Anti-Corruption Agencies: a Cure to “Society’s Cancer”?

February 11, 2015
Natasha Bowler
7 min read
Yanukovych with President Putin
Yanukovych with President Putin
Yanukovych private residence
Yanukovych private residence
Maidan anti-corruption protest
Maidan anti-corruption protest
Juhani Grossman
Juhani Grossman

A year on from the Maidan protests, Ukraine remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world. From corruption affecting the upper echelons of society, as exemplified in the former private residence of Victor Yanukovych, Ukraine's recently-toppled president, to a healthcare system that is forcing patients from all social backgrounds to pay bribes, corruption is deeply embedded in the country. But, gradually, progress is being made, with the state pledging its support to further anti-corruption reforms by, amongst other things, setting up an anti-corruption body. This will lodge cases against corrupt officials, conduct investigations and bring those responsible to trial.

Juhani Grossmann, an anti-corruption expert who spent five years in Ukraine working on anti-corruption initiatives and a member of Transparency International Ukraine’s board of directors, spoke to IranWire about the importance of anti-corruption bureaus, their potential to encourage transparency in corrupt nations — and what prevents them from being a success. During his career, Grossmann has implemented anti-corruption programs in a number of places, including the Philippines, Russia, and Ukraine. He is currently working on the Corruption Eradication Commission in Indonesia – which anti-corruption specialists generally regard an effective.


Why is it important for a country to tackle corruption? How debilitating can it be?


I can’t think of anything worse. Corruption undermines everything that happens in a country, including the functioning of government. There’s private sector corruption as well, but government corruption is by far the cruelest because it’s citizen money. When government doesn’t treat these funds responsibly, they’re stealing from the people. This not only means they enrich themselves but that government services are of a worse quality.  So schools aren’t built properly, children get worse education and construction projects are done at a lower quality, meaning they take longer and can pose physical risk. The number of examples where corruption is a cancer to society is endless.

From your perspective, should every country that is struggling with corruption set up an anti-corruption bureau like the one Ukraine is implementing at the moment?


Ideally speaking, every country should have a specialized anti-corruption agency and frankly, the West is no example here, because most western countries don’t have one – anti-corruption jobs are rolled into more general jobs in the justice or defense departments. Emerging countries like Indonesia and Singapore are very much setting the example here.


How are they set up and how do they make a difference?

I should be honest by saying most of the time they don’t make a difference. There are far more anti-corruption agencies that have failed than succeeded, so caution is warranted. Many countries have them and they aren’t particularly effective. Indonesia is an inspirational example in many ways, but even here the environment is very difficult. The anti-corruption agency is undergoing lots of pushback from the established political class and it’s a reality every anti-corruption agency must face The advantages of a specialized agency are just that — having specialized knowledge of corruption, perhaps a unique kind of independence and sometimes, greater freedom in regards to investigative authorities. But in most countries where they are desperately needed — in the most corrupt countries — politicians usually create corruption agencies as a fix-it solution.

In these cases, the police and prosecutors can’t be relied upon, but the importance of fixing corruption is understood. So these specialized agencies are created in order to jump- start the reform process. It’s frankly unrealistic to think they can do the job without proper law enforcement agencies, because specialized agencies tend to be small and corruption tends to permeate quite widely. However, they can be a good impetus towards anti-corruption law enforcement measures.


So anti-corruption agencies need to be set up in line with the rule of law?

Certainly. That ends up being the reason most of them fail: they get set up in a environment without the rule of law, as a desperate measure to fix things. When there isn’t the rule of law, it’s very difficult for them to be successful. But they have a lot of potential.


Do they tend to tackle elite corruption rather than low-level corruption, or both?

They can do both but low-level corruption is exceptionally labor-intensive and because specialized agencies tend to be small, rarely bigger than 2,000 people, which means they only cover about 50 to 70 cases a year. Therefore small level bribes aren’t a good way to allocate resources. You want to set an example at the top and, given that elite corruption is much harder to catch, you want your best talent on that. Also the police are normally relatively well-equipped to deal with this if they want to.


How does Indonesia’s anti-corruption bureau go about investigating cases?

Typically, the public or a whistleblower files a complaint and the commission starts what is called a “preliminary check” to determine whether the case is worthy of a thorough investigation. There are various factors that determine that, including the quality of the evidence provided, the seniority of the government official being accused and the size of the bribe. There are certain systemic issues, for instance oil and gas, which have a wider impact when corruption has taken place, so these are prioritized. Then, if there is enough data to warrant an investigation, a pre-investigation is launched, which can take months, sometimes years, depending on the complexity of the case.  If the evidence is strong enough after that, the investigators launch a formal investigation. At that stage, it can’t be reversed and the case goes to court. There’s a special anti-corruption court called the Tipikor court that finds on the evidence. However, given the few cases that go to court, the evidence quality tends to be very high so success rates are high.


From your experience, what does a nation need to successfully implement one of these bureaus? What can derail it from being successful?

There are many risks and one of them is making enemies. The political class tends to push back as much as possible and whether this is parliament, government or another body, the reality is that the structural power of these anti-corruption bodies can be weakened. In Indonesia, we have seen several attempts to amend the law that founded the Tipikor courts. Also, counter-investigations can be launched and there are attempts to smear certain anti-corruption leaders.


Do you think an anti-corruption agency could be successful in Iran?                                              

Every country has an opportunity to show commitment to the issue. I’ve heard Iranian leaders decry corruption, as do all other leaders. The challenge of setting them up in an otherwise difficult environment is that they might not have the safeguards they require. If they’re set up in a situation that isn’t democratic and with no rule of law, the agency could be abused just like with any other agency. It’s important to ensure all the necessary checks and balances are in place.


Would something like I Paid A Bribe be an effective way to begin tackling corruption in a country?

I don’t see any country where I Paid A Bribe would be a negative thing. The challenge is what to do with it when it’s been set up. In India, the anti-corruption movement was very powerful, and some of its demands were met, but this was also a problem. How does a government institutionalize changes demanded by a grassroots movement? But these movements are great because they highlight the lies of certain officials surrounding corruption and are a great way to check whether they are being honest.


In a society with restricted freedoms, is there a role for citizens to play in the tackling of corruption given that there may be repercussions if they do?

There is and that is simply not participating in it. Going out on the streets and complaining about it is great but there are two sides to the corruption equation: someone is always giving a bribe when someone is taking it. So if citizens don’t pay bribes, they wouldn’t need to protest on the street. Personal integrity is a very important way of fighting corruption, even in repressive regimes.



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