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Andy Spalding on Bhutan: An anti-corruption movement like no other

Bhutan — the tiny Himalayan kingdom nestled between China and India — now writes an anti-corruption story unlike any I have seen, and in the best of ways. 

Deliberately isolated from the outside world and its geopolitical machinations, Bhutan has declined to establish diplomatic relations with the United States, China, and Russia alike. Rather, it freely and selectively adapts global best practices to its absolutely unique cultural context: a truly Buddhist country that coined the phrase, “gross national happiness” and takes the concept quite seriously. 

If you ever have the chance to go, as I did last week, you’ll see what I mean.

They now believe that anti-corruption measures can advance their happiness. Its new constitution created an anti-corruption commission, and the country’s only law school, which opened for classes just this month, has a mandatory anti-corruption course. But they are forging their own path, and in so doing tacitly take exception to core features of the global anti-corruption movement.

I can think of three assumptions that Bhutan proudly challenges:
1. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton’s famous dictum captures a premise of modern liberal democracy generally and anti-corruption law specifically: concentrated power breeds corruption. Not so in Bhutan, whose hereditary kings are universally adored for their integrity and compassion.

I know, this sounds so very hard to believe. But even the most seasoned, been-around-the-block, nobody’s-fool civic leaders believe that Bhutan’s kings largely exercised power for the public good and essentially free of corruption. They adopt anti-corruption reforms not because the king is rotten; there is no evidence to believe he is, save our own cynicism. Rather, Bhutan adopts anti-corruption reforms for an entirely different reason, one which tacitly rejects a second assumption.

2. Democracy tends to curb corruption. Starting in the 1950s, the monarchy gradually decentralized authority, first with a series of councils and ultimately with the country’s first parliamentary elections in 2008. It did so not to bow to internal or external political pressure, but to enable the country’s organic political development. With decentralization, corruption problems arose. 

What is Bhutan’s takeaway? Democracy increases, not decreases, the risk of corruption. Bhutan thus stands Lord Acton on his head. “Power tends to corrupt, and broadly distributed power corrupts broadly.” (I’m still trying to find the best way to put it.)

3.  Anti-corruption commissions are typically adopted in response to existing, endemic corruption. Hong Kong and Singapore are the best-known examples. But Bhutan created its ACC in 2008 not because corruption was already rampant, but because the Bhutanese were afraid democracy would make it so. Bhutan’s ACC was preventative, not remedial.

*     *     *

Bhutan will add a new and different chapter to the anti-corruption story. A novel, challenging, and uplifting anti-corruption movement may well prove among its greatest exports. Watch this space.


Andy Spalding is a lecturer at the International Anti-Corruption Academy, Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, and Senior Editor of the FCPA Blog.

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1 Comment

  1. Andy Spalding's article on Bhutan's approach to anti-corruption is excellent and insightful reminder that vigilance and commitment need to be instilled in society at all levels. It is also a good reminder than corruption happens in authoritarian as well as so-called western democratic societies since "power" also exists and resides in those societies too. One can find countless examples of this in government as well as private sectors and their intersection. The three principles articulation makes this especially helpful to apply the lessons. Bhutan continues to lead in biodiversity, climate change, zero/negative carbon, GNH and now anti-corruption. The world should learn from this Buddhist nation and its enlightened parliamentary monarchy. Its two huge authoritarian and democratic neighbors should take notice, both of which are not shining lights in the anti-corruption area. Thanks for sharing this excellent article

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