What I'm reading on governance and conflict, 5 October 2020

This week: corruption (lots...), innovation, coups, jet suits and more

Welcome to the new look ‘What I’m reading…’! New delivery method, new structure. (If this has been forwarded to you by a friend, you can subscribe by clicking on the button below. )

I’m now without my mega-reading buddy, Alisha Patel, who has started a new role with FCDO in Ethiopia, but there’s still plenty of reading out there to include. (I’m only shedding a small tear or two, Ms P 😢)

On with the reading!

I'm sure I'll be covering more on the #FinCENFiles leaks in future editions, and this piece from Tonusree Basu for Open Government Partnership on 'FinCENFiles: Why taking action now is essential to protect democracy' explains why this leak that lays bare many corrupt and criminal networks is so important:

'Protecting democracy and restoring citizen trust will remain out of reach if endemic corruption that hollows out these very democratic and governance systems is allowed to continue unabated.'

Early on in the crisis, I wrote a blog about wavering between optimism and pessimism on COVID-19, corruption and organised crime. I'm still trying to be optimistic, because that's my nature and because things won't change if we aren't, but this article on 'Crime after Mali's coup: business as usual?' from Peter Tinti, Raouf Farrah and Matt Herbert at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Crime really tests that optimism. In August, military officers arrested President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, forming a new National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP) (coup leaders don't seem to do subtle...) and promising elections. Meanwhile, criminal networks continue to adapt and may very well, the authors argue, shape the next government. They conclude: 'Ultimately, Malian citizens will be the long-term losers from the continuation of the current political status quo, which is influenced and sustained in part by criminal networks. Only after strategic political reform and broad-based economic change are developed can illicit markets in Mali be effectively tackled.' There really aren't any shortcuts to tackling organised crime, illicit markets or corruption...

In a different sort of article on COVID-19 and organised crime, Felia Allum draws parallels between the virus and Italian mafias. It's a short read and a very effective metaphor: both are 'invisible infectors'; both have their own 'enablers'; both attract power and money; both spread because of poor international cooperation; and both risk becoming 'normalised'. As she says,

'The collective good of society versus the individual profits of mafia bosses underlies this fight in the same way that we as citizens must live up to our responsibilities to wash our hands, wear masks and practise social distancing. In both scenarios, tensions exist between the collective good on the one hand, and individualism on the other.'

This blog summarising recent research from Nic Cheeseman and Caryn Peiffer on 'Why some anti-corruption campaigns make people more likely to pay a bribe' came out in July and is causing a stir, as well it should. In keeping with Caryn's previous research in Indonesia and, to some extent, Papua New Guinea (with Grant Walton), as well as others' research in Costa Rica, Nic and Caryn's research in Lagos (funded by FCDO-RED through the SOAS Anti-Corruption Evidence consortium) finds that anti-corruption campaigns may be doing more harm than good. They surveyed 2,400 participants using random sampling in order to test the effect of different narratives similar to messages promoted by donors, governments and CSOs, as well as conducting a 'bribery game' with 1,200 people. None of the narratives worked, at least not the way anti-corruption folks would want them too: in fact, all of the narratives made participants more likely to pay a bribe. There's some nuance here: they didn't find such a negative effect on participants who were less pessimistic to start with about corruption, though the research doesn't explore what makes one person more pessimistic or less pessimistic than others (a clear research gap). And one narrative did actually have the desired effect: the one that emphasised the relationship between corruption and citizens' tax payments (again, another clear research gap). They conclude with a call to abandon direct anti-corruption campaigns for more indirect approaches that don't necessarily talk directly about corruption. This is in keeping with the findings of a lot of other anti-corruption research (including my own, both with Caryn and without) , but I'm not sure it's possible yet to claim, as they do, that this would be 'far more likely to be effective' - there are still some pretty big questions to ask about the effectiveness of indirect anti-corruption approaches too. However, with four studies now showing anti-corruption messaging as having harmful impacts (in line with some earlier research on similar civic education approaches), it would be a good time for the anti-corruption community to pause and reflect on what these findings might mean.

After an initial dramatic drop early in the crisis, intra-regional trade volumes in East Africa seem to have recovered. This article from Andrew Mold and Anthony Mveyange on 'Crisis? What Crisis? COVID-19 and the unexpected recovery of regional trade in East Africa' focuses on Kenya and policies brought in to try to protect key export sectors and to minimise transport disruption. This includes creating mobile labs for cross-border testing, as well as subsidies and other more typical trade policies. The authors raise some concerns about how ‘we’re not out of the woods yet’ and propose three policy recommendations: a) maintain exceptional measures to support cross-border trade; b) continue to protect key export sectors in order to keep value chains operating (and forex coming in); and c) improve policy measures to support informal trade, where '[c]ross-border communities - particularly women traders who account for the bulk of informal trade - are still highly vulnerable to this crisis'. (FCDO-RED is funding research on 'Ethical border trading between Kenya and Uganda for small-scale businesses' through the Global Integrity Anti-Corruption Evidence programme. Stay tuned for more on this next time, including their research on the gendered nature of corruption in cross-border trade.)

Governance folks, you might have the book 'A Governance Practitioner's Notebook: Alternative ideas and approaches' on your shelves (IRL or digital). If not, download it now! Published by the OECD in 2015 and edited by Alan Whaites, Eduardo Gonzalez, Sara Fyson and Graham Teskey, the book has lots of thought provoking chapters (you can check out the one by David Hudson and me on what's missing in political economy analysis (PEA), for example). The collection starts out with Lucy, a fictional governance advisor just starting out in her career (named after the first known human, the founder of all our formal and informal norms), with advice for her on what to expect and what to read, as well as her own reading notes (as imagined by Graham). This week, Graham published a blog where he imagines what Lucy's doing five years on as a more experienced governance advisor trying to figure out what it means to be a 'long-distance' advisor living in a COVID-19 world.

Nicholas Shaxon has written a lot about the predatory and extractive nature of the global financial sector, including books such as The Finance Curse: How global finance is making us all poorer and Treasure Islands: Tax havens and the men who stole the world. In this article on how 'Rural America doesn't have to starve to death', he writes about how global finance affects us in ways many don't even realise -agriculture in this case - with often catastrophic social, economic, political, environmental and health impacts and, of course, effects on real people's lives.

We're hopefully going to see a lot more research on digital democracy coming up, not in the least because of the impact of COVID-19 on elections and campaigning that makes understanding how it works in different contexts really important. This article from Idayat Hassan and Jamie Hitchen on 'How hashtag activism moves offline in The Gambia' looks at online mobilisation, the role of social media in the last election and what we might expect in 2021 as the country holds its first post-Jammeh elections. For sceptics, especially those who look at low levels of internet/smartphone penetration or social media use and assume this means we don’t need to worry about that particular context, they echo other research on how it's complacent to think that social media can't reach beyond actual users, quoting academic Dr Ismaila Cessay, who says, 'even if a rural village has just one phone WhatsApp can make an impact'.

David Jackson, Senior Advisor at the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, put out a short article on 'How change happens in anti-corruption: a map of current policy perspectives', including things like indirect anti-corruption approaches, greater localisation, nurturing norms, the so-called 'big bang' approach and transnational perspectives. I'm very aware, as a researcher myself, of the pressure to try to claim that research proves X is the new anti-corruption 'magic key', and David's right to call these 'additional directions', rather than 'proven alternative approaches'. I would read this as a very useful summary of interesting current thinking and areas in which new research could usefully be done/commissioned for more systematic testing, not as a new roadmap for 'what works'. There is never going to be one way to understand, let alone tackle, a complex ‘wicked problem’ like corruption, no matter what any researcher(s) may claim, but new ways of thinking can be important in their own right for shifting the mental models that keep ineffective approaches going.

The explosion at Beirut's port on 4th August was such a shock to see, and the impact on the city's people will sadly be felt for many years to come. This must-read report from Reinoud Leenders on 'Timebomb at the Port: How institutional failure, political squabbling and greed set the stage for blowing up Beirut' shines a much needed light on how long-term processes of mismanagement and corruption, alongside political failure and, as he calls it, 'a greedy political class', led to this unimaginable tragedy. It's also a reminder of the vital role that ports play in an economy, and a warning for potential other 'timebombs' ticking on coasts around the world. (More on this in the future, including on ports and organised crime, such as this report from Anna Sergi on 'The Port-Crime Interface'.)

I'll certainly be writing about Tom Burgis's new book Kleptopia: How dirty money is conquering the world soon, but his recent investigation for the FT on ‘Silent witnesses: what do three corpses have to do with a corruption case’ gives some sense for the scale of the challenge. Back in 2015, three UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO) staff were found dead in a Mid-west American motel room during a ‘high-stakes’ corruption investigation into Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation, a UK multibillion-dollar mining house now owned by Eurasian Resources Group. The original cause of death was listed as malaria, but new questions are being asked about this verdict. I won't give any spoilers, because the report reads like a crime thriller, and it cracks open the door on some of the complexity - and danger - involved in investigating grand corruption cases.

I've been thinking a lot recently about a possible relationship between corruption, integrity and shame. Maybe it's just me, but a lot of things are happening right now that make me shout (usually, but not always, silently) at the screen, 'Do you literally have no shame?!' A cursory Google Scholar search brought up a whole world of literature I don't know yet, and it's on my list of things to get to know. This paper from Elias L Khalil on 'Integrity, shame and self-rationalization', for example, brought me back to DFID-funded research I've done with colleagues in India and Nigeria on religion and attitudes towards corruption, where I flagged the need to think about 'moral disengagement theory' and how people justify doing things they know (and believe) are wrong. Something to pick up again in the long, dark winter ahead perhaps? I like Khalil’s 2x2, anyway…

I've included Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark Times: Untold histories, wild possibilities in a previous 'what we're reading' post, and this short piece from Maria Popova looks at Solnit's work, among others, reflecting on possibilities (and challenges) for social change. She writes,

'This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.'

The Doughnut Economics Action Lab (DEAL) has launched a new online platform filled with resources, co-created tools and stories to help communities, policy makers and 'changemakers worldwide' think about how to build more regenerative and distributive economies. Founder Kate Raworth's blog for FP2P is a must-read on this. If you’re new to the DEAL ‘doughnut’, the platform has lots of resources, including this graphic, for example…

Peter Taylor and Paul Knipe (K4D Research & Learning Programme Manager)'s short piece on how 'Civil servants can develop "deep expertise", but need the right learning environment' looks at how FCDO could build on DFID's experience as a global leader in research and evidence-informed development policy and programming, including for evidence-informed diplomacy. Lots of good tips.

This thought-provoking article from Sir Simon Fraser (former Permanent Under-Secretary at FCO from 2010-2015, now Deputy Chairman of Chatham House) on 'Picking up the broken pieces of UK foreign policy' looks at what he sees as some of the challenges for the UK redefining itself as a medium-sized power and the need for 'clarity on priorities, relationships and resources'.

Benjamin Kumpf, FCDO's Head of Innovation, wrote an article on 'Organisational cultures, capacities and mindsets creating the driving force for innovation', where he reflects on lessons from an OECD peer-learning exercise on innovation for sustainable and inclusive development. Lessons include, for example: a) think about innovation beyond win-win scenarios; b) designing for 2130 (e.g., 'cathedral thinking'), as Roman Krznaric puts in); c) learning better from experiments; d) shifting the lens to innovators in the global South; and e) the need to shift donor mindsets: 'embracing politics and struggles, exploring new paradigms, and shaping the direction of innovation, R&D and science investments - as well as reframing who innovates and notions of aid and solidarity'.

Things don't seem to have been a lot of fun recently for colleagues in USAID's Bureau for Conflict Prevention and Stabilization, where Politico reports Pete Marocco (the Bureau's politically-appointed Chief) has gone on personal leave after only joining in July. A 13-page 'dissent channel' memo from angry staff is said to probably have something to do with it.

One probably just for UK development/foreign policy wonks, the UK Government's response to the House of Parliament International Development Committee's report on the FCDO merger is now online.

Finally, this tweet from Tuesday Reitano (Global Initiative’s Deputy Director), undid me for a little while this weekend. The article she’s tweeting is from journalist Alexandra Petri, and is called ‘I’ve had enough news now, thank you’ (firewalled by Washington Post, sadly). I felt this quote in my very soul as well, and I’m sure plenty of others will relate:

‘These things simply cannot keep happening every day. My fragile system cannot take any more of this. I just want to sit down. Well, I am sitting down, but I want to feel like I am sitting down, instead of feeling what I currently feel...’


Just for fun…

There is almost nothing in the world I covet more than this Jet Suit. It's like every childhood fantasy or dream where I'm almost flying coming true...

I was 12 years old when the 'Karate Kid' came out in the cinema, so I was a bit uncertain when we saw 'Cobra Kai' advertised on Netflix as 'The Karate Kid saga continues'. Sometimes your childhood favourites are best left in your childhood, even if your 12-year old does want to watch it...but not so with 'Cobra Kai'. It is far more soulful than I ever expected (as well as being very funny). I don't want to add any potential spoilers, but three messages I've taken away so far: 1) our memories as well as our observations are hugely subjective; 2) redemption isn't just for 'bad guys'; and 3) integrity is badass.

Finally, for anyone also facing a Northern hemisphere winter in potential lockdown, this article from David Robson on 'Dreading a dark winter lockdown? Think like a Norwegian’ offers some useful tips. It basically adds up to: dress properly and get outside when you can; keep a positive mindset; and snuggle down and get cozy. This advice may not always cut it when I’m feeling fed up because I haven’t seen my parents for over a year or when I’m trying to think about some way for my in-laws to spend Christmas with their grandchildren, but every little helps, as they say. I’ll try to channel my inner Bergen with this photo I took at 9:00am (so dark!) in February 2014 when I was visiting U4.

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