Rich and poor: Different dynamics, different problems for the UNCAC

2 October 2015, by Adam Graycar, Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia.

As the UNCAC review process is expected in the next year or two to start to focus on preventive measures (Chapter 2 of the UNCAC), it is more important than ever to emphasise that corruption takes different forms in different contexts.

Rich and poor countries alike face corruption, but the dynamics are different, the effects are diverse and significantly our responses should be appropriate. What works in one setting may be irrelevant or unworkable in another.

Corruption morphs and adapts according to its environment. At a basic level, however, corruption interferes either in the creation of public policy or in its implementation.

In recent years, corruption in the implementation of policy has been the focus of much work, including that of the UNCAC. This makes sense, as in many poorer countries, where local administrative governance may be less well developed and incentives and opportunities for petty corruption may be higher, corruption can have a profound impact on lives and communities, compromising health, education, water and other social services.

On the other hand, in richer countries where administrative systems have been historically more robust corruption affecting the implementation of policy is demonstrably rare. In a recent Australian survey, less than one per cent of the respondents reported ever having been asked for a bribe. Similar findings were also revealed in Norway, where respondents reported very little personal experience of corruption.

However, this does not mean that corruption does not exist. In both the Australian and Norwegian studies, there are perceptions that corruption was high and increasing: in the Australian study 43 per cent of respondents thought corruption was increasing. Perceptions of increasing corruption are therefore linked to awareness of corruption beyond the every-day, such as scandals revealed in the media, including those related to political corruption in the creation of policy.

The focus of the UNCAC has quite properly been on the public sector, and reducing the incentives and opportunities for corruption in the implementation of policy, while also putting in place punitive measures, ranging from the criminalisation of corruption, to cooperation in law enforcement and prosecution, and the recovery of assets.

The UNCAC includes some useful provisions that can be applied to both rich and poor countries, which aim at:

  • Reducing the inclination to engage in corruption: highlighting civil service hiring and retention practices, promotion and retirement processes, good governance and prevention of conflicts of interest.
  • Reducing the opportunity to engage in corruption: promoting system redesign, streamlining processes, reporting, and frameworks for internal and external supervision measures.
  • Removing excuses for corrupt behaviour: encouraging cultural change, a public service ethos, civil society and media scrutiny and citizen participation, and transparency in the declaration of assets to identify unexplained wealth.

These approaches are useful in contexts where governance systems need strengthening, but they are not sufficient in themselves. We need broader strategies related to the rule of law, proper management of public affairs and public property, integrity, transparency and accountability. Corruption prevention must focus on wider factors and must be integrated into public life, and not be seen as something that comes into play only after a problem has been identified.

The question is, can the UNCAC do this important work?

The more insidious forms of corruption are much more difficult to legislate for and much more difficult to capture in an international convention such as the UNCAC.

For example, in both rich and poor countries powerful interests game the system. They lobby, supply data, run information campaigns and assist in developing legislation, and they do so within the legal framework of functioning democracies.

Different patterns can be seen throughout the world, but in a climate where national politics screams for tax cuts, and public sector numbers are static or declining, where once a neutral civil service provided policy advice it is now being replaced by vested corporate interests. Couple this with inconsistent rules around election financing and we have a fraught situation in which it is very difficult to identify where information is coming from, and who is making decisions in the interests of whom.

The UNCAC Review Mechanism may not be able to deal with all these problems, but by focusing on transparency and opening up the functioning of the public sector to public scrutiny progress can be made.

It is this big picture – how the policy landscape is shaped – that is a cause for concern. If the UNCAC and the international community continue to address corruption in policy implementation at the expense of policy creation, not only do we risk placing an undue focus on the corruption problems in poorer countries, but we are in danger of missing the big picture where lobbying, revolving doors and powerful “experts” trade in influence and promote policy that may not be in the public interest.