Last week at the OpenGovHub- the Accountability Lab’s home- we listened to two heavyweights in the fight against corruption: Frank Vogl, Co-founder of both Transparency International and The Partnership for Transparency Fund; and Ronald MacLean-Abaroa, who pioneered bold and effective anti-corruption reforms as mayor of La Paz, Bolivia.
Vogl declared that we are currently “winning the war against corruption,” citing recent victories like the successful prosecution of high-level government officials for crimes of corruption in Brazil and France. However, he alluded to a persistent problem in the way corruption is addressed around the world: there is not adequate acknowledgement of the victims. The perpetrators of corruption are typically punished with monetary fines, which do little to account for the suffering that they inflict upon the weak and vulnerable people under their influence. There is a similar omission in the media. For example, in The New York Times’ lengthy article on the initiation and execution of large-scale bribes of Mexican government officials by Walmart, there is not one mention of how the lives of people in the associated Mexican communities are affected. Even the very methods used to measure corruption are usually based upon perception, rather than citizens’ actual experiences.
Discussions of corruption tend to focus on how it undermines political legitimacy, creates instability that increases the risk of violent conflict and deters foreign investment, and distorts economic behaviors (the World Bank has estimated that over US$1 trillion is paid in bribes each year). These are all important factors to consider, but where is the discussion, as Vogl points out, of corruption as a “crime against humanity?” Underlying the corruption we hear about is a lack of accountability by decision-makers and power-holders, which threatens the wellbeing of millions of people around the world. While we are all negatively impacted by corruption, it has a disproportionate and acute impact on the poor, as it perpetuates and widens inequalities, prevents the delivery of basic necessities, and denies opportunities for social mobility.
Maclean-Abaroa explained how poverty is not only a result, but also a motivating factor for corruption. The corruption found in developing countries is typically a product of “need rather than greed”. Therefore, the solution is to change the incentives of these power-holders and create pathways for the people to hold them accountable for their actions. Maclean-Abaroa indicated that it is problematic to think of corruption as a war, because such an approach suggests a top-down, almost authoritarian chain of command; instead, he advocates for a cooperative and inclusive approach to creating a system of accountability.
That is exactly where the Accountability Lab comes in. We are listening to the needs and concerns of those on the ground and helping them to develop sustainable accountability solutions. One such example is the Lab’s TELL-it-True project in Liberia, an anonymous SMS “suggestions box” through which all stakeholders on university campuses (students, professors and administrators) can report problems and share ideas for solving them, which are then addressed in periodic meetings among the groups. We aim to help those affected by a lack of accountability realize that they don’t have to accept an unjust status quo – they can refuse to be victims.