Why Corruption and the UNCAC Matters

2 April 2015, by Keith Henderson.

DFID recently released a very good synthesis-oriented report entitled Corruption matters: understanding causes, effects and how to address them. It’s stated goal was to survey the empirical research global corruption landscape related to these issues. The report is worth reading and thinking about for sure and it is certainly an excellent fresh research reference tool that can be used for multiple purposes. However, the report’s general findings should be read and used with an important cautionary note.

Not unlike the 2014 OECD Foreign Bribery Report, which I blogged about a few weeks ago, this report does not really venture down some of the key interconnected roads in the complex, multi-layered rolling terrain related to corruption. This is in part because there is no one or right way to define or categorize corruption research per se. Further, because the report’s headline messages are of a similarly globalized generalized nature, it is important to keep in mind that some of these messages are more relevant to the developed rather than the developing world — where state capture and human rights abuses most often raise their ugly double-sided heads.

For me, both reports also serve to illustrate that while empirical research is very important it does not contain all of the final answers in a multidisciplinary field of global study and practice. Evaluating the causes and impacts of corruption and writing a prescription for a global illness is not solely a task all-knowing empirical researchers. Rather it one where research methodologies and prescriptions must also be guided by applied research, logic and real world experience of multiple stakeholders, including civil society.

Headline messages

Indeed, a number of the report’s 15 “headline messages” may or may not surprise or puzzle many. They all deserve external debate, deeper analysis and understanding, some more than others, but that is for another day. But I would note for the here and now that some of these global headline messages, without further elaboration or qualification, may be too generally stated or not be that relevant within different development and country contexts. So one should be very circumspect as to how these messages are interpreted and utilized by both experts and layman alike.

Examples of such headline messages and sub-messages in the DFID Report include:

  • women in politics are not a magic bullet against corruption
  • the relationship between corruption and fragility remains unsettled
  • the effect of corruption on economic growth remains open to question
  • democracy does not in an of itself solve corruption
  • multilateral anti-corruption initiatives are under-researched and thus far have not paid sufficient attention to context
  • the evidence on the effect of community monitoring on anti-corruption is contested.

Report’s research gaps/definitions

The unacknowledged research the report is missing is perhaps what most deserves everyone’s initial attention. I know when I saw the report’s title, and then its Index, I expected to see a wider range of topics covered — including research related to Corruption’s co-joined twin sister — the Rule of Law.

As everyone knows, important corruption oriented research exists out there under many faces — such as the rule of law, good governance and transparency and accountability, as different stakeholders and researchers use different names for various substantive, political and strategic reasons. While I find it extremely difficult to separate rule of law issues and research from rule of law, governance, transparency or accountability issues and research, I would include those categories in any report that purports to ask the question “what anti-corruption measures are likely to be effective and under what conditions”. If I did not I would at least clearly state what realms of corruption related research the report covers and what it doesn’t, even if other corruption research is not categorized as such. Surely most would acknowledge that promoting the rule of law is one of the most effective ways to address and prevent corruption, even if that is necessarily a long-term proposition in many countries.

“No UNCAC specific related research” – Really?

It is also worth noting that the report states that there are no relevant studies on whether UNCAC membership impacts corruption or anti-corruption, so no headline messages related to the impact of the UNCAC are possible. Well, we all know that much of the research surveyed in this and other reports, like the OECD Foreign Bribery Report, either directly or indirectly relates to many of the UNCAC’s mandates, policies and good governance reform provisions. Indeed, many of the reform-oriented corruption-oriented laws, institutions and issues examined in this report (and many other reports) were passed or being implemented in direct response to UNCAC membership and civil society pressure. Indeed, they are embedded within UNCAC.

Global lessons learned? Hopefully, future research reports like DFID’s and OECD’s will make it clearer what their research and general findings cover and what these findings may or may not mean within different country and stakeholder contexts. We’ve all learned the hard way that all kinds of data and information, including empirical data, can be easily and sometimes intentionally misrepresented and that it all needs to be analyzed within specific holistic context.

And hopefully, future researchers and others will find using the UNCAC global framework as a much more useful tool for various purposes, such as multi-disciplinary research. The more all of us advance this notion the more likely it is that many dimensions of the UNCAC will become appreciated by all stakeholders, including donors, businesses and rule of law and Rights activists.