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What Technology Can and Cannot Do In the Fight Against Corruption

BY David Eaves | Thursday, January 3 2013

The Economist recently had a fantastic article — Squeezing the Sleazy — celebrating the increased focus on fighting corruption. There is a growing amount of work to talk about.

There are a slew of newly organized and emergent efforts to tackle various forms of corruption, particularly by using new technology, from the global — such as the Open Government Partnership, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative and Transparency International — to the very local — such as ipaidabribe and its various clones. These efforts have also benefited from a number of traditional players, like state and independent regulators, apparently becoming more aggressive in enforcing laws.

These efforts should be applauded as corruption often disproportionately punishes the most economically and socially marginalized. Low level bribes create barriers to services. High level bribes rob treasuries of revenue or effective infrastructure that can support growth or pay for social programs. It's also great to see mainstream media talk report on corruption as a general issue, rather than just the scandal of the day. The Economist is unfortunately unusual in that it has a very good track record in this space.

There are a few words of caution I would like to add to the conversation.

It is possible that we are experiencing greater success against corruption because new technologies are making it easier to track, bring awareness to, and fight its influence. But the capacity of technology to help citizens find officials and companies who are not corrupt could have an impact. In either case, where the mix of technology, activism and culture come together, traditional forms of corruption, particularly transactional corruption, may become harder to hide and so harder to sustain.

However, if — and this remains an if — technology can help citizens battle corruption, let's recognize that using network driven technology to beat back a pre-network problem is probably not the end game. While information technology may help tackle some forms of corruption, it is virtually (apologies for the pun) guaranteed to give rise to new forms of corruption. The article I'd love to read would not just be about how "ipaidabribe" managed to reduce corruption, but how people are using mobile devices to engage in new forms of corruption — as I suspect that these exist but have not, as yet, penetrated the public consciousness.

Speaking of networks, there remains a significant amount that traditional actors are not doing. The Economist, again, had a truly fantastic and critical article — Ultimate Privilege — on the dangers of making it difficult for the public to access who has been granted the right of limited liability, e.g. the right to set up a corporation. The fact that, in many countries, querying who owns or benefits from a corporation remains either expensive or impossible is likely the biggest contributor to corruption of all forms. Whether it is corruption in Quebec or corruption in Kenya the most consequential bribes and illegal money flow through complex networks of corporation. Making these networks more transparent so that citizens and interested stakeholders can see who is benefiting is not just one of the simplest and most powerful tools available to the state, it is essential step to a society committed to transparency, equity and good governance.

Finally, and most challenging, the very definition of corruption itself will hopefully alter begin to expand if we experience even moderate success. I for one, look forward to a world where we can worry less about a $10 bribe on a street corner in Bangkok and focus more energy on a $1.9B bribe (5 weeks' worth of one company's revenue) of the US attorney's office. This of course, is what HSBC paid the US government to protect its executives from being prosecuted for laundering Mexican drug money despite overwhelming evidence. Essentially the financial sector was just told that the risk to breaking the law and supporting illegal activity is not just acceptable, it is indeed exceedingly profitable. If I told you that a private company had paid a government office of Thailand, Columbia, or Nigeria ten million dollars as penalty to avoid criminal charges you'd almost definitely call that corruption. Sadly, if the numbers are big enough, and the government is in the OECD, it's called, well, something else.

We may be making progress against corruption but this dark hole probably goes a lot deeper than any of us care to recognize. That doesn't mean we shouldn't celebrate success — we should — just don't forget, we have a long, long, long way to go.

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