08 Feb 2011


What have been the main effects of corruption on efforts to establish or deepen democracy?

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi: While the last waves of democratization have produced an unprecedented number of democracies, few, if any, have evolved to a quality of governance comparable to that of older Western liberal ones. An international monitoring system of good governance has only been in place for fifteen years, although business analysts have been assessing the degree of corruption of a given country for much longer.

Since the World Bank has started monitoring the world governance indicators in 1996, very little significant progress has been registered globally, despite an unprecedented investment in good governance policies and a raise an awareness caused by NGOs like Transparency International.

One set of explanations refers to the quality of our indicators, time lagging and composite, not sensitive enough to capture incremental evolution. According to this argument, progress does exist, but we fail to notice it. Perhaps the evolution to good governance being such a lengthy and incremental historical process it is unapparent if studied from within such a short period of time as fifteen years.

However, individual success stories are also dramatically scarce in both World Bank Anticorruption in Transition and Transparency’s International reports. Sustainability is also a problem: frequent enough, last year’s successes prove to be this year’s failures.

The second type of explanation seems more substantial: both qualitative and quantitative measurements capture little evolution, despite the unprecedented attempt to create a global anticorruption framework, as well as national efforts to show good will and endorse international standards, because there is little to show.

The Global Corruption Barometer 2007 sponsored by Transparency International shows that the publics worldwide are skeptical that the fight against corruption will be won next year: in fact, most people expect that corruption will grow or stay the same. Maybe the unprecedented discussion of corruption raises the awareness too much, so the publics perceive more when in fact there is less? Or it may be – and that’s the third group of explanations, increasingly popular in the policy community) that the general strategy of transferring to developing countries the legal institutions of developed ones is at best insufficient to achieve progress? Either way, a more qualitative and historically respectful strategy is called for in order to understand what brings about good governance.

– How do different organizations combat corruption around the world? How successful have they been? What have been the greatest challenges?

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi: Since we have few success stories in general, our impact is also limited and difficult to measure. But it does exist – I work presently in a project of Open Society Institute to assess civil society impact, and in countries such as Latvia, Slovakia or Romania there is definitely impact.

Political patronage and state capture might still be high, but the reaction of civil society is equally high, it translates into mass mobilization, intensive campaigns and voluntary work, and the two together look sometimes like a civil war. But it is a good sign, as anticorruption is not a win-win game.

Democracies which have made headway against corruption from South Korea to Estonia, they all had important civil society and media activism. The question remains on what works on what not: too much of the work is on raising awareness, although awareness if big anyway (people know they are stolen), so this is not very productive.

Another major line is in assisting policy formulation, that’s what TI does, it leads to a professionalization and bureaucratization of civil society. Also I think there is a serious risk that civil society becomes too accommodative with the government if it only positions itself as a voluntary expert assisting government reform. Finally, there is real work, and from this area we collect best practices in order to have a toolbox and a website with resources for civil society: watchdog activity, monitoring, auditing, acting as Ombudsmen on behalf of the powerless, naming and shaming, campaigning against the corrupt and not against the general idea of corruption, those do the trick, particularly if they based on broad coalitions, including not only NGOs, but also unions, media, even the church or opposition political parties.

– How aware of corruption are people in your country or community? How does your organization raise awareness? What do you see as the most profound challenges?

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi: Traditional literature saw corruption as an indispensable part of democratization (for instance in the work of Sam Huntington). The problem is that a few countries evolved historically out of it, and most of them are still in this phase, I call it ‘competitive particularism’, as political pluralism exists, but the chief goal of political competition is state spoiling.

Corruption is therefore general and a main motivation to engage in political activity, patronage and clientelism are the rule of the game, so everyone is perfectly aware that the norm is not ethnical universalism; only gains and opportunities vary across people.

Anticorruption is not about letting people now, or changing their values, is about organizing and empowering a coalition of those who lose out of it against those who win. And this is difficult, because particularistic regimes are not closed regimes, social mobility exists and it is more rational for people to try to get into the group which is privileged than to challenge the rule of the game.

In other words, many new democracies stabilize at such a robust inefficient equilibrium, and pushing them out of it is a serious challenge and needs some serious incentive. Social acceptance of corruption in such regimes is mediocre, but often you do find very critical public opinion. Expectations from democratic rulers are high, so if they corrupt, and they often are, they are seen as spoilers and predators. As it becomes clear that free elections can bring about changes of government, but not changes that produce better governance, losers start pushing for a mechanism to hold rulers accountable.

This varies greatly with the degree of autonomy of individuals in a given society, but even in poor illiterate societies, people do not tolerate corruption among new leaders as they used to tolerate abuses by traditional rulers. But it is easier to copy the rulers than to fight them.

The unaccountable behavior of the political elites legitimates the non-abidance of the law by simple citizens, and the distance between formal institutions (rule of law) and informal ones (real practices) often grows in democratic transitions. So it is not a matter of just organizing a campaign to tell people corruption is bad and protestant values good –it is an enormously complicated game of playing incentives and disincentives for both elites and ordinary people to increase the social value of ethical universalism.

– To what extent can organizations work with governments to combat corruption in your country? What are the obstacles to greater cooperation?

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi: Once again, in regimes where corruption is systemic so that everyone is somehow involved – government and law enforcement agencies for sure – the utility of working with the government is dubious. Rather I would recommend working with political parties. Anticorruption is a favorite campaign theme. If parties are given credit for being cleaner than other parties they might have an electoral gain. This is a serious incentive we can play with.

Of course, you can also try to incentivize the public sector. For instance, I designed a questionnaire to evaluate integrity in education, resulting in a top of the most corrupted (equally of the most clean) higher education state institutions. As nobody wanted to be rated among the most corrupt, they were forced to cooperate. But the same instrument would have been completely inefficient had I just handed the questionnaire to them for self-evaluation, as I was asked by an international organization later. I am happy to give the methodology to anyone, but I must warn people that self-assessment loses a key ingredient of effectiveness, the public competition for integrity. Of course, such a campaign for clean universities also makes people highly aware of corruption in universities. But its chief goals are more ambitious: to raise the cost of corruption for a given university by this public exposure.

Corruption is rational behavior in weak institutional settings: our job is to make people pay more and earn less, and then they will change their behavior. Or, in other cases, to equalize access, because many people bribe in particularistic societies because they do not belong to the groups who enjoy a particular access. Flooding them in posters who ask them not to bribe would be plainly ridiculous: you first have to solve their access problem.

– To what extent have organizations exchanged ideas or strategies for combating corruption with those in other countries? Have approaches in other countries proved useful?

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi: As I am working at this toolbox for East Central Europe I hope I can put out some best practices out there and share them widely. But there have been exchanges and programs diffusing from one country to another, thanks to organizations like NED or Open Society Foundations. People are out there looking for solutions, and they find one another if they need to. I am always open to help anyone with the strategy part – where is the institutional key to change- but the chief effort is domestic: building grassroots coalitions like in any serious civil society work, and this is the business of domestic drivers of change, no one else can do this on your behalf.