Foreign Policy Blogs

Government-civil society coop(era)tion

This month was the biannual International Anti-Corruption Conference, which took place this year in Bangkok. The conference is an opportunity for a large portion of the world’s people who are thinking about corruption to get together, share ideas, learn what’s new, and of course schmooze (a bit).

The theme of the conference this year was “Restoring Trust”. Presumably that is a theme running through nearly all anti-corruption work, so it likely says more about the state of the world today than the topics covered.

One workshop I found especially interesting was entitled “Corruption Knowledge or Knowledge on Corruption?”. It focused on multi-stakeholder research, meaning corruption research that brings together both government and civil society. Case studies were given from such CPI stellar performers as Tajikistan and Vietnam. The lesson from all presenters was that more could be done in these challenging contexts by partnering with the government than blatantly opposing the authorities and risking the consequences.

The Vietnam example was presented by Dang Hoang-Giang of the local Center for Community Support Development Studies (CECODES). This is one of the only groups in the country that could be considered a think tank, producing (generally) independent data and analysis that could be useful to policymakers. Most NGOs in Vietnam focus on basic services, which are less likely to bring them into conflict with the government than advocacy. CECODES is no Brookings Institution (I have not even been able to find a working website), but it manages to put out reports in one of the most challenging environments for civil society on the planet. One interesting innovation is that it formed as a corporation instead of as an NGO in order to facilitate its work.

CECODES presented on a multi-stakeholder study it had done of accountability in the water sector. Another of the organization’s innovations is that in order to conduct the study, it partnered with the Vietnamese Fatherland Front (VFF), which has close ties to the Communist Party and, by extension, the government. The VFF is generally involved in government social programs, as well as in approving election candidates. However, CECODES took advantage of the VFF’s mandate to express the voice of the people in order to elicit their support for a public opinion survey on quality of water services in the country. The focus was on quality rather than explicitly on corruption because setting out to uncover corruption in government services would not have been as conducive to CECODES’s continued operations. With the support of the VFF, CECODES was able to conduct a full study of the water sector (including, more tacitly, corruption) and subtly push for improvement in this basic service.

The Vietnamese and other examples on the panel were very positively portrayed, displaying all the benefits of a multi-stakeholder process: not only do you have the buy-in of the government up front, thus presumably smoothing your path as well as hopefully paving the way for sincere use of the end results, but you have access to a range of perspectives and expertise, which should improve the validity of your results. But the title of the workshop, “Corruption Knowledge or Knowledge on Corruption?” was not really addressed as such. That is, if you bring into the process the very people who are behind most of the problems, can you really solve them?

In Vietnam there is a good case to be made, since the government there is so opaque and so unforgiving towards opposition that chipping around the edges is a major endeavor in itself. But another case study was of ongoing research in Uganda. Ugandan civil society may not be fully free to operate in all situations, but it nevertheless functions reasonably well. This means that a multi-stakeholder approach there must go beyond what happens in Vietnam, where it might be enough simply to conduct such a study at all. In Uganda, research involving the government will only prove its worth if it uncovers hard-hitting facts about deficiencies, and then the government makes serious efforts to remedy them. Otherwise we are blurring the line between cooperating and co-opting.