Democracy Lab

Lessons for America from the Global War on Sleaze

When it comes to fighting corruption, it turns out there’s a lot that the U.S. can learn from developing countries.

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.

Frank Polich/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

Let's Stop Miscasting Africans

Africans are way past the victim thing -- but Westerners don't seem to be there yet. A tale of two films.

There's this movie about Africa that everyone's talking about. In case you haven't been paying attention, it's Kony 2012, a 30-minute video by the California-based humanitarian group Invisible Children that found millions of viewers around the web last week. The film describes the group's efforts to end the activities of Joseph Kony, the notorious leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, one of the most vicious insurgent armies in the world.

I don't think I need to go on at great length about the video, since Michael Wilkerson has already dissected it so deftly for FP. He notes that the film, in its eagerness to woo supporters to its cause, distorts the current reality in Central Africa on several important counts. I'm inclined to agree - not least because my two Ugandan colleagues here at Democracy Lab, Denis Barnabas and Jackee Budesta Batanda, have also told me that they don't really understand why the film makes it look as though northern Uganda is still suffering from Kony's ravages. (In fact, as critics point out, Kony likely left Uganda six years ago, and the LRA is probably down to a force of a few hundred by now.) While all of us have been talking about Uganda over the past week, it's striking, in fact, how few Ugandans have had a chance to participate in the conversation.

If you don't believe me, just take a look at this video by Ugandan journalist Rosebell Kagumire, in which she chides the makers of Kony 2012 for portraying Africans primarily as powerless victims who have to wait for the white people to ride in and save them. "You shouldn't be telling my story if you don't believe that I also have the power to change what's going on," she says at one point. Sounds valid.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that Africans are tired of being typecast as victims. The sad fact of the matter is that we in the West (if there still is such a thing) still prefer to imagine Africans primarily as victims and ourselves as their redeemers. You'd think we'd be way over this by now. By now we've had countless books that deflate Western myths about Africa -- including the sometimes distorting effects of well-meaning development assistance and humanitarian aid. And you'd think that we'd be ready to move on to serious solutions for the problems that undeniably exist.

Old habits are hard to change, apparently. One thing that's conspicuous about Kony 2012 is the way that it spends more time on the activists campaigning against Kony than it does on the people who live in the places where he's committed his crimes. Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, his equally appealing young son, and their legions of twenty-something supporters around the world get far more footage than any Africans. It doesn't seem like a stretch to assume that this (in addition to its amazing production values) is one of the reasons why Invisible Children's film has struck such a nerve. People would much rather identify with the heroic crusader than the evildoer's depressing victims.

As far as I can tell, no one is making a movie about the many African countries that aren't suffering from war or ethnic conflict. No one's making a movie about Ghana, which recorded a Chinese-style growth rate of 13.5 percent last year. Nor are the filmmakers gravitating to Botswana, which, according to the World Bank, has a per capita GDP higher than several countries in Europe, and boasts a corruption rate lower than Israel's. I got that last fact from Transparency International's corruption perceptions index, which also gives Rwanda a more favorable ranking than Hungary or the Czech Republic. South Africa (along with the other African countries mentioned here) does better than Italy.

Activists, of course, don't have to make stirring crusades for countries that succeed. Yet those success stories - achieved primarily through the hard work of Africans themselves, not Western development assistance -- suggest that Africans might just be capable of finding their own solutions.

This is not a conclusion that fits into the world of Kony 2012, which strongly suggests that 100 special forces operators dispatched to the region by President Obama last year will easily solve a problem that has eluded local African governments for the past quarter of a century. (The film mysteriously alludes to high-tech capabilities that will enable the 100 Americans to ferret Kony out of hiding. Now that would be powerful medicine, wouldn't it? But I'm not holding my breath.)

And yes, Africa has its disasters, obviously enough. But do we really want to know what they are?

The other Western-made movie about Africa I watched recently has not triggered a mass campaign. It hasn't even found a distributor in the U.S. (though it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year). Called The Ambassador, it was made by Mads Brügger, a Danish journalist who specializes in pretending to be someone he isn't, and then filming the results with hidden cameras.

In the film, Brügger (shown in the photo above) actually purchases a diplomatic passport from Liberia (with the help of various slippery middlemen of various colors). He then uses his bona fide diplomatic status -- which he has obtained under his own name, mind you -- as cover for the establishment of several shady business ventures in the Central African Republic, including diamond smuggling. (He never quite carries them out, but, of course, that's beside the point.) The CAR, as we experience it in Brügger's film, fulfills every horrible cliché of the corrupt, brutish, resource-cursed version of Africa that we have so long been accustomed to. (The CAR, indeed, is one of the countries that Joseph Kony may now be hiding in.)

The result concisely captures that atmosphere of jovial menace that permeates similar places around the world. (Burma and Afghanistan were two that came to my mind as I was watching the film.) Brügger, clad in a sartorial style that evokes one of Graham Greene's African novels, tells the story as a pitch-black comedy. We watch him handing "envelopes of happiness" stuffed with cash to government officials, conducting contract negotiations with a spectacularly unsavory local diamond mine operator, and consulting with the CAR's Head of State Security -- a fat, sweaty white man, an ex-Foreign Legionary, whose French citizenship, he explained, was revoked by Paris a few years back. Near the end of the film we discover that the man has just been murdered (a factor that figures in the filmmaker's decision to quit the country). If these were characters in a fictional story, they'd be dismissed as crass and overdrawn.

"A lot of the film is definitely outside people's comfort zone," Brügger told me recently. Just when you think his ambassadorial persona can't get any sleazier, one of his friends in the film pops up to outdo him. The white men come across as proudly corrupt, eager to do whatever they can to contribute to the CAR's continuing dysfunction. His African interlocutors figure as unapologetic con artists, happy to sell their compatriots down the river for a chance to fleece the rich and clueless European. But all of them seem real, because they are. (The Dutch businessman who is shown helping Brügger get his passport tried to prevent a prestigious documentary festival from showing the film, asserting that it besmirched his reputation.)

You never know quite what you're supposed to think -- and that is precisely the movie's achievement. "Documentary films about Africa aren't supposed to be funny," Brügger says. "You're constantly being told how terrible it is. It's all supposed to be about victimization -- NGOs with teary eyes. And suddenly you have this film that also has its fun moments. This is difficult for people to deal with."

As such, The Ambassador is a welcome provocation. It probably won't get anyone to take to the streets for a good cause, and I doubt very much that it will solve any problems. But perhaps it will make some of us think a little bit harder about African complexities. Surely that would be a good thing.

Johan Stahl/Winthereik