Find a cure

The recipes on this site, inspired by a handful of successes on the ground, are not meant to replace the vast arsenal of anti-corruption tools that technical assistants carry in their pockets;1 rather, they are meant to warn against relying on the wrong instruments in the wrong environments. An anti-corruption agency might work in an already-democratic Australia with its tradition of an independent judiciary, but the same will definitely not indict or arrest anybody who is a “somebody” in the former Soviet Union. Surely, there must be governments to address the problem of corruption in good faith, but, wherever we find them, it means that particularism was not such a problem in the first place. The cooperation of governments is ideal if one can get it, but particularism cannot be fought by relying on governments. There are no win-win anti-corruption campaigns.

Somebody stands to lose, and, in the societies we are the most concerned with, those who stand to lose are at the top of the society. The fight against particularism in such societies is simply and intrinsically a part of the greater modernisation and democratisation process. It may at times look like a civil war, but as the history of democracy shows us, civil wars are sometimes needed to advance the cause of accountable government.


Particularism is a vicious circle, a state of equilibrium. The first step in exiting this vicious circle is to organise the losers against the status groups and the predatory elites: in other words, to build an insurrectional army. This should not only be an alliance of idealists, but of groups who stand to lose the most by the persistence of corruption. It must necessarily contain a civil society that is politically engaged, although non-partisan, and broadly based. If religious institutions and unions join NGOs and the independent media, even if this is not the entire media, quite an effective alliance may result. At least one political party should be lured into cooperation, as this would create incentives for the other parties to compete in proving who is cleaner. If democrats and civil society activists fail to embrace this cause, non-democrats will do so, from right-wing populists to Islamist movements.


The second logical step is to set the norms. The coalition should agree upon some minimal criteria for fair government and integrity in public life and lay them out as a full political program. These criteria have to be negotiated and widely debated across parties and with the government. Top public servants and politicians should be monitored by these criteria and the results should be made public. If one or more political parties adopts the criteria themselves and promises to screen their members to match the criteria set forth, an important step forward will have been made and they should be given credit for their efforts.


The third step, and here international assistance is crucial, is to push for the adoption of some institutional weapons that an anti-corruption coalition or isolated anti-corruption entrepreneurs can use. This step cannot be implemented without the cooperation of the government, but the adoption by the government of such acts without a real effort of implementation or independent monitoring, is equally dangerous – too many Freedom of Information Acts were adopted but not enforced in recent years. The typical “institutional weapons” are freedom of information acts, but there are other regulations, such as the compulsory disclosure of wealth for politicians, civil servants, and magistrates.


Lastly, the fourth step is to create incentives to go clean. This is accomplished by public monitoring and disclosure. Using the institutional weapons at hand, the “army” should try to unseat the status groups in politics and/or the professions by waging disclosure campaigns and trying to end their monopoly of influence. In situations where most people are happy with existing arrangements and do not feel they personally stand to lose anything, you simply cannot fight particularism. Such systems are best attacked during economic crises or other forms of societal shocks. Nothing can or should be done where evidence exists that people are complacent with unfair government. Disclosure campaigns work best when combined with electoral campaigns or any other circumstances where a form of market exists and so incentives can be maximised. In any event, civil society provides for both more effective auditing and credible ombudsmanship than public institutions and it should be supported financially so it can carry out such roles until the state becomes mature enough to take over.

1 This review is based on three very recent evaluations, including both success stories and failures: Bertram I. Spector, ed., Fighting Corruption in Developing Countries: Strategies and Analysis (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2005); Martin Tisne & Daniel Smilov, From the Ground Up: Assessing the Record of Anticorruption Assistance in Southeast Europe (Central European University Press, Budapest, 2004); Romanian Coalition for a Clean Parliament 2005: A Quest for Political Integrity (Iasi: Polirom, 2005).

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