Corruption musings

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I have been involved in many different sorts of anti-corruption efforts since 1985. First, as an oil industry executive for Shell in West Africa and in China, then leading a civil society programme tackling military and security corruption with Transparency International, then as an International Commissioner on anti-corruption in Afghanistan; and now as the co- founder of a large website on practical ways for reform-minded individuals to tackle corruption.

My personal involvement almost parallels the timeline of the modern anti-corruption movement. That started with the US Financial Corrupt Practices Act of 1978/1986, the founding of Transparency International in 1993, the conversion of the World Bank to the importance of corruption in 1996, the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention in 1999, the UN Convention Against Corruption in 2003, and onwards from there with a multiplicity of new laws, new international initiatives and the professionalisation of compliance.

So, what have I learnt regarding corruption? Corruption really does matter…it destroys lives, it impoverishes people, it inhibits wealth-generation and hurts law-abiding communities. It is an evil that is rejected by all the faiths of the world. Yet not only does it persist, but it has been tolerated by too many communities for too long. Corruption is not ‘just’ a development issue. It is as bad in developed countries, just different. We saw this  when Iceland, a supposedly super-clean country, collapsed in the financial crisis of 2008 as the corrupt links between the members of the Icelandic elite led to the whole economy shattering. We see it today in the design of corrupt structures and the laundering of the benefits of corruption in global; hubs like London.

At a personal level, it matters to me – I am emotionally upset by the injustice of corruption, to individuals, to communities and to societies. At the same time, I am gratified to find that this is a subject where my particular mix of knowledge and experience seems to be useful in making sense of a complex phenomenon.

What to do and where to start – my perspective

After many years of thinking about this – and, sadly, growing older – I think the best place to start about corruption is with the components of my own ‘mental model’. I make no claim that these form a coherent whole, nor that they could be the ‘only truth’. But, as much change management research has shown, we each carry deeply held assumptions about how we think the world works, which operate almost below the level of logical argument. So, rather than ‘explain’ the rationale of what I think, here are what I think of as the ten core elements. You can see the thinking behind each assertion by clicking on the + button.

1. Corruption is one form of abuse of power, and is therefore fundamentally about injustice

2. Corruption needs to be disaggregated for reforms to be effective. I believe that Sectors should be the first level of disaggregation, and the specific types of abuse within the sector should be the second level

3. There have been enough success stories around the world for us to be confident that corruption can be reduced to the level of an exception rather than the norm

4. Most people who are engaged in corruption are caught up in systems that are not of their making. Many, if not most of them are ready to implement anti-corruption measures

5. Reform actions at the whole-of-government level are important, but they carry a high risk of failure. They are also insufficient

6. All reforms, whether successful or not, will be accompanied by an unchanging, continuing level of anger and complaint about ongoing corruption

7. Sector-specific corruption reform - eg in health, or education, or agriculture - has been underemphasised over the last 25 years. Each sector needs sector-specific expertise, advocacy and monitoring, which is largely lacking today

8. We need to give more agency and support to the people who have to own the change - usually senior Ministry officials, Ministers and companies in the sector

9. Stop 'admiring the problem' of corruption. Put the majority of effort into fixing it and into analysing what seems to work

10. Anti-corruption strategies - whether sectoral, national, sub-national or international - are still in a very early stage of evolution.

Lessons from working in Afghanistan

From 2015 through 2017, I was one of three International Committee Members on the Afghanistan independent Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee. Established by the President of Afghanistan, the Committee – known as the ‘MEC’ – comprises 6 people, three well-respected Afghans and three internationally known anti-corruption experts, supported by a supporting secretariat of 25 professionals in Kabul. They monitor what is going right and wrong in anti-corruption efforts in the country, carry out detailed analyses of the corruption issues, and press for change. More detail on MEC can be found here.

Here are the things that I learned:

  1. World class solutions can come out of tough places like Afghanistan

  2. Corruption is very different from one sector to another

  3. International sector-specific knowledge on corruption reform is awful

  4. Huge hunger among officials for sharing positive impact

  5. Immense scope for better independent monitoring

  6. Reformist ministers really need help on reform strategy

Lessons from working with military & police forces

From 2004 to 2015, I founded and then led the global Defence and Security programme at the NGO Transparency International. This large, ground-breaking programme works on tackling the ways that corruption undermines security and military forces in countries. I led the team’s fieldwork in over 30 countries, including Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Burundi, Colombia, Georgia, Kenya, Latvia, Lebanon, Norway, Palestine, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, UK and the USA. This work was instrumental in shaping the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (2013), influencing NATO policy and operations in respect of counter-corruption, shaping the military doctrine of several countries, and in policy forums such as the Munich Security Conference.

Here is what I learned:

1. Military officers can be in a deeply corrupt system but still keen for reform

2. Defence is impenetrable unless you can speak the jargon and have a credible colleague

3. Pride is a powerful motivator of reform

4. National quantitative comparisons are immensely powerful

5. Corruption inside police forces is a massive issue, remarkably little explored

Lessons from working at global oil company Shell

From 1985 to 2003, I was a senior executive at Shell International. In those 18 years, I did 6 jobs: Manager of an internal Shell consultancy, Manager of Shell’s investor relations with the City of London, Chief Financial Officer of Shell International in Gabon (West Africa), Chief Financial Officer for Shell in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea, Programme Director for reform of Shell Products across Europe and Chief Financial Officer for Shell’s global IT operations.

Shell prides itself on its business principles, including non-involvement in corruption, and I was on the ‘front line’ of this issue in most of these jobs. Here’s what I learned in relation to corruption:

  1. Large corporations really can deeply support a guiding value

  2. But conflicts still need fighting over, one by one

  3. And parts of the company can remain non-compliant

  4. The desire to 'belong' is so powerful, so sometimes scrutiny would go only to a certain depth



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