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Joseph Pozsgai-Alvarez: Telling corrupt actors to be less corrupt doesn’t help anyone

Almost by necessity, most articles, reports and academic papers discussing the topic of corruption start by establishing that corruption is morally wrong and economically/politically detrimental. The point, beyond providing the reader with the basic information required to venture through the rest of the text, has become a sort of ritual with little more meaning than to ascertain the pertinence of the topic. 

A similar — but much more problematic — ritual can usually be found by the end of those works, where the author is required to provide recommendations and guidance to the work of those charged with reducing corruption in real-life settings.

While it is a matter of common sense that these recommendations be aimed at decision-makers, the fact that they are more precisely directed at the work of high-level actors of the state apparatus seems to run contrary to their purpose, which is the adoption and implementation of new or improved policies and the consequent reduction of corruption.

Let me explain why.

Take a consultancy report commissioned by a private company interested in implementing an ethics management program. Aware of the legal risks of non-compliance with anti-corruption regulations, senior management takes an active role as the interested ‘principal’ behind the adoption of technical recommendations. Thus, the consultant’s audience is both clearly identified as well as highly motivated, making the whole process of policy-recommendation production, transmission, and adoption a rather straightforward one. Information, audience, interests and reformers are all well-identified and on the same page.

The same does not apply to matters of public anti-corruption reform.

Take the issue of conflict-of-interests among members of the U.S. Congress, or that of judicial reform. Both are highly important and extremely common areas on which policy recommendations can be found to dwell at large — and yet, those same recommendations tend to be invariably devised in a way which makes them fall victim to circular logic and become utterly meaningless.

I will show this with an example from Salihu and Gholami’s 2018 paper “Corruption in the Nigerian judicial system: an overview,” but which equally applies to almost any other article and paper on the topic. There, the authors posit that “[c]orruption [h]as affected completely the professionalism and integrity of the judicial system,” and that “other arms of government still have great influence on the court decisions.” Based on the two statements, any sensible reader would correctly conclude that corruption in that country is a pervasive issue throughout the state apparatus.

Yet, when we reach the final section of Recommendations, it is almost impossible to not be baffled by the piece of advice provided there: “The institution of the judiciary needs to be completely free from any form of influence;” and “judges should rise up to the task to ensure that the judicial independence entrusted in their hands is not traded for money and gifts.” How exactly are these changes expected to take place?

Such recommendations, regardless of being well-spirited, cannot be realistically called recommendations at all but rather a general call for ethical behavior, as they don’t state either steps nor methods to accomplish the goal. Most importantly, however, they are inherently public policy recommendations, as they are only directed towards the decision-making process of public actors, which creates the circular logic I mentioned above (and which I have discussed (pdf) at length in “A Systems Model on Corruption and Anticorruption Reform”): We cannot establish that a specific sector is affected by pervasive corruption and then recommend its operators to adopt effective anti-corruption policies. That’s not how corruption works. Corruption is endogenous to the system, not exogenous, and thus it is highly unlikely for embedded actors to adopt measures against it without being subjected first to a new incentive structure imposed from outside the system.

Thus, recommendations of this kind make the mistake of requesting corrupted actors to tackle their own corruption.

To correct this pervasive problem in the anti-corruption literature (including assessment reports) I posit that authors should think of public policy reform as goals, and devise appropriate recommendations in the form of strategies, using a variety of interest groups (e.g. organized civil society, private sector, international actors, opposition parties, independent/autonomous agencies) as target audience and agents for their subsequent execution. This approach would significantly correct inherent errors in the formulation of anti-corruption policy recommendations and align the production of knowledge with its social purpose.

Michael Johnston has touched on the same point before in another post for the FCPA Blog, “Relying on ‘political will’ to fight corruption is magical thinking.” Crucially, he says: “Reform scenarios dependent upon political will amount to claiming ‘these ideas will work if someone makes them work’ — wishful, and circular, thinking at best.” In the argument I presented above, political will of the sort he criticizes is manifest in the implicit audience and requirements of the traditional recommendations abundant in anti-corruption work.

It is high time authors stopped framing their ideas for reform in terms of magical thinking and began taking as much care in the way they construct recommendations (if they choose to offer them at all) as they do in pointing out the issues. Yes, corruption is a serious problem, and it affects this and that organization — but the solution definitely will not follow from recommending they become more transparent, accountable, or independent. Those changes need to be produced, not required.


Joseph Pozsgai-Alvarez, pictured above, is Program-Specific Assistant Professor at the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Kyoto University in Japan. He has served as external consultant to the Office of the Prime Minister of Peru on matters of ethics, transparency, and access to information, and is currently engaged in the development of the Daily Corruption: News Feed & Database project with NGOs in Latin America and Africa. His topics of research include corruption tolerance, the politics of anti-corruption, and integrity management. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Tsukuba. He can be contacted here.

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  1. The solution is to treat the problem as motivation and motivational origins. A corrupt person chooses to be corrupt and is motivated to be so. If you cannot remove, redirect or transfer or transform the motivatonal source, you cannot solve the problem. Socety is in direct conflict with both genelogical and surviveological motives mankind has nutured forever.

    Corruption is a 'natural' behavior.

  2. This note is excellent and hits at the heart of the matter. I am constantly surprised how senior executives and Board members ignore the reality of internal corruption in the organisations they have chosen/accepted to govern. Regardless of evidence, 'that doesn't happen in 'my' organisation is a consistent answer. Given the evidence (even if you think that the cases are isolated and 'one-off'), to become less corrupt we recommend that 'you' need to do the following…
    While the degree of corruption accepted is a choice, choosing zero corruption is an aspiration and expecting existing participants to wake up in the morning and stop is Valhalla.

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