Corruption is a major factor impeding economic development and growth, good governance and the rule of law. Efforts to illuminate or at least greatly reduce it have not enjoyed limited success. We need a better understanding of what facilitates it and what discourages it. “The Quest for Good Governance” (Cambridge University Press) by Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, uniquely attempts to pull together and link research and experience across disciplines, historical timeframes and geographic boundaries in the search for answers to these questions. It distills current understanding of some of the key lessons we have and have not learned over the last two decades in the global anti-corruption and democratization arena.
Mungiu-Pippidi is a well-known political scientist, journalist and academic who hails from Romania. She has broad-ranging experience in this field, including having taught at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin for many years and having authored or co-led a number of important governance and anti-corruption research studies. She cut her corruption teeth during her revolutionary days following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
In her fascinating walk down the governance and anti-corruption lanes spanning four continents, she attempts to frame complex issues within country context and to quantify through data, research and case studies – perhaps as well as anyone has done so far – some of the underlying reasons for anti-corruption progress in eight selected countries. She notes, according to most surveys and research, that these are among only a dozen or so countries that seem to have had some measureable success over the last several decades.
She begins by defining what corruption is, saying that “people grant a far broader meaning to what pollsters call corruption than lawyers do…. The general population when asked to assess corruption offers its assessment of its society’s capacity to enforce public integrity and fairness, rather than reporting on individual experiences of corruption as legally defined in criminal codes.”
Her empirically tested factors influencing the extent of corruption in a country include those creating “opportunities,” such as governmental red tape, lack of transparency, concentration of power, large amounts of discretionary funds, and foreign aid, and those imposing “constraints,” such as an independent judiciary, independent media, active civil society and demanding voters.
Her selected “contemporary achievers” are: Estonia, Taiwan, Slovenia, South Korea, Chile, Botswana, Uruguay and Georgia. While summing-up the gist of her book in a sentence does not do her monumental work justice, her overall cross-country findings and policy recommendations in essence point to the need for developing countries to reduce rent-seeking opportunities in government, to make wholesale reform of the civil service a high priority and to provide more support for broader multi-stakeholder collective action. After reading her book, I think few would argue with these propositions.
However, as it often the case in the development world, the real on-the-ground questions are how to implement these difficult objectives in practice and how to sequence and link them up with other important inter-related reforms – all within specific country context.
These questions could have been more succinctly presented and debated in “Quest,” particularly for those less familiar with research in this emerging field of study. Perhaps it would have been worthwhile just for Mungiu-Pippidi to remind us that world history has taught us there is no magic formula for good governance. That said, she does help make a strong case for making anti-corruption reforms in developing countries more strategically focused on the fundamentals and then helpfully proceeds to identify some that seem to have worked in select countries.
Global lessons learned
As someone who has worked in this area for many years, including in a number of the countries covered in this book, I wish that Mungiu-Pippidi’s information-rich chapters had placed a little more emphasis on what we still don’t know from the limited research and experience we now have in our collective knowledge banks. One important lesson I’ve learned over the last 25 years or so, sometimes the hard way, is that one should be very humble and quick to point out that it is virtually impossible to truly quantify the myriad reasons for success on the governance, rule of law or anti-corruption fronts, given that there are so many elements and combustible and often hidden forces at play in any project of reform and development. It is also very important to always remind oneself that we are still only in the embryonic stages of anti-corruption research.
Another lesson learned is that the countries that have made the most democratic and anti-corruption progress are generally those that have linked anti-corruption reforms to elements of economic and rule of law reform. Mungiu-Pippidi rightly points out that few judicial reform programs promoting judicial independence have been successful or had an impact on corruption, given that the judiciary is often just as corrupt as other key institutions in many developing countries.
There are many other ways to promote a rule of law culture that would have been worth referencing in her book. For example, some countries, like Georgia, have had some anti-corruption success through both presidential leadership and civil society action.
Together they promoted and supported, often with donor support, multiple goals and reforms, including policies and programs designed to promote accountability by strengthening independent media and parliament, supporting reform advocacy groups like the Georgia Young Lawyers Association, by undertaking fundamental reform of the prosecutors office and the traffic police, through regulatory streamlining and by implementing key provisions of the United Nations Convention Against Corruption. I would argue that all of these reforms, in addition to reform of the civil service, resulted in collective action that made all the difference in reforming what some saw as a failed hopelessly corrupt state.
Even though there is a risk that her valuable, thought-provoking research may be misread or misused by some, I broadly agree with Mungiu-Pippidi’s general research findings and policy recommendations and hope that her interdisciplinary approach to research and prioritizing reforms represents the future wave of anti-corruption, rule of law and governance research that is so much needed.
While her ambitious cross-cutting and cross-border methodology advances and helps focus the global debate, I believe even she would admit that the art of defining, measuring and analyzing corruption and governance is at best only half way home and has a long way to go. This includes the new mixed, and some would argue still somewhat limited and untested, methodology she employed to select the eight countries she writes about, which admirably attempts to integrate theory, history, case studies and quantitative evidence.
She notes the country selection process was largely guided by the World Bank’s widely-used annual World-Wide Governance Indicators (WGI), which began in 1996, and that the anti-corruption analysis for the eight countries was shaped in large part by the anti-corruption indicators, which represent many but certainly not all key elements of governance. While the WGI is well respected by many and it is a useful tool for trying to gauge progress or failure and program impact, it does have its critics both within and outside the World Bank. Even the authors of the WGI caution that the indicators are based exclusively on perception surveys only and that while they are useful for research and debate purposes, they also underscore the inherent difficulties of measuring or assessing the quality or integrity of governance with data. While most believe the WGI has proven useful for broad cross-country comparative research and awareness raising purposes, many, including myself, believe it is time to develop sub-national indicators and indexes as well. Right now, much of the data used in the WGI is obtained mainly in the capitals of countries, which obviously does not represent potentially significant in-country variations.
There is an emerging consensus that the WGI must be continually refined and expanded as we learn more and as we strive to explore new ways to promote transparency, accountability and competition within the public and private sectors.
For the careful or ever-questioning reader or student, these research gaps or shortcomings should raise important questions as to whether and what other key governance or reform initiatives might have also played an important role in a country’s governance success. I’m sure any number of lawyers, bankers, law enforcement officials and economists, as well as those who are working in other reform fields such as financial and regulatory reform, also see some of the missing analytical gaps in her broad but not quite broad enough interdisciplinary analysis.
While a daring and laudable methodological achievement in itself, Mungiu-Pippidi’s country selections, conclusions and policy recommendations would have benefited if her methodology had been more succinctly expressed and the research conclusions more carefully qualified or narrowly focused. While she does note that she intentionally chose to focus on democratic and not authoritarian success story countries for purposes of the book, she does not clearly distinguish how she intellectually distinguished various elements of governance, such as rule of law, from those directly related to corruption and a wide range of other important elements of good governance.
In the final analysis, as someone who has worked on as many programs related to rule of law as anti-corruption or governance, I found myself questioning whether she has not given short academic and applied research shrift to important governance elements related to rule of law and other governance elements in both her country analysis and policy recommendations
In short, I would suggest that those reading her fact/data-filled book read and keep the title and theme of her prior path-breaking global study in mind, since it is Quest’s birthmother. This report, titled, “Contextual Choices in Fighting Corruption: Lessons Learned” (NORAD 2013), found above all else that big picture country context, public access to information and interdisciplinary analysis matters. It is a study well worth reading and thinking about.
Contextual Choices contains ten useful global lessons learned that were reached by consensus among a team of academics and practitioners representing many disciplines and countries. One rule of law observation made in Contextual Choices rings particularly loudly to my way of thinking and experience, namely:
“… most anti-corruption interventions in most developing countries fail because they are attempted in societies that lack the rule of law.”
Somehow this truism unfortunately gets lost in the details in Mungiu-Pippidi’s analysis and policy conclusions in this latest book. This is an important ever-present footnote to keep in mind when reading Quest, since it is widely acknowledged that all eight selected countries have made progress in promoting a rule of law culture as well as directly attacking institutional corruption. Even in city-states that lean democratic or autocratic, such as Hong Kong and Singapore, it is widely acknowledged that anti-corruption success was in part attributable to high priority efforts to promote a rule of law culture. Not many countries have gone down the rule of law path and those that have, such as Georgia and virtually all of the country studies in “Quest,” lend support to the idea that this fundamental reform is inextricably linked to other governance and anti-corruption reforms.
I think, if pressed, Mungiu-Pippidi would acknowledge that because addressing systemic corruption and problems related to governance, not to mention the rule of law, is dependent on so many known and unknown inter-related factors, that prioritizing and linking-up the issues within holistic country context is what seems to make the most difference. That said, her research findings and policy prescriptions are without question all supported by as credible research as now exists and are worthy of a grand global debate. Everyone would learn something by reading “Quest.”