elected to represent us finding time to supplement their £74,000 a year salaries, which are over twice the national average for full time employees. And, with 70,000 people in your average constituency, surely they’ve got enough to keep them occupied.

More important still is the potential conflict of interest inherent in representing the public while simultaneously working for industries that can:

(a) Benefit from the insider knowledge, power or connections their politician employees have from serving in parliament; or

(b) Undermine the independence of the media and its ability to hold Westminster to account, for example by employing politicians as columnists or editors.

But is this corruption?

This is certainly not corruption as traditionally defined – as the abuse of public office for private gain – and it’s certainly part of the political culture in Westminster and a practice that many politicians feel entitled to participate in.

And yet, while it may not constitute the classic bribery-based model of corruption, the risks entailed in this practice appear to go a lot further than a simple regulatory loophole or one-off integrity risk.

The need to expand our notion of corruption to encompass practices beyond the quid pro quo exchange of benefits and bribery is widely recognised; from expanding definitions to include “the distortion and subversion of the public realm in the service of private interests” (Bentham 2015) to distinguishing between legal and illegal forms of corruption (Kaufmann and Vicente 2011). Within this field of enquiry, Thompson’s (1995) concept of institutional corruption provides a useful framework for considering the revolving door – or in the case above, the apparent lack of any door at all – as a tendency to undermine the primary purpose or fiduciary duty of an institution.

Rather implying simply the exchange of benefits for private gain, revolving doors are suspected of enabling institutional corruption: “special relationships and social exchanges that may set distorting incentives, improper dependencies and set up consequential conflicts of interests that ultimately divert important public institutions from their intended missions” (Zinnbauer 2015).

Institutional corruption therefore invites researchers to look beyond individual conflicts of interest and take a broader view of political corruption as the ways in which political culture is degraded by a whole range of practices – practices that may look like politics-as usual, but have profound implications for the effective functioning of democratic institutions.

What can we do?

Traditional responses to political accountability are not silent on this issue.

The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is currently considering Osborne’s case and it is possible that it will rule his editorship incompatible with his role as a former minister. The UK Committee on Standards in Public Life has also announced a review of its guidance on politicians’ second jobs to consider “reasonable limits” on outside interests.

The UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), to which the UK is a state party, similarly has provisions for preventing conflicts of interest under Chapter II (preventive measures): in particular Articles 9 and 12, which consider conflicts of interest declarations and restrictions on the employment of public officials. Westminster abides by these provisions with its Commons Code of Conduct, Ministerial Code and Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

The UK is due to be reviewed on its compliance with UNCAC Chapter II in 2018; it will be interesting to see whether recommendations for strengthening regulation in this area will be made.

What more can we do?

If the furore over Osborne’s second jobs has demonstrated one thing it is that political culture in Westminster is out of step: MPs from across the House, including those in Osborne’s own party, have questioned the propriety of his most recent appointment. And the public is not on side either; 60% of people think MPs should be working full time as politicians.

Increased regulation is a default response to accountability weaknesses, but the danger is that we go too far and risk over-regulation, pushback and the emergence of increasingly complex loopholes. If the project to address corruption in all its many forms is to succeed, it must lead us on new paths and to new approaches.

Institutional corruption research has the potential to provide “a more constructive response to demands for greater accountability” by putting “more effort into identifying the less familiar institutional forms and devising remedies appropriate to them” (Thompson 1995; 6). It also names a range of practices that give rise to conflicts and distort democratic systems. If you can name it, you can tame it; and it seems that for far too long practices that may well constitute or nurture institutional corruption have been legitimised as politics-as-usual.

Rebecca Dobson

rjs.dobson@gmail.com

Donald Trump’s ‘Winter White House’ and definitions of corruption

One of the challenges inherent in teaching courses on corruption and anti-corruption is defining precisely what the term means. And, this week saw me set out on my annual struggle to do exactly that. It’s one of the more tricky sessions on my final year undergraduate option on ‘political corruption’. In many ways, it’s easiest to follow the same logic as that of American Supreme Court Judge, Justice Potter Stewart; in 1964, when presiding over the case of Jacobellis v Ohio, he once noted about pornography that he couldn’t come up with a watertight definition of it, but he certainly knew what it was when he saw it.

That’s a fair starting point for analysing corruption, too; for the most part bribes, nepotism, fraud and such like are recognisable when you see them. But, as you dig deeper it soon becomes clear that conducting any sort of research on a phenomenon you’re defining in “I know it when I see it” terms is very difficult indeed. Corruption analysts have subsequently spent a fair amount of time thinking about what precisely it is that they are unpacking (see here and here for a couple of attempts to do that).

The Definitional Challenge

Traditionally, analysts of political life saw corruption as a move away from a non-corrupt state. Thinkers in Ancient Rome, for example, often saw corruption as a moral aberration. Many early analysts of corruption subsequently had a very broad understanding of the term seeing it, as Carl Friedrich once noted, as “a decomposition of the body politic” that came about through “immoral decay”. A panopoly of behaviours were then put in to this general category, largely in the belief that they were “dysfunctional and hence morally corrupt.”

Over the last 50 years, the focus has narrowed considerably. It had to. Conducting empirical research is impossible without a definition that’s a little more practical. That led to (an at times uneasy) consensus developing around a definition put forward by the American political scientist Joseph Nye. He claimed corruption to be the abuse of a public role for private gain.

Nye’s thinking can be clearly seen in the thinking of Transparency International, the world’s leading anti-corruption NGO, when it talks of “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”. The OECD follows suit, labelling corruption as “the active or passive misuse of the powers of public officials (appointed or elected) for private financial or other benefits”. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) also sings very much from the same hymn sheet (“the abuse of public office for private gains”) as does the World Bank (virtually the same, with just an ‘s’ added to ‘gain’). This understanding of corruption as a deliberate act where an official uses the discretion at her disposal to skew a process or an outcome in her favour is now very widely followed.

Making definitions work in the real world

Labelling something as corrupt therefore means thinking about the constituent parts of a process. More specifically, we need to keep an eye out for four things;

  1. The act needs to be deliberate. Corruption is never accidental. Corruption has nothing to do with incompetence or the inability to fulfill tasks. They may be side-effects, but they don’t define the concept.
  2. The act needs to involve some sort of abuse. The person involved needs to be acting in a way which contravenes accepted understandings of what is and is not appropriate.
  3. Conventional understandings of corruption involve power holders abusing the entrusted power that they are granted.
  4. There has to be some sort of private gain. Often that gain is financial, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be come in a variety of other forms, whether they be status or power-related, or in, say, the provision of sexual services. The private gain can also accrue to friends, family or other organisations known to the corrupted party.

The Winter White House

When talking undergraduates through this it really does help to use real-world examples. And they aren’t generally lacking.

Over the last couple of weeks, however, an almost copybook case appears to have materialised in the USA. Donald Trump’s three weeks at the head of the US executive has hardly been lacking in incident, and that may be the reason that his attitude to and use of ‘The Winter White House’ has been largely overlooked.

Judd Legum, a journalist with ‘Think Progress‘, nonetheless posted a series of tweets on Saturday evening (11 February) about the way the recent visit of Shinzo Abe, the Japanese Prime Minister, to the USA panned out. The US President, Donald Trump, and Abe spent time at what Trump has been describing as the ‘Winter White House’. A nice, catchy phrase that has immediately settled in to the journalistic lexicon.

The ‘Winter White House’ is actually a private members club called Mar-e-Lago. Two of Trump’s three weekends as President have been spent there. He dined with Abe there. Donald Trump, furthermore, owns the club. According to Legum, before Trump became President the joining fee used to be $100,000. It’s now $200,000. The club is clearly gaining in profile and is being talked about more than ever before (including, I guess, via blogs like this).

Where’s the problem, you may ask? Well, Mar-e-Lago is now well set to make significantly more money than it might otherwise have done. Plus, anyone who wants to curry favour with the President may think it prudent to frequent establishments that he owns.

Much ado about nothing? Well, no, not really …

Donald Trump’s presidency has already thrown up plenty of things that have got the commentariat talking. In many ways his branding of a club that he owns as the ‘Winter White House’ is understandably not quite at the top of the list of things to be worried about. But, it would appear that there is at the very least circumstantial evidence that he is using his position as the President of the USA to flag up, and indeed re-brand, a private members’ club that he owns. The price of using the club has already doubled. His regular tweets on the subject can only raise its profile.

If the framework outlined above is any help in pinning this traditionally elusive concept down, then Trump is walking on thin ice.  Corruption is a process and defining it involves pinpointing the constituent parts of that process.  Only then can (and indeed should) morals and values enter the discussion. Whatever way you look at this case, there is – at the very least – a case to be made that The Donald’s behaviour warrants plenty of further scrutiny in this regard.

Dan Hough

University of Sussex