New Approaches to Combating Corruption in the 21st Century

NOTE: I originally wrote this article, upon request, for the DFID-funded Global Integrity Anti-Corruption Evidence Program, part of Global Integrity, an independent Washington, D.C.-based non-profit organization, which addresses governance and corruption trends around the world. The article, as it appears here, has been slightly modified from my original version.

The College Admissions Bribery scam, which entangled roughly 50 people including college coaches and actresses like Lori Laughlin and Felicity Huffman, is the latest in a series of incidents, which reflect that we are no closer to effectively addressing the issue of corruption than we were a quarter century ago, despite a proliferation of programs, research efforts and policy interventions aimed at tackling it.

Many practices that lack integrity are labeled and formalized as acceptable. For instance, it is not corrupt to secure admission as a legacy student. But, it becomes corrupt for an influential parent to pay college coaches and university employees to get admission for her/his child, as we saw with the College Admissions Bribery scandal, which involves universities like Stanford, Yale, UCLA and the University of Southern California, or USC. This brings us to the context of understanding of what corruption is and how it is related to integrity.

Problems leading to the foregoing situation

There has been a tendency to move around in circles insofar as initiating anti-corruption efforts largely in response to specific scandals or scams. This suggests that corruption can best be thwarted by developing institutional configurations and/or modifying regulatory approaches without necessarily addressing the need to develop a holistic conceptual understanding of what integrity exactly means and how it is related to corruption. Secondly, an emphasis, among some political scientists, on the role of impartiality in the quality of governance does not adequately factor in how real-life ethical dilemmas can be resolved. In cases of ethical dilemmas, an individual’s discretion and choices reflect an accurate measure of whether he/she is acting with integrity. Thirdly, the notion that corrupt public officials respond to negative reinforcements, such as punishments, focuses solely on the role of incentives as a key driver of corruption, or lack thereof. Such an approach precludes efforts to better understand the behavioral and emotional factors that catalyze an individual’s motive(s) to engage in corrupt practices.

Proposed changes to existing anti-corruption approaches

Our first step towards breaking the cycle of sterile anti-corruption efforts to make progress with moving the needle involves understanding what corruption is, what motivates corrupt behaviors from the depths of the human psyche, and what permutations and combinations different forms of corruption thrive in. On a related note, a sophisticated understanding of the interrelationship between integrity and corruption can facilitate an effective model of integrity management. The second step we must take involves accepting that people are not “cost-benefit optimizers” who can be classically conditioned through incentives or a lack, thereof. Focusing on how we can change the social norms that precipitate their corrupt behaviors would be significantly more effective in designing policy interventions that can tangibly change those practices. The third thing we need to do is to look into the feasibility of reform measures. This means being realistic in our anti-corruption goals because corruption can never be completely eliminated; at best, it can be managed within parameters.

What we need to stop doing

We need to discontinue certain practices if we are to move forward in our anti-corruption agenda. The first of these is to stop talking about corruption at an abstract or generic level because this self-evident approach forestalls the differentiation of characteristics that distinguish some forms of corruption from others. Let us consider cases where the U.S. government has appropriated funds for congressmen (related to the approval for an infrastructure deal, for example) in exchange for their votes, have conferred certain public benefits by way of making the passing of laws more seamless. Yet, some of those cases have been labeled as the Pork Barrel and classified as corrupt. The point here is that branding every practice as corrupt does not perhaps do justice to an increasing need for a better conceptual understanding of corruption and how it exists in different forms, like Paul writers.  

The second tendency we ought to curb is that of almost exclusively focusing on corruption as a “bordered, bounded characteristic of individual nation states.” A case in point is that of Walmart, which set aside millions of dollars for a Foreign Corrupt Practices Act settlement on the heels of allegations that it had paid bribes to public officials in Mexico. Similar allegations were made concerning its activities in Brazil, India and China too. The notion of what an ethical practice is may vary from country to country. This accentuates the need for a transnational focus on measures and degrees of corruption. Such instances bear testimony to the existence of corruption as a cross-border problem. That means there is a need to address corruption across transnational networks. By the same token, we must not discount the importance of anti-corruption interventions that target specific urban settlements and sectors that are significant GDP contributors and prime drivers of the global economy, rather than looking predominantly at countries as a whole. Thirdly, it would be helpful to refrain from prescriptive, one-size-fits-all anti-corruption toolkits without taking much cognizance of how specific contexts shape the implementation of reform measures in countries that may see completely different outcomes, even if they face similar circumstances. 

Meanwhile, the FBI, or Federal Bureau of Investigation, has been investigating into the College Admissions Bribery scandal and is in the process of seizing a whopping $2.7 million from six people charged in this scam, including former USC and UCLA employees, according to documents unsealed in U.S. District Court in Massachusetts.

While developing different strategies that address different types of corruption, concerted international cooperation is essential to boost responses that are likely to succeed in managing corruption.

- This article also draws upon insights from Paul M. Heywood, Sir Francis Hill Professor of European Politics at the University of Nottingham, UK.