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Five ways politicians sabotage anti-corruption agencies

The UN Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), ratified in 2005, endorsed the post-colonial idea of independent anti-corruption agencies as a best practice to fight graft at the country level. Today, around 60 countries have at least one independent anti-corruption agency. And the results? Dismal sums it up.

A World Bank progress report published last year said (with my emphasis) that most independent anti-corruption agencies “have fallen short of achieving the organizational standards set by UNCAC . . . and in many cases have not had any significant impact on the trends, types and levels of corruption in their jurisdictions.”

Prof (Emeritus) Michael Johnston, who writes about independent anti-corruption agencies, said clear-cut success stories (other than from Singapore and Hong Kong) have been scarce. And Singapore-based Prof Jon S.T. Quah, now retired, who compiled data about the attributes and treatment of independent anti-corruption agencies in Asia for 50 years, refers to the predictable “cycle of failure.”


The UN Convention Against Corruption at Chapter II, Article 6 requires member states (now 181 in all) to ensure the existence of “a body or bodies” that prevent corruption by granting them the necessary independence and resources they need to carry out their functions effectively and free from any undue influence.

That sounds like a winning formula. So, why do independent anti-corruption agencies almost always fail? Because politicians sabotage them. (Scholars more politely blame “lack of political will,” and I admire their restraint.)

Here are five ways the sabotage happens.

1. Politicians put independent anti-corruption agencies on starvation budgets. Instead of providing independent anti-corruption agencies or ACAs with “necessary material resources,” as UNCAC requires, politicians routinely under-fund them. Under-funded agencies can’t hire or retain the people they need. Prof Quah found a high percentage of job vacancies in ACAs in some of Asia’s most corrupt countries — 24 percent in Bangladesh, 45 percent in the Philippines, and 56 percent in Sri Lanka. Politicians sometimes starve ACAs quickly with huge budget shortfalls, and other times with smaller but chronic shortfalls, producing the same debilitating results over time.

2. Politicians create multiple independent anti-corruption agencies. UNCAC opened the door to the idea of multiple ACAs (“a body or bodies”) and politicians walked through it. For example, Prof Quah found that the Philippines (one of Asia’s worst-trending performers since 2012 on the Corruption Perceptions Index) established 21 independent anti-corruption agencies during the past 71 years and currently has five. He said the result is duplication, layering, turf wars, passing the buck, competition for money and personnel, and lack of coordination.

3. Politicians let independent anti-corruption agencies and police fight it out. National and local police forces were around long before independent anti-corruption agencies. Naturally, there are rivalries and jealousies between the old and new guards. Sometimes police refuse to cooperate with ACAs by not sharing evidence or leads. More rarely, police try to cripple agencies because the police are themselves corrupt. Prof Quah cites “constant conflict between Indonesia’s Komisi Pemberantasan Korupsi (KPK or Corruption Eradication Commission) and the police.” He says (with Asian tact), “It would be difficult for the ACAs in Asia Pacific countries to minimize corruption unless their governments initiate appropriate reforms to reduce the incentives and opportunities for corruption in their police forces too.”

4. Politicians accuse independent anti-corruption agencies of being ineffective. It’s common to hear attacks on ACAs for failing to produce an adequate “rate of return.” This complaint is usually specious. It’s impossible to measure corruption, especially corruption that doesn’t happen, so it’s likewise impossible to measure how much money independent anti-corruption agencies potentially save by deterring the theft of public funds.

5. Politicians politicize independent anti-corruption agencies. ACAs that become “attack dogs” against the government’s political opponents are ineffective, Prof Quah found. “The reliance on the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in Pakistan and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) in China against political opponents of the ruling regimes has undermined the effectiveness of both ACAs,” he said. Politicians can also politicize independent anti-corruption agencies simply by accusing them of being political — alleging, for example, that an ACA is acting on behalf of opposing political forces or carrying out a vendetta of its own. Those accusations can undermine public trust in independent anti-corruption agencies even when there’s no evidence behind the charges.


A final caveat. Anyone trying to assess the performance of independent anti-corruption agencies encounters two significant obstacles — lack of hard data about before-and-after corruption levels and lack of candor from politicians.

Prof Johnston describes those obstacles this way: “Given the difficulties in measuring corruption, any such judgment [about anti-corruption efforts] is impressionistic: most corrupt activities are clandestine and go unreported because they lack an immediate victim, while those in the know often share an interest in secrecy.”

But even without hard data about corruption or admissions from politicians, the dismal record of most independent anti-corruption agencies speaks for itself.

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