Ghana workshop: Analysing red flags in procurement data

What do you get if you cross anti-corruption activists with mathematicians? It’s no joke. This was exactly what we did in Cape Coast, Ghana, recently, bringing these two groups together to analyse procurement data for evidence of corruption ‘red flags’ in a two-day hackathon at AIMS Ghana.

By Liz Dávid-Barrett (University of Sussex) and Mihály Fazekas (University of Cambridge). Follow us on Twitter @corruption_red

The anti-corruption world has a tendency to pin its hopes on transparency as a solution, and recently in particular on the idea that big data will revolutionise the fight against corruption. The logic is compelling. Whereas we always relied heavily on subjective perceptions to measure corruption, big data allows for more objective evidence about how – and how much – administrative procedures are subverted and manipulated.

But some profound obstacles remain. The most obvious is that, before data can be analysed, it needs to be collected. Yet many governments – especially in developing countries – struggle to collect relevant data of a reasonable quality.

Another problem is that we need people to analyse data, and they need to know what they are looking for. That means knowing the local context and the favoured tricks for conducting and covering up corrupt behaviour.

Our aim is to bridge these two gaps. In our research, funded by the British Academy/DFID Anti-Corruption Evidence programme, we collect and analyse data about public procurement for corruption risks. We also collaborate with the African Maths Initiative, who have developed a free user-friendly software platform for statistical analysis. The software makes it easier for groups to analyse our data using our method, and is an important step in turning transparency into accountability.

We look for red flags such as tenders being advertised only for a very short time (which benefits insiders who had prior knowledge), non-competitive procedures being used (often invoked on spurious grounds), or supposedly open competitions that attract only one bidder. While none of these is necessarily evidence of corruption, analysing big datasets allows us to spot patterns which – at the very least – flag up areas that warrant further investigation.

We initially focused on development aid that is spent through national procurement systems, collecting a database of more than 500,000 contracts, in more than 100 countries and covering almost a 20-year period. We share this data openly and have used it to analyse how the local regime type and changes in procurement rules influence corruption patterns.

We then worked with the African Data Initiative to develop a procurement-specific menu on their open-source statistics software, R-Instat. They originally developed R-Instat to address the need for greater access to statistical analysis tools in Africa, and have used the tool for a number of other development goals, most prominently, for helping farmers to analyse and act upon climate data.

The procurement menu on R-Instat provides a drop-down menu, on which users will find simple ways to analyse the data (for video guides, see here, here and here). We have uploaded two datasets of World-Bank funded contracts across a wide range of developing countries and many years. You can choose any one of our ‘red flags’, and easily see its prevalence in a particular country over time, or compare countries or sectors in the same year.

Visualisations are important in data analysis, so R-Instat also includes many graph and map options as well as tables.  In our Ghana workshop, we brought the data, the method, and the software and added two more key ingredients: anti-corruption activists from Ghanaian NGOs, who know all about how politicians and public officials manipulate the procurement process to divert public money into their pockets; and some of Africa’s best maths students, studying at AIMS Ghana, who know how to use statistics to analyse data.

Over one-and-a-half days, working in interdisciplinary groups, the teams analysed our donor aid data using R-Instat. Even in such a short time, they were able to produce graphs comparing the prevalence of red flags across countries or over time. They learned that there are different ways of counting contracts – by number or by value – and these might yield different results. And they noticed that sometimes a lot of data are missing, which might be a red flag in itself.

By the end of the workshop, the groups had started to delve deeper into the data . They spotted surprising patterns and sought to understand what might lie behind them, or used their knowledge of how corruption occurs to think about how red flags might relate to one another. Are companies that win because they are the only bidder more likely to be registered in offshore secret jurisdictions, for example?

Playing with the data is easy in R-Instat, and that means that users can easily experiment, test ideas and theories, or look for evidence to support or refute rumours. As one of the participants said afterwards, “now we can talk about corruption in this country in a more focused, targeted and sensible manner…cos too often the overly political and emotive discussions tend to obfuscate the real issues and even impact”.

The workshop helped show what can be done with evidence. We still need data as a starting point, but by showcasing what can be done with the right tools, we also hope to create advocates who will lobby governments for greater transparency as well as for tighter control over how public money is spent.


The way to hell is paved with good intentions; what football’s VAR can learn from an anti-corruption programme in Brazil

“Football is not a matter of life or death” claimed Bill Shankly, an iconic former manager of Liverpool football club, “it’s far more important than that”. Shankly, ever able to come up with a memorable line, was certainly over-egging that particular pudding, but the importance of football to billions of people around the planet shouldn’t be ignored.

Football is also, of course, a multi-billion dollar business. There is serious money to be made both within the game (i.e. the salaries that top players earn) and from without it (i.e. via advertising contracts, sponsoring opportunities and such like).  It’s with that in mind that FIFA, the governing body of world football, is trying to take steps to make sure that the decisions the officials on the field take are correct.

Helping referees out

Being a football referee is not easy.  The game is faster now than it ever was.  Referees are required to be real physical athletes just to keep up with the flow of play.  Throw in the fact that when the stakes are so high players are often more than willing to try and game officials and it becomes clear that a referee’s lot is not a straightforward one.

Those who oversee world football have subsequently made concerted efforts over the years to help referees out. Two referees’ assistants have run up and down the sidelines since as early as 1891, whilst exactly 100 years later a fourth official was introduced on the sidelines to further assistant the man/woman in the middle. Furthermore, in 2009 two more officials were added at either end of the field for high profile international fixtures. Refereeing is clearly now a team game, too.

On top of the human additions, goal-line technology now tells referees when the ball has crossed the goal-line. Indeed, that has become the norm in high profile competitions like the Premier League. Furthermore, its use is now widely accepted.  It was not always thus.

The use of technology to help referees out has not stopped there.  In 2018 the notion of a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was written in to the laws of the game.  In essence, the system is simple. Video technology can be used to assess whether errors have been made in four areas; in the run up to a goal being scored, in penalty decisions, in decisions that lead to straight red cards and to cases of mistaken identity (i.e. when red or yellow cars have been awarded incorrectly). If it becomes clear that the referee has made a mistake, the decision will be overturned.

The referee can ask the team of officials operating VAR to look at decisions he/she has made or officials can unilaterally choose to check decisions. Either way, the aim is to help stamp out really bad refereeing calls.

The proof of the pudding

In many ways the logic behind VAR is impeccable.  Who can’t want to see correct decisions being made? But, the devil lies in the detail and football’s technology buffs could do worse than look at the world of anti-corruption to see why the theory doesn’t always match the practice.

As in football, no one wants to see more corruption.  No one argues that corruption (read ‘bad referring decisions’) is to be encouraged. But anti-corruption scholars and activists have long since learnt that whilst using technology to fight corruption can work (see this great example where potential corruption cases in aid projects can be tracked, for example) it can never provide all the answers.

One such example comes from Brazil. A computer programme called Rosie has been developed to keep an eye on the expenses’ claims that Brazilian parliamentarians make.  Why?  Well, Brazilian MPs have a history of buffing up their expenses so as to make a little extra money on the side.  Rosie doesn’t just look at how many Reals have been claimed, she looks at what they have been claimed for and whether that claim is out of line with what should broadly have been expected.  If a given claim looks anomalous, Rosie alerts real people so that they can investigate further.

More specifically, Rosie is looking to pinpoint cases where Brazilian law-makers spend more than the R$ 46.000 (US$ 14,700) that they are allowed. They can spend this on various expenditures that are necessary to do their jobs; meals, flight tickets, fuel and such like. As this nice explainer notes, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies used to get around 20,000 individual claims a month and before Rosie was invented each of those had to be processed manually; a system wide open to error and, in the worst cases, corruption.

In theory, Rosie is doing work that humans can’t.  She’s keeping an overview of many thousands of transactions and highlighting cases that the human eye might well miss.  Yet, ultimately, Rosie is simply not capable of passing qualified judgement.  A out-of-since claim may indeed be evidence of corruption and Rosie’s advocates have been quick to point those out.  Or the claim may simply be left-field but defensible. Rosie can’t know that.  Furthermore, parliamentarians have quickly got to know the new rules of the game and they can and do change their behaviour accordingly.  Maybe they change the nature of the expenses claims that they make or, more probably, they simply find other ways to make that extra buck.

Learning from Rosie

What does all this have to do with VAR? Rosie is ultimately trying to make an exact science out of a fundamentally subjective process.  VAR is doing exactly the same.  Rosie is good at highlighting outlandish claims, VAR should be able to pick up outlandish refereeing faux pas. Rosie can and does make a contribution to nailing down spurious expenses claims.  VAR, in theory, should be able to do the same in terms of helping referees get decisions right.

Yet, the more one looks the more one realises that whilst Rosie has a role to play, the more one wonders whether the same really can be said for VAR.  For one thing, whilst there is a level of subjectivity that Rosie struggles with, this is multiplied significantly in the case of football. Pundits spend hours contemplating whether a particular decision to give a penalty, for example, was indeed right.  There is anything but a consensus on exactly when a player ‘dives’ or when he/she simply loses his balance.  There is a list of potentially contentious points where Rosie struggles, but that list in the case of refereeing decisions in football is much, much longer.

Narrower though Rosie’s remit is, she experiences precisely the same problem. She can see things.  But she can’t pass definitive judgement on them.  Indeed, the people who then come to Rosie’s aid also find some cases quite hard to make calls on, too. Goal-line technology, on the other hand, works precisely because there is a definitive answer out there.  Technology can indeed tell us whether the ball is over the line, just as the DRS in cricket can tell us (more or less every time) whether a batter has been run out.  In cases where there is doubt in cricket, there is a widely-accepted (and long-standing) plan B; the decision of the on field referee (or ‘umpire’) stands.  End of story.

The Way to Hell

FIFA’s decision to use VAR in the forthcoming World Cup is therefore a case of the way to hell being well and truly paved with good intentions. Much as we might want to believe otherwise, the types of decision that get referred to VAR do not have clear-cut answers.

There is, of course, an irony to this. Players make mistakes all the time.  They give the ball away, they mis-time tackles, they drift out of position, they take shots that end up nowhere near the goal.  Indeed, the imperfection of the game is, for many, one of its most endearing features.

Putting it more bluntly, football is simply not mature enough for us to expect VAR to work. Too many people within the sport are out and out utility maximisers who really aren’t interested in treating officials (and indeed the game) with the respect it deserves.

Given all of this, expect VAR to provide yet more controversy in the summer.  Buckle up football fans, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Dan Hough

8 May 2018

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.

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,



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.


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