Anti-Corruption Revolutions: When Civil Society Steps In
Can an empowered civil society with access to public information make a difference in the fight against corruption?
Over the last decade, the world has witnessed several citizen uprisings with protestors coming from diverse cultural and religious backgrounds who increasingly raise their voices in a discourse that pleads for a responsive and accountable government that will act in lawful and transparent ways. As never before, common citizens from countries such as the Philippines, India, Bulgaria, Brazil and Egypt, among others, acknowledge corruption as damaging for their societies, and loudly demand an effective solution. This swell of citizen activism was the underlying motivation behind our research on so-called Anti-Corruption Revolutions – mass manifestations that reveal generalized discontent with the performance of government.
Through a mixed methodology that combines quantitative and qualitative research tools, we explore the question of whether an empowered civil society with access to public information, can make a difference in the fight against corruption. We prove that the availability of channels of accessing information has a positive effect on control of corruption, provided that civil society is engaged and able to actively participate in matters of public concern.
In the first stage of our research, we tested the existence of the joint effect of access to information and measurements of the strength of civil society on corruption through a cross-sectional econometric model in a sample of 125 countries. Besides finding supporting evidence for this main hypothesis, the results also showed that an increase in the perception of corruption over a period of time can have the effect of reducing levels of corruption in the following periods. In other words, we were able to show that perception not only follows a different dynamic than actual corruption indicators, but also that increases in corruption perception levels are not necessarily a sign of poor governance. A positive change in corruption perception can surge as a response to information becoming available, which in turn incentivizes civil society to consequently exert and demand control, leading to higher levels of control of corruption thereafter.
In the second stage of our research, an interpretative framework was built through a case study, in order to explore connections within our quantitative results.
In the context of anti-corruption revolutions, India is particularly interesting given that relevant legislation, several civil society organizations, and a political party with anti-corruption as main agenda – the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), blossomed as a result of the consolidation of the citizen anti-corruption movement. The nationwide mobilization against corruption that took place in 2011 influenced for instance, the design and scope of the Jan Lokpal Bill (Ombudsman Bill) put in place in 2013. Mechanisms aimed at reducing information asymmetries, such as the Right to Information Act in 2005, have also been in place in the country for almost a decade and Anna Hazare, the main leader of the anti-corruption movement, is considered by many to be a modern-day Gandhi.
The in-country research followed a design similar to process tracing that aimed at exploring the effect of the interaction found in the quantitative analysis between reduction of information asymmetries and civil society empowerment on corruption[i]. We traveled to New Delhi to conduct fifteen semi-structured interviews in 10 days with members of civil society organizations; independent journalist; members, volunteers and supporters of the AAP; and International Cooperation Agencies. Through our field work, we were able to identify the contextual factors that prompted the rise of the movement, the factors that determined its escalation, and the challenges and outputs of the movement, as outlined in the main research document.
Since anti-corruption reform was a central issue on the Indian political agenda during the time when we were conducting our research, we were able to find a strong support network of stakeholders that were both willing and interested in taking part in our research. The anti-corruption movement had also been given significant visibility in both social and traditional media, making it therefore a well-known crosscutting subject to all the interviewed actors. The timely proximity of the fieldwork to the national elections that took place last March also meant that there was a clear window of opportunity for exploring the topic, and especially for understanding the particularities that made the Indian case stand out. Nonetheless, the time and budget constrains we faced prevented us from being able to travel to rural areas around the city of Pune in India where we could have had the opportunity to meet with and interview Anna Hazare, as we originally intended. In addition, the proximity of the fieldwork to the national elections, made it difficult for us to contact many AAP candidates who were campaigning at the time. On a positive note, the anticipation of how the AAP would perform in the national elections certainly created a buzz around the Indian electoral and anti-corruption politics.
There are two main findings of the research. On the one hand, the effect of empowering civil society in the fight against corruption depends on the existence of information accessing channels – without information there is not much a strong civil society can do to fight corruption, and without a demanding and empowered civil society, information about corruption will not translate into change. In India, for instance, the Right to Information Act was an instrumental mechanism in corruption awareness-raising that was simultaneously a consequence and a cause of the empowerment of civil society.
On the other hand, the case study of the anti-corruption movement in India showed that for accountability and transparency to be truly effective in fighting corruption, they should be accompanied by a collectively organized civil society that demands actions against corruption and that is able to consolidate a movement with a unified discourse. Factors such as the leadership, narrative and targeted audiences were certainly identified as crucial in the consolidation and escalation of the India Against Corruption Movement.
Brief update on the case study
We finished our research in April 2014. What has happened in India since then?
In terms of control of corruption, the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) report published by Transparency International India in December 2014, states that India’s CPI score improved by increasing 2 points in 2014 from its 2013 score. Thus, India’s rank moved up to 85 in 2014 from 94 in 2013. The same report notes that such score possibly captured the anti-corruption mandate on which the new government was elected and reflects the possibility of some new reforms in this area, including the passing of all pending anti-corruption bills.
Regarding the AAP, the party did not win any seats during the parliamentary elections of 2014. Analysts consider that this was due to factors such as its inner antagonism and agitationist strategies, and the decrease of media and upper middle class support observed during the second semester of the current year. However, the party still exists and is active to the extent that the AAP is changing its electoral strategy in order to recover its voting base. Finally, another important update involves Mr. Arvin Kejriwal, the main AAP leader, whose engagement and achievements in the anti-corruption field has been widely recognized and who has been listed among the top 100 Global Thinkers (Foreign Policy Magazine 2013), the top 100 Most Influential People in the World (Time 2014), very recently too, he received the Asia’s Most Inspiring and Young Social Change Maker Award (World Brands Summit, December 6th, 2014).
[i] Fieldwork was funded by the Hertie School of Governance in the framework of its 10th Anniversary Jubilee Program and was also supported by the DAAD. Lastly, the research benefited from the support of different international organizations, such as ERCAS, Transparency International and the German Agency for International Cooperation GIZ.
** Lucía Ixtacuy, Julián Prieto, Mónica Wills all graduated from the Hertie School of Governance MPP programme in 2014. A working paper version of their research has also been published by ERCAS, Read it here.