Corruption free think tanks

28 April 2011

The work of think tanks is never straight forward. Researchers do not exist in an institutional vacuum with no links to the real world. They must access information that is often kept behind closed doors, engage with policy makers whose agendas are controlled by often unscrupulous people, etc.

This, however, does not mean that think tanks must bend or break the rules to work. Jeff Knezovich’s post in this blog last week made a passing reference to the new UK Bribery Act. I am sure there are similar such laws in other countries so this is equally relevant to organisations working outside DFID’s sphere of influence.

According to the Bribery Act:

What is a bribe? All payments of bribes, no matter how small or routine, or expected by local customs, are illegal. You are breaking the law whether you give or receive a bribe. Unlike some anti-bribery laws, the Bribery Act applies to bribes paid both to public officials and within non-public operations. A bribery offence is committed if the intention of the briber is that the person being bribed improperly performs his/her duties. Improper performance will arise if it is intended that, by paying the bribe, the recipient of the bribe would be expected to act otherwise than in good faith, an impartial manner or in accordance with a position of trust. Expectations are judged by UK, not local, standards.

And it is particularly relevant for organisations who claim to be promoting transparency and accountablity.

Here is an anecdote that I have enjoyed telling for quite some time:

I had been invited to a meeting of the new grantees of a programme seeking to promote transparency and accountability in policymaking. I was there to talk about policy influencing. A past grantee had been invited to talk about their own experience in doing so. They used schools monitoring data to make recommendations to improve the quality of education in Guatemala. The process involved working with the school monitors who collected the data that they then used to do the necessary analysis. As he was describing this he was interrupted by one of the participants who asked how much they had paid the monitors. The presenter was a bit confused. Nothing, he said. They were doing their job, we just asked them for the information, which is public anyway. Again, the man who interrupted responded by saying that they should pay them because they were acting as their research assistants.

Before the presenter could say anything a debate started among the participants. Researchers from different parts of Africa intervened saying how it would not be possible for them to do any of this without paying them for the information; some argued that this was right and normal, others that this was not advisable -although the reason given was that these small incentives would translate into large payments once the project got to the top and tried to influence senior policy makers ‘there would not be any money left in the project.’ At this point, the representatives of the donors left the room -they clearly did not want to be part of the conversation. Good timing too because the presenter interrupted to say that he did not want to judge but what they were suggesting was not possible in his country because, to put it bluntly, it was corruption.

No, it is just an incentive, said someone.

So if you choose not to look the other way, Transparency International provides some useful recommendations based on the finding that :

among NGOs anti-bribery procedures are either poor or non-existent. This is often explained by the difficult circumstances in which NGOs are operating on the ground. Paying a bribe is seen as the only way to get things done.

TI has published  some very useful tips for fighting corruption:

Conduct a risk assessment: where is your organisation exposed to a high risk of bribery – and how effective are its anti-corruption policy and management systems?

Introduce a zero-tolerance policy: put in place a headline policy that notes the damage that corruption does to your goals and mission, the importance of strong internal anti-bribery systems and makes it clear that the organisation does not tolerate bribery in any form. Anything less will provide a weak defence under the Bribery Act.

Information gathering: it is important to know whether bribes are being paid by your employees, agents or partners – and if so where, how much, and how frequently. This information is crucial if the organisation is to implement a zero-tolerance policy and, where necessary, try and ‘design out’ bribery from future projects or operations. Paradoxically, creating such a paper trail may provide evidence in a prosecution. However, such information gathering would probably be regarded as part of an ‘adequate procedure’, and therefore failure to assess the extent of bribery in an organisation might create a liability for senior managers and directors who could be accused of ‘consent and connivance’ by turning a blind eye.

Put in place robust anti-bribery systems: having in place ‘Adequate Procedures’ is the only defence to protect an organisation against corporate liability under the Bribery Act. TI produces a 20-point checklist for companies to assess anti-corruption procedures. Although it is aimed at companies, it is also relevant to NGOs. TI is seeking funding to develop NGO- specific tools.

Training and support: implementing effective anti-bribery systems can be a difficult process, and employees and partners may feel vulnerable and ill-equipped, especially in a transition phase from one way of doing things to another. Proper training and support is a vital part of this process.