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How Should We Combat Corruption? Lessons from Theory and Practice

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 November 2017


Four recent books, taken together, offer a wealth of important insights on how we might effectively tackle corruption. All of the books’ authors agree that there is something akin to a universal understanding of what corruption is, and all dispute the idea that corruption may simply be in the eye of the beholder. However, there are also sharp disagreements—for example over whether corruption is best eliminated from the top down, or whether bottom-up approaches are more effective. If the books share one weakness, it is that they do not sufficiently emphasize the importance of getting people to believe and feel that they have fair opportunities for good lives, even after institutional and legal reforms are made. Tackling corruption involves taking seriously the substantive link between actual fair treatment and the belief that fair treatment prevails. This will require further research examining how to shift and update people’s deeply held sentiments.

Review Essay
Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2017 

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1 Elitza Katzarova, “The National Origin of the International Anti-Corruption Business,” Paper presented at the International Studies Association Annual Convention, Montreal, March 16–19, 2011.

2 The remaining thirteen steps, starting with step 2, are summarized as follows: (2) Once the leader takes office, she removes anyone tainted by the old corrupt practices and discharges any new appointees who try to maintain corrupt ways; (3) The executive and legislature strengthen legal barriers against corruption. An anti-corruption commission, headed by a tough-minded prosecutor, is given a broad mandate to investigate and prosecute corruption everywhere, even at the highest levels. Independence and adequate resourcing for the work of the commission are assured; (4) A person with “skills and vision” is appointed to a new (or refreshed) office of auditor-general. Auditors have responsibilities to investigate all government officeholders and to report on findings to the nation; (5) The nation commits to the provisions of the International Anti-Corruption Court (which Rotberg proposes), thereby offering citizens further protection and avenues for addressing corruption-related grievances; (6) Public asset declarations become mandatory for the head of government, along with all political appointees, judges, and civil service employees above a certain rank. The auditor-general is charged with the responsibility of reviewing these and should report to the nation on the contents; (7) Life-tenured senior judges of high repute are appointed and their salaries are placed in an escrow account (with provision for regular raises) to ensure their independence; (8) Press and media freedoms are well respected. There is a permissive freedom of information law; (9) The anti-corruption commission introduces corruption prevention programs, such as integrity training for corporations. There is a high level of public education about the harms corruption can bring, along with citizens’ rights in the face of corruption. Educational programs are designed to create new national expectations and norms about appropriate behavior; (10) A publicity campaign to ensure citizens are aware of their entitlements and how they can expect to be treated is reinforced through supporting mechanisms such as ensuring a list of rights is visible in offices where citizens interact with bureaucracies. Shifting as many processes online as possible further reduces bureaucratic discretion and thus opportunities for corruption; (11) Multiple channels for receiving complaints concerning corruption by public officials are introduced such as through telephone hotlines, text messaging, and video recordings. Whistle-blowers are supported (including financially); (12) The anti-corruption commission adopts methods to ensure those involved in large-scale spending of public resources are spending state funds appropriately; (13) Regulations and tariffs that require human discretion are simplified to reduce further scope for corruption; and (14) National laws are checked against international conventions and agreements to ensure they are brought into line with international expectations concerning corruption. This includes ensuring the national laws conform with the UN Convention against Corruption, the OECD Convention against Bribery, and other prominent programs such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. For more on these steps, see pp. 310–12.

3 Though one might well wonder what prospects there are for achieving this, given our current political moment.

4 It is also striking that Rotberg uses various turns of phrase that suggest more decisive victories are available than I fear the subject matter permits. Consider, for instance, “This cancer can be cured” (p. 10) and, “This book embraces the notion that corruption, as unlikely as it may seem, can be conquered, frontier by frontier and territory by territory” (p. 11). The language of curing cancer and conquering an enemy suggests the core phenomenon at issue can be decisively dealt with once and for all. This perspective is misleading. Corruption is something of a “wicked problem” in that it can be managed and controlled, but not as decisively eliminated as some of this prose suggests. Rotberg surely knows this, and he becomes much more measured in the latter parts of the book. Thus, the claims he makes early on are much stronger, such as when he suggests that following his fourteen-step plan will eliminate corruption.

5 Corruption also compromises security, stability, and even world peace. For instance, corrupt officials allow arms and materials used to produce nuclear weapons to cross borders; and questionable banking arrangements facilitate funds crossing borders, hence ensuring that organized criminals and terrorists can continue their disruptive practices.

6 John Kerry, “Remarks on Community Building and Countering Violent Extremism,” Sokoto, Nigeria, August 23, 2016.

7 Of course, Europe has had its own share of prominent corruption events, such as the massive collusion in fixing interest rates in the LIBOR scandal.

8 Agents from the Global North can indeed have much greater responsibilities, and I have elsewhere discussed some particular cases concerning global financial, taxation, and accounting matters. I have shown how different responsibilities track various factors, such as historical and current contributions to corruption, patterns of benefits from that corruption, and the capacity to make changes. There is more work to be done on tracing these responsibilities in various domains. For a start, see Gillian Brock, “Institutional Integrity, Corruption, and Taxation,” Harvard University Working Paper Series, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Working Paper No. 39, March 13, 2014,; and Gillian Brock and Hamish Russell, “Abusive Tax Avoidance and Institutional Corruption: The Responsibilities of Tax Professionals,” Harvard University Working Paper Series, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Working Paper No. 56, February 26, 2015,

9 Hochschild, Arlie Russell, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: The New Press, 2016)Google Scholar.