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


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s