Flipping the Corruption Myth

Flipping the Corruption Myth by Dr Jason Hickel, a lecturer at the London School of Economics and an adviser to /The Rules
– Corruption is by far not the main factor behind persisting poverty in the Global South.  Original article via Al Jazeera here

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Transparency International recently published their latest annual Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), laid out in an eye-catching map of the world with the least corrupt nations coded in happy yellow and the most corrupt nations smeared in stigmatising red. The CPI defines corruption as “the misuse of public power for private benefit”, and draws its data from 12 different institutions including the World Bank, Freedom House, and the World Economic Forum.

When I first saw this map I was struck by the fact that most of the yellow areas happen to be rich Western countries, including the United States and the United Kingdom, whereas red covers almost the entirety of the global South, with countries like South Sudan, Afghanistan, and Somalia daubed especially dark.

This geographical division fits squarely with mainstream views, which see corruption as the scourge of the developing world (cue cliche images of dictators in Africa and bribery in India). But is this storyline accurate?

Many international development organisations hold that persistent poverty in the Global South is caused largely by corruption among local public officials. In 2003 these concerns led to the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which asserts that, while corruption exists in all countries, this “evil phenomenon” is “most destructive” in the global South, where it is a “key element in economic underperformance and a major obstacle to poverty alleviation and development”.

There’s only one problem with this theory: It’s just not true.

Corruption, superpower style

According to the World Bank, corruption in the form of bribery and theft by government officials, the main target of the UN Convention, costs developing countries between $20bn and $40bn each year. That’s a lot of money. But it’s an extremely small proportion – only about 3 percent – of the total illicit flows that leak out of public coffers. Tax avoidance, on the other hand, accounts for more than $900bn each year, money that multinational corporations steal from developing countries through practices such as trade mispricing.

This enormous outflow of wealth is facilitated by a shadowy financial system that includes tax havens, paper companies, anonymous accounts, and fake foundations, with the City of London at the very heart of it. Over 30 percent of global foreign direct investment is booked through tax havens, which now collectively hide one-sixth of the world’s total private wealth.

This is a massive – indeed, fundamental – cause of poverty in the developing world, yet it does not register in the mainstream definition of corruption, absent from the UN Convention, and rarely, if ever, appears on the agenda of international development organisations.

With the City of London at the centre of the global tax haven web, how does the UK end up with a clean CPI?

The question is all the more baffling given that the city is immune from many of the nation’s democratic laws and free of all parliamentary oversight. As a result of this special status, London has maintained a number of quaint plutocratic traditions. Take its electoral process, for instance: More than 70 percent of the votes cast during council elections are cast not by residents, but by corporations – mostly banks and financial firms. And the bigger the corporation, the more votes they get, with the largest firms getting 79 votes each. This takes US-style corporate personhood to another level.

To be fair, this kind of corruption is not entirely out-of-place in a country where a feudalistic royal family owns 120,000 hectares of the nation’s land and sucks up around £40m ($65.7m) of public funds each year. Then there’s the parliament, where the House of Lords is filled not by-election but by appointment, with 92 seats inherited by aristocratic families, 26 set aside for the leaders of the country’s largest religious sect, and dozens of others divvied up for sale to multi-millionaires.

Corruption in US is only slightly less blatant. Whereas congressional seats are not yet available for outright purchase, the Citizens United vs FEC ruling allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on political campaigns to ensure that their preferred candidates get elected, a practice justified under the Orwellian banner of “free speech”.

The poverty factor

The UN Convention is correct to say that poverty in developing countries is caused by corruption. But the corruption we ought to be most concerned about has its root in the countries that are coloured yellow on the CPI map, not red.

The tax haven system is not the only culprit. We know that the global financial crisis of 2008 was precipitated by systemic corruption among public officials in the US who were intimately tied to the interests of Wall Street firms. In addition to shifting trillions of dollars from public coffers into private pockets through bailouts, the crisis wiped out a huge chunk of the global economy and had a devastating effect on developing countries when demand for exports dried up, causing massive waves of unemployment.

A similar story can be told about the Libor scandal in the UK, when major London banks colluded to rig interest rates so as to suck around $100bn of free money from people even well beyond Britain’s shores. How could either of these scandals be defined as anything but the misuse of public power for private benefit? The global reach of this kind of corruption makes petty bribery and theft in the developing world seem parochial by comparison.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. If we really want to understand how corruption drives poverty in developing countries, we need to start by looking at the institutions that control the global economy, such as the IMF, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation.

During the 1980s and 1990s, the policies that these institutions foisted on the Global South, following the Washington Consensus, caused per capita income growth rates to collapse by almost 50 percent. Economist Robert Pollin has estimated that during this period developing countries lost around $480bn per year in potential GDP. It would be difficult to overstate the human devastation that these numbers represent. Yet Western corporations have benefitted tremendously from this process, gaining access to new markets, cheaper labour and raw materials, and fresh avenues for capital flight.

These international institutions masquerade as mechanisms for public governance, but they are deeply anti-democratic; this is why they can get away with imposing policies that so directly violate public interest. Voting power in the IMF and World Bank is apportioned so that developing countries – the vast majority of the world’s population – together hold less than 50 percent of the vote, while the US Treasury wields de facto veto power. The leaders of these institutions are not elected, but appointed by the US and Europe, with not a few military bosses and Wall Street executives among them.

Joseph Stiglitz, former chief economist of the World Bank, has publicly denounced these institutions as among the least transparent he has ever encountered. They also suffer from a shocking lack of accountability, as they enjoy special “sovereign immunity” status that protects them against public lawsuit when their policies fail, regardless of how much harm they cause.

Shifting the blame

If these patterns of governance were true of any given nation in the global South, the West would cry corruption. Yet such corruption is normalised in the command centres of the global economy, perpetuating poverty in the developing world while Transparency International directs our attention elsewhere.

Even if we do decide to focus on localised corruption in developing countries, we have to accept that it does not exist in a geopolitical vacuum. Many of history’s most famous dictators – like Augusto Pinochet, Mobutu Sese Seko, and Hosni Mubarak – were supported by a steady flow of Western aid. Today, not a few of the world’s most corrupt regimes have been installed or bolstered by the US, among them Afghanistan, South Sudan, and the warlords of Somalia – three of the darkest states on the CPI map.

This raises an interesting question: Which is more corrupt, the petty dictatorship or the superpower that installs it? Unfortunately, the UN Convention conveniently ignores these dynamics, and the CPI map leads us to believe, incorrectly, that each country’s corruption is neatly bounded by national borders.

Corruption is a major driver of poverty, to be sure. But if we are to be serious about tackling this problem, the CPI map will not be much help. The biggest cause of poverty in developing countries is not localised bribery and theft, but the corruption that is endemic to the global governance system, the tax haven network, and the banking sectors of New York and London. It’s time to flip the corruption myth on its head and start demanding transparency where it counts.

Dr Jason Hickel lectures at the London School of Economics and serves as an adviser to /The Rules. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jasonhickel

IFMIS : What did UDF, DPP and PP know?

IFMIS

Reports can be fantastic pieces of literature. Absolutely wonderful things…informative, revealing, ridiculing, attesting – marvelous!  More so if they happen to be government-funded.

Whenever political leaders are busy paying lip service, telling lies, denying allegations and generally being unpleasant to their electors (and those who didn’t elect them), a little bit of research can quickly reveal who amongst the herd is Pinocchio.

The report above which is a summary can be downloaded here: Summary of key findings and recommendations of GOM IFMIS Review-2. It is dated 18th November 2009, and is a summary of a Report commissioned to asses how the IFMIS was functioning. It is titled QUICK ASSESSMENT OF THE INTEGRATED FINANCIAL MANAGEMENT INFORMATION SYSTEM.

The original report (which I imagine can be obtained from the Public Financial and Economic Management section of the Ministry of Finance) is over 200 pages long (and don’t ask how I got my hands on it), but this summary is only 34 pages long. According to this summary:

As part of the continuous PFM reform processes in a bid to further enhance public expenditure management, the Malawi Government through the PSRMU of the OPC engaged the author through UltiNetS2 to undertake a quick impact assessment of the EPICOR* based IFMIS implementation with a core objective to identify any system operational or functionality challenges and make appropriate recommendations for improvements.

*EPICOR is the company that makes such software

In other words the report was commissioned to highlight the benefits and challenges of the IFMIS and ask questions such as:

(1) What is the IFMIS?

(2) Why was it chosen by the Ministry of Finance (MOF)?

(3) Is it working as intended / achieving its purpose?

(4) How well is it performing ?

(5) What are the problems / operational issues ?

(6) Where are these problems / operational challenges?

(7) What can be done to improve its performance/ resolve these problems?

… and so on.

At the time of commissioning, Bingu Wa Mutharika had been in power for some 5 years and 6 months.

Before we look closely at this summary, a notable point is somewhat appropriate: the version of IFMIS Malawi installed on its systems / computers is based on a version Tanzania installed. We all know that not too long ago, Tanzania’s president sacked his cabinet ministers due to corruption. Was this related to IFMIS?? I think someone needs to find out?

Earlier in 2006, the OECD Journal on Budgeting carried an article by Jack Diamond and Pokar Khemani titled Introducing Financial Management Information Systems in Developing Countries that explored the merits of the IFMIS system and looked at case studies in developing countries including those across Africa.

According to the OECD article, attributes of a well-designed FMIS include:

attributes-ifmis

Yet if you take a look at the summary of the IFMIS in Malawi, it’s indisputable how hollow and a shambles the whole rollout was. Everything was dysfunctional, from the contracting phase to the implementation phase and support, everything was a disaster!

According to the UltiNetS Summary, the positives include:

– The successful implementation of the EPICOR based IFMIS significantly contributed to the debt cancellation for Malawi as a country under the HIPC initiative

The implementation of EPICOR based IFMIS has to some extent assisted the Government in restoring some fiscal discipline through public expenditure management particularly on transactions that are primarily processed through the system.

The introduction of EPICOR based IFMIS has significantly checked the proliferation of Government bank accounts by the MDAs* thereby giving the AGD* a better control.

The introduction of the EPICOR based CPS* has significantly restored the credibility of Government cheque payments to its creditors.

*[AGD: Accounts General Department; CPS: Central Payment System; MDA’s: Ministerial Departments and Agencies]

Yet in spite of all this, we are then informed that:

– The conditions of contract were more in favour of the contractor (Soft-Tech Consultants) than the client (Malawi Government) which clearly shows that the client did not have much input into the document before engagement.

There was no valid justification for the training to be conducted for almost the whole year and at every site of implementation, hence proved too expensive for the Government considering similar implementations.

– The IFMIS contractual costs are too high than anticipated (almost USD $1.7million) more particularly on the user licences, consultancy, training services and travel which account for almost 91% of the total cost.

– There was non strategic procurement of bout 240 system concurrent user licences for all 32 sites for all the modules when only a few of these licences are currently used.

–  The EPICOR based IFMIS architecture, design and operational framework is incomplete to constitute an ideal Government IFMIS system design and operational architecture as it still falls short of
other key elements and full functionality of the sy stem.

In other words, the Malawian government has been using an incomplete and system that is not fit for purpose. The observations continue:

There is a great deal of system underutilization considering the number of procured modules and other key features within the existing functional modules that are currently not functional.

The system does not have any alert system to detect any fraudulent activities or any deviations to normal operations within the system such as overriding system controls without appropriate approval
process and any system performance issues let alone a functional audit trail to track system usage

If post-Cashgate you wanted to know why junior accounts assistants (see most recent revelations here) were found with millions of dollars, this is precisely why.

The current Chart of Accounts is not yet fully GFS compliant as per the IMF requirement and does not fully respond to the performance measurement indicators of the current MGDS.

From a budget execution perspective, the EPICOR based IFMIS system is working perfectly as a budget expenditure control system since no funding or expenditure can take place where there is no budget unless overridden, however the system does not block budgets that have already been expended to the equivalent of expenditures 

In other words, a user can Overspend. In principle, this means that a user can generate a cheque and get the Reserve Bank of Malawi to honour it, even when on his budget, that money doesn’t actually exist.

The IFMIS infrastructure does not have any intrusion prevention and detective system or mechanism to easily gain visibility and monitor any potential security threats considering that the access in mainly by user ID and password which can easily be accessed

So who can say whether foreign criminals haven’t laid their hands on some of this money??

Some of key control features particularly in the payment management approval process within the IFMIS are not yet activated and functional to improve the entire system internal control framework.

The current payments management system is weak and prone to exploitation or abuse by colluders as access into the system and Accounts Payable module in particular is not physically authenticated beyond normal user ID and passwords due to lack of appropriate tools.

Again, like above, misappropriation withing IFMIS is easy, so long as you have a username and password. And people could collude to steal money, so the Cashgate scandal should not be a surprise at all.

The current core accounting system and financials suite of the EPICOR based IFMIS has an Electronic Funds Transfer (EFT) module which is more secure mode of payments which if implemented could help reduce some instances of cheque frauds and frequent delays in processing and dispatching cheques. In addition, it could eliminate risks associated with the MALSWITCH link used for cheque list transmission.

So they knew that there was cheque fraud happening? Or is this just a hypothetical situation?

The current structure of the CPS within the EPICOR based IFMIS lack appropriate tools and effective controls for checking, verifying and authenticating or validating payment transactions within key units before issuing cheques or effecting transfers to third parties, hence difficult to detect any fraudulent payments from within the financial system. For instance the Receiving unit of the AGD’s CPO does not have any means for verifying the authenticity of signatures on the payment vouchers and electronic voucher list from the MDAs, hence difficult to establish any instances of forgery.

There was no capacity to check if signatures are fake, meaning forgeries could have occurred, or did occur?

– The NAO [National Audit Office] does not have adequate capacity to audit the EPICOR based IFMIS functionality apart from auditing the financial statements (‘ Appropriation accounts’) as it does not have automated audit management tools to enable carry out that function

The NAO does not have adequate capacity in terms of man power and funding to effectively carry various types of audits covering automated systems.

All this advice was given to the Office of the President under DPP’s watch, when Mutharika was at the helm. Further the 2006 OECD report at page 19 / 115(last paragraph), states that:

In general, the implementation phase has not progressed well, primarily because of clearly limited involvement and some neglect of the system by the main players, including the Ministry of Finance, the Accountant General and pilot ministries. There are several significant issues to be addressed before the system can be made fully functional and rolled out.

Neglect?? That’s a strong word. When they received this advice, why didn’t DPP act?  And if they claim to have acted, what did they do to solve the above problems? More importantly, when PP came into power, did they know of this report and its findings, given the fact that the Ministry of Finance is a crucial ministry in any country?

I think the Malawian people deserve some answers. Malawians need responsible leaders who will help develop the country, not a hopeless and clueless bunch who are only interested in self-enrichment…

Reviewing this summary, it is absolutely clear that the Ministry of Finance knew the dangers of the IFMIS and the fraud that was happening ? They must have known. There are no two ways about this. But they ignored the problems/ fraud, or took advantage of them. In my view, the silence / inaction suggests some people was benefitting from the mess. Clearly, Lipenga and his juniors were hopelessly incompetent, and Joyce Banda must take responsibility for bringing in such a useless man into such a respectable office.

It all simply begs the question, how can such massive amounts of money be embezzled when the inherent problems were known? Those responsible for the plunder must pay back what they stole…Every single penny! And face the arm of the law.

The fact that successive governments knew there was a problem, but didn’t act strongly suggest there was a conspiracy to defraud the Malawian people, such that our syndicate theory may in fact be broader and far-reaching than us ordinary folk think?

Why do Malawians elect incompetent officials who can’t even do the basics?

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