Opinion
9:48 am
Wed March 21, 2012

Foreign Policy: Overseas Lessons On Fighting Sleaze

Originally published on Wed March 21, 2012 7:59 am

Christian Caryl, a senior fellow at the Legatum Institute and a contributing editor of Foreign Policy, is the editor of Democracy Lab.

Nathaniel Heller has a dream. He wants to invite people from India, the Philippines, and Bangladesh to provide a bit of development assistance to the United States. These countries have been pioneering new ways to make governments more accountable and less corrupt. We Americans could learn a lot from them.

"So how is that possible?" I hear you object. "Aren't countries like that drowning in sleaze?" Sure. But the first point is that they're up front about the problems they have. We Americans are still in denial.

Americans are accustomed to telling other countries how to manage their affairs. It wasn't that long ago that we were one of the few functioning democracies around. If you wanted to know about checks or balances or conducting elections or improving the rule of law, Americans were good people to ask.

But these days it seems we've gotten into the habit of resting on our laurels. A new study by a Washington-based investigative journalism organization called the Center for Public Integrity (in collaboration with Public Radio International and the governance watchdog Global Integrity) has thrown some harsh light on the shortcomings of our system of government.

The State Integrity Investigation marshals the resources of a small army of journalists and researchers to crunch data on public accountability in the capitals of all 50 states of the U.S. The researchers measured 330 indicators across 14 categories. Put it all together and you get a precise assessment of "corruption risk" across the country.

The resulting report cards make for shocking reading. Not a single state received an A. Five got Bs. And eight of them got failing grades.

The stories that the researchers unearthed along the way are illuminating. Just take the state senator in Maine who failed to disclose that he was on the board of an organization that received $98 million in state contracts. Then there's the West Virginia governor who took a car out for a "test drive" that ended up lasting four years. During the same period, the dealership that lent him the car got millions of dollars in business from the state government. (The photo above shows disgraced former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich on March 14, as he prepared to start serving a 14-year jail term on multiple counts of fraud and corruption.)

Tales of intimate relationships between lobbyists and politicians abound in the study (especially in states where part-time "citizen legislators" double as lawmakers and businesspeople). Gordon Witkin, a veteran investigative journalist who supervised the project, says that Western states with small populations turned out to have the highest risk. That culture of coziness can lull politicians and citizens into the erroneous belief that rules aren't needed. The thinking seems to be that your neighbors will know if you're up to something dubious. But that doesn't necessarily hold.

You'd think that Americans would be a bit more self-critical. It should have been obvious for years that the U.S. is suffering from a debilitating fusion of money and politics at the federal level — as even a cursory look at the dismal situation of campaign financing ought to demonstrate. Why should it be any different in the states?

Here's where that outside experience comes in. Heller is one of the founding members of Global Integrity (see above), an organization that has developed a technique using local journalists and easy-to-use software to make governments accountable to public scrutiny in some of the most unlikely places. The group has supported citizen-driven fact-finding groups in 120 countries, and its work starts with the same data-driven, locally sourced approach that was used in this new study about corruption in the U.S.

Among other things, Heller's job gives him an excellent vantage point from which to track anti-corruption efforts around the world. And there's a lot to report. The hottest new ideas, according to him, are coming from countries in the developing world — logically enough, since that's where the demand for good governance is greatest.

It turns out that cutting-edge technology is less important than an engaged citizenry doggedly insisting on bringing officials to account. MKSS, one of India's most aggressive government watchdogs, started by publishing its analyses of public budgets on mud walls in remote villages. Nowadays, of course, they rely mainly on software — like the other big Indian success story of this genre, ipaidabribe.com, which allows users to shine a public spotlight on the recipients of graft.

Or take the Philippines, the country that gave us G-Watch. Using college student volunteers as "citizen monitors," G-Watch tracks whether taxpayer-funded textbooks actually reach the students that are supposed to get them, or that school buildings have actually been built. (The logistical base for the work was supplied by Coca-Cola, the only organization "with the infrastructure to reach far-flung schools," as Heller wryly notes.) Another Philippine group, Check My School, uses crowd-sourced data to provide average grades and other performance indicators at their children's schools. A version of the idea is now being implemented in Mexico.

North America, by contrast, is striking for its lack of innovation when it comes to promoting government transparency. "Things have started to slip backwards," says Heller. "The U.S. is just another country and it's frankly not at the vanguard of this agenda at the moment."

Not all of these approaches are applicable to American conditions, of course. Petty graft of the type tracked by ipaidabribe.com is far less of a problem in this country than systematic collusion between business interests, lawmakers, and officials. Still, as the State Investigative Project demonstrates, there are clearly huge gaps in existing monitoring mechanisms in the U.S. (Enforcement is often a problem even when the right laws are in place.)

Contrast that, say, with the tiny Baltic republic of Latvia, which, as Heller notes, requires any campaign donation to be documented online within 15 days. Good luck finding a U.S. state legislature that mandates anything as strict as that.

All this should serve as a salutary reminder that the popular wisdom on corruption is false. The propensity for graft cannot be reduced to a particular culture or national mindset. According to global watchdog Transparency International, Botswana is far less corrupt than its next-door neighbor Zimbabwe, while Hong Kong is much cleaner than mainland China. What makes the difference here is institutions: a country that has an established rule of law and high standards of public accountability will be less vulnerable to sleaze than one that doesn't.

For up-and-coming countries this offers a source of hope: Those who summon up the political will can beat the disease. For countries like America, that conclusion should serve as a salutary warning: No one is inherently immune. If you don't get your act together, you'll get sick, too.

Copyright 2012 Foreign Policy. To see more, visit http://www.foreignpolicy.com/.