Monday, June 27, 2022

Innovations in fighting corruption

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The publication of this year’s Transparency International’s publication of Corruption Perception Index 2021 (25 January) has revealed that global movement against corruption has come to a standstill. This slackness has been observed since last decade or so but with the global pandemic the “long slow slug” has almost come to a halt. Corruption virus in tandem with coronavirus is eating up the economy of many countries.

Obviously, there are no short cuts or “quick silver bullets” to fighting corruption. The experiences of the US and also of many Scandinavian countries indicate that fighting corruption is a long drawn process, often taking ages without any guarantee of success. Moreover, there are no one-size-fits-all solutions to corruption problem. Definitely, they have to be contextualized.

More than 25 years have surpassed since the global movement against corruption got momentum. The “Cancer of Corruption” speech by the then president of the World Bank James Wolfensohn in October 1996 is taken as a milestone in global anti-corruption movement. Earlier, its dissenting staff member, Peter Eigen left the Bank to establish Transparency International – global civil society based anti-corruption agency based in Berlin, Germany.  

The global instrument to fight corruption--UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), floated in 2003 and endorsed in 2005--is increasingly found to be non-effectual even after ratification by as many as 189 countries of the world. The instrument has failed to address ever newer forms of corruption like money laundering, illicit financial flows, beneficial ownership and corporate tax havens.    

Where corruption is deeply entrenched as a social norm resulting in “pluralistic ignorance” people bribe not because they condone corruption but because they believe that other members of the society approves bribery.

With the global stagnancy in fight against corruption, there is now a debate on why and how we have come to this situation. Is it because we have set high aspirational goals like “zero tolerance with corruption” or creating “a corruption-free world”? Or we failed to conceptualize very meaning and definition of corruption including underlying theories? Or we have chosen a wrong method to fight corruption? We could be “fighting corruption for the sake of fighting corruption”. Did we fail to differentiate between forest (academics looking from above), trees and leaves (practitioners fighting corruption at the ground level)?

At a time when there is a setback in anticorruption movement, the World Bank, similar to the Cancer of Corruption speech in 1996, is making a watershed event. In December 2020, it called for papers from the professionals all over the world. The papers were expected to focus on detecting and measuring corruption and impacts of anti-corruption, using new data-driven approaches and access to open data, big data including the use of modern day technology like machine learning, artificial intelligence thereby contributing new knowledge to the policy makers and researchers engaged in the field of anti-corruption.

In October last year, a four day long symposium on Data Analytics for Anti-Corruption in Public Administration was organized where, out of received 60 papers, 23 were presented. The four-day recordings of the symposium are available on YouTube. The final papers will be published by the Cambridge University sometime in May this year. Based on recordings of the symposium, this write up seeks to highlight some fascinating stuffs presented in the symposium.

Going by the title and also from its contents, obviously, the first choice will be Fighting Corruption from Space: Practitioner’s Perspective by Swetha Kolluri from UNDP Accelerator Lab, India will probably stand out to be a unique innovation in the use of data science. Using data collected from GIS, satellite imageries, remote sensing and drones, four case studies related to fighting corruption in forestry, taxation, air pollution and mining were presented. This gives a feeling of reading science fiction in war against corruption.

Contrasting to this aerial view of corruption, Leena Hoffmann from Chatham House Africa Program presented the findings from the ground level surveys carried out in Nigeria. Where corruption is deeply entrenched as a social norm resulting in “pluralistic ignorance” people bribe not because they condone corruption but because they believe that other members of the society approves bribery. It is not just perception, expectation also matters in corruption.

It is too difficult to refrain from corrupt act when everyone believes everyone else is corrupt. Clearly, there is discrepancy between private opinion and the perceived opinion of the others. When corruption is a part of the social norm, there are no legal solutions. To understand corruption as a collective action problem, the survey questionnaires were administered in sectors like law enforcement (traffic police), health service (in-patient public hospitals) and education (primary schools).

My third choice of the topics will be mathematical model building to fight corruption in the procurement process. This is presented by a team of mathematicians from the Great Zimbabwe University. Though it is too difficult to understand the model for a non-mathematicians, the model assumes corruption, similar to the disease of coronavirus, R0 (infection rate) to be reduced. Remember, the rotten apple theory of corruption? A single rotten apple inside a crate, if not picked out in time rots the total lot. The team of researchers relied on computer simulation to understand the spread of corruption in public procurement.

My fourth vote goes to measuring corruption through the use of social network, presented by T. Diviak and N. Lord from the University of Manchester, UK. They define corruption to be intrinsically relational, particularly in grand corruptions and go on to draw corruption networks through the use of social network analysis. They say the usefulness of this method is to understand how corruption is being performed in real life.

Some other fascinating insights were presented in the symposium. These included controlling corruption inside the political parties, developing whistle-blower protection index, understanding state-capture and using machine learning to understand textual audit information to predict corruption in Colombia. David Szakonyi presented how information related to property and income disclosers in Russia can be used to fight corruption by political leaders. There were presentations of cases from the US on the use of Geographical Threshold Order (GTO) to control the flow of illicit money into real estate business. Similarly, data related to withdrawal of cash amounts from the local banks before elections also helps to understand political corruption.    

When corruption is a part of the social norm, there are no legal solutions.

Often the literature on corruption is abounded with the analysis of corruption impacts – economic, political, social, and cultural and others. The symposium also included the presentations on the impacts of anti-corruption. In China, it is estimated that President Xi Jinping’s massive anti-corruption drive has suppressed 1-2 percent economic growth rates. It is worrying fact to know that studies on impact of anti-corruption works in Nigeria (oil companies) and Cameroon (business firms) presents some disturbing pictures. There are some negative impacts of anti-corruption works.

Besides case presentations, the symposium also focused on fighting corruption in public procurement, transnational corruption, and use of open data, machine learning to detect corruption and maintaining digital integrity in anti-corruption drive. Ideas presented in the symposium are expected to provide a kind of wave or resurgence in the world where much of anti-corruption drive has recently receded.

Published on 17 February 2022

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