To mark the release of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2017, the TI analysed corruption levels around the world and looked at how they relate to civil liberties – specifically, the ability of citizens to speak out in defence of their interests and the wider public good.
As journalists and activist groups are coming under mounting pressure from governments around the world, evidence sheds new light on the vital importance of civil society organisations (CSOs) and independent media in anti-corruption efforts.
Many resource-strapped developing country governments seek international aid, but when that assistance is channeled through domestic civil society, it can threaten their political control. As a result, in the last two decades, 39 of the world’s 153 low- and middle-income countries have adopted laws restricting the inflow of foreign aid to domestically operating nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
Governments recognize that such laws harm their international reputations for supporting democracy and may invite donor punishment in terms of aid reductions. Yet, they perceive foreign aid to NGOs as supporting political opponents and threatening their grip on power.
In the aftermath of competitive electoral victories, governments often take new legal steps to limit these groups’ funding. The TI tested this argument on an original dataset of laws detailing the regulation of foreign aid inflows to domestically operating NGOs in 153 low- and middle-income countries for the period 1993–2012. Using an event history approach, the TI found that foreign aid flows are associated with an increased risk of restrictive law adoption.
Yet, CSOs working on governance and human rights issues are subject to ever-greater restrictions on their operations, while attacks on journalists are on the rise in many parts of the world. Such crackdowns are not only deeply concerning in their own right, but they also add to an environment in which corrupt public officials, shady businesses and organised criminals are able to act with impunity.
Experience over the last quarter-century shows that curbing corruption requires more than just introducing well-designed laws. Corrupt individuals have proven very adept at finding ways to get around formal constraints, which is why grassroots and bottom-up approaches to fighting corruption tend to be more sustainable in the long run than isolated institutional and legal reform.
With an increased awareness of the detrimental effects of corruption on development, strategies to fight it are now a top priority in policy circles. Yet, in countries ridden with systemic corruption, few successes have resulted from the investment. On the basis of an interview study conducted in Kenya and Uganda—two arguably typically thoroughly corrupt countries—TI arguesthat part of an explanation to why anticorruption reforms in countries plagued by widespread corruption fail is that they are based on a theoretical mischaracterization of the problem of systemic corruption. More specifically, the analysis reveals that while contemporary anticorruption reforms are based on a conceptualization of corruption as a principal–agent problem, in thoroughly corrupt settings, corruption rather resembles a collective action problem. This, in turn, leads to a breakdown of any anticorruption reform that builds on the principal–agent framework, taking the existence of noncorruptible so-called principals for granted.
Despite significant investment in anti-corruption work over the past 15 years, most systemically corrupt countries are considered to be just as corrupt now as they were before the anti-corruption interventions. A growing number of authors argue that anti-corruption efforts have not worked because they are based on inadequate theory, suggesting that collective action theory offers a better understanding of corruption than the principal-agent theory usually used.
Both theories are in fact valuable. But both miss out an important third perspective, which is that corruption can serve important functions, solving difficult problems that people face, especially in weak institutional environments. Effective anti-corruption initiatives are so hard to achieve because they often require insights from all three of these perspectives.
Principal-agent theory highlights the role of individuals’ calculations about whether or not to engage in or oppose corruption; the influence of transparency, monitoring, and sanctions on those calculations; and the technical challenges of monitoring and sanctioning corrupt behaviour.
Collective action theory highlights the relevance to individuals’ decisions of group dynamics, including trust in others and the (actual or perceived) behaviour of others. When corruption is seen as ‘normal’, people may be less willing to abstain from corruption or to take the first step in implementing sanctions or reforms. This theory highlights the challenges of coordinated anticorruption efforts.
Corruption can sometimes provide a way of dealing with deeply-rooted social, structural, economic and political problems. Anti-corruption interventions need to better understand the functions that corruption may serve, particularly in weak institutional environments, and find alternative ways to solve the real problems that people face if anti-corruption work is to be successful.
Each perspective—corruption as a principal-agent problem, corruption as a collective action problem, and corruption as problem-solving—adds to understanding of the challenges that anti-corruption efforts face. They suggest the following considerations.
Effective anti-corruption initiatives will be driven by the context, not the theory. Different perspectives on corruption may be most useful in particular contexts and circumstances. For example, principal-agent theory inspired interventions like monitoring, transparency and sanctions may have a big impact in contexts where corruption is relatively isolated, but in other contexts could backfire by increasing public perceptions that corruption is pervasive, risking inducing a sense of ‘corruption fatigue’ among potential challengers and reformers.
Collective action problems are sometimes deliberately crafted, and maintained to undermine the effectiveness of institutions meant to challenge corruption.
Effective anti-corruption initiatives need to recognise and engage with the real political dynamics that underpin corruption, as well as to address the perception that corruption is ‘normal’, when it exists.
Understanding the functions that corruption performs for those who engage in it, and trying to provide alternative solutions, are likely to be important first steps for any effective anticorruption intervention.
Coordinated action, such as that provided by a reform coalition, will be important in addressing corruption, so it may be helpful to consider how such a coalition might arise: the most pressing collective action problem may be not corruption itself, but the formation of a strong coalition that can coordinate efforts to tackle it.
Often, well-intentioned laws are poorly enforced and institutions lack the ‘teeth’ to make anti-corruption efforts truly effective. Civil society and media are essential in applying pressure and keeping governments honest and accountable.
A free press may be a powerful control on corruption. One finds evidence of a significant relationship between more press freedom and less corruption in a large cross-section of countries. This result is robust to specification and sample and the relationship is not sensitive to the choice of a particular measure of corruption or of press freedom. Furthermore evidence is presented which suggests that the direction of causation runs from higher press freedom to lower corruption.
Corruption interferes with and distorts the political and implementation processes, often to the disadvantage of the already disadvantaged. Yet understanding of the factors that might propel a political system from lower to higher levels of probity (or vice versa) remains speculative at best.
Specifically, freedom of association, including the ability of people to form groups and influence public policy, is vital to anti-corruption. CSOs play a key role in denouncing violations of rights or speaking out against breaches of law.
Similarly, a free and independent media serves an important function in investigating and reporting incidences of corruption. The voices of both civil society and journalists put a spotlight on bad actors and can help trigger action by law enforcement and the court system.
To further examine these relationships, TI explored how four leading measurements of press freedom and civil society space relate to the index of public sector corruption. In doing so, the TI found evidence to suggest that those countries that respect press freedom, encourage open dialogue, and allow for full participation of CSOs in the public arena tend to be more successful at controlling corruption. Conversely, countries that repress journalists, restrict civil liberties and seek to stifle civil society organisations typically score lower on the CPI.
The relationship between press freedom and corruption is further underlined by data provided by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which documents cases where journalists are killed while reporting on a story.
Since 2012, 368 journalists died while pursing stories and 96 per cent of those deaths were in countries with corrupt public sectors, ie where CPI scores are below 45. Moreover, one in five journalists killed worldwide were investigating corruption-related stories.
Some countries with relatively good CPI scores continue to impose crippling restrictions on the media and civil society groups. Such countries are, however, outliers. The overwhelming body of evidence from both academia and the frontline indicates that the protection of journalistic and civil freedoms is a prerequisite for any long-term reduction in a country’s level of corruption.
The relationship between civil liberties and corruption cuts both ways. Academic research points to a vicious cycle, where widespread corruption chips away at remaining civic space and targets groups that pose a challenge to authority. At the same time, the inability of citizens to hold their governments accountable contributes to even greater abuse.
Experience of working with more than 100 chapters around the world shows that CSOs, grassroots movements and journalists are vital for improving the quality of governance. However, respect for civil liberties, such as freedom of expression and association, is only one component of an effective anti-corruption agenda. These elements prove all the more powerful when combined with genuine political will on the part of governments to tackle problems at their root.