Connecting Agents of Change in Brasilia

Thinking through anti-corruption

The Lab was selected as a “Game Changer” at the recent, and brilliant, International Anti-Corruption Conference in Brazil organized by Transparency International and the Government of Brazil, and supported by the Instituto Ethos among others. The meeting brought together thousands of anti-corruption campaigners from the public sector, business and civil society from all over the world. It also tied in with the excellent Global Youth Anti-Corruption Forum, which we wrote about here. A few initial thoughts on key points coming out of the meeting:

i) We’ve reached critical mass on the anti-corruption agenda. There are hundreds of organizations that did not exist 20 or even 10 years ago working on these issues. A plethora of coalitions are coming together to address aspects of the problems (from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative or Open Government Partnership at the international level, to civil society coalitions at the national level). All of this is being facilitated by technology. Citizens are realizing the difference they can make when they come together- online and off- to generate positive change.

ii) But progress may be limited. We are talking about corruption, accountability and transparency a lot more, but it is still unclear what change this is generating. Citizens are more engaged, but two-thirds of Europeans still feel that corruption is a serious problem, for example. We have made gains in fighting small or petty corruption, and high-level government crimes and corporate misconduct are occasionally punished. But especially in the most difficult places, the structures of endemic corruption still exist, largely untouched. The challenge is, of course, to turn official pledges into action, and rhetoric on the problems into real solutions.

iii) Part of the problem is confused and interchangeable terminology. There have been some valiant efforts to differentiate between ideas like corruption, accountability, integrity and transparency. In practice, however, the terms are used interchangeably even by experts and even though they can mean very different things. We also seem unsure of the causality and sequencing of these ideas- is corruption a symptom of a lack of accountability or a cause (we heard both in Brasilia)? This doesn’t help us when trying to understand the dynamics that underpin these problems; identify the drivers that perpetuate them; or solutions that might address them.

iv) Where we are making progress, this is often in spite of and not because of the bureaucratization of efforts. We are very good at setting up commissions, building coalitions and writing laws that seek to curb corruption- and these can be important tools. But the issue is- as is the case in a number of the countries in which the Lab works- when the systems themselves are partial, unequal and not oriented towards the public good. State capture of this sort- by a group, collection of groups or individuals- leads to ‘legalized’ corruption, which is very difficult to fight. Refer again to point ii) above.

v) Finally, we are not very good at accepting failure. The conference highlighted lots of examples of approaches that work, and of “stories” of success. These are always great to hear and can provide important insights and ideas. Given the often intangible nature of this work, they also serve to some degree as a way for anti-corruption and accountability campaigners to measure what they are doing. But we may also need to get better at highlighting failure and studying approaches that have not worked. Thinking is slowly changing on this (see the great Failfaire in Washington, DC tonight) but failure is still not fully understood as a learning tool.

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About Accountability Lab

Making power-holders accountable in the developing world

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