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The fight against corruption in Latin America requires greater ambition

La lucha contra la corrupción en América Latina requiere de una mayor ambición

Silvana Fumega|

The Open Government Partnership (OGP) Regional Meeting comes at a tense political moment in the region. A variety of “scandals” – mostly linked to a lack of public ethics, accountability and/or to corruption – have occupied the news in recent months (these are well known and I will not mention them here). In this context, many voices have been raised to deride the quality of democracy in some Latin American countries. In this connection, one can see positive and not-so-positive points…

The good news is that, even if in many cases the democratic regimes are still young, the underlying values of these regimes have been largely established as the only available option for Latin America. Latin American societies no longer call for solutions that would overstep the bounds or go beyond the channels established by democratic institutions. Moreover, the large debts of the governments of the region cannot be underestimated.

The “not-so-positive” news is that, while the region has taken and continues to take great strides forward in terms of transparency, corruption levels (or, more exactly, people’s perceptions of corruption levels) have not declined, quite the opposite. For a long time greater levels of transparency have been associated with lower levels of corruption. But greater transparency, although clearly needed, is not enough. The classic differentiation made by Fox (2007) between ‘opaque’ and ‘clear’ transparency and between ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ accountability helps us to understand why, in the fight against corruption, access to information about government actions is necessary but not sufficient.

Transparency makes clear reference to access to reliable information about institutional activity, with specifications about the responsibilities of officials as well as the use of public funds. However, ‘clear transparency’ on its own does not guarantee ‘strong accountability.’ The latter implies not only ‘answerability’ (responsibility) but also the possibility of the application of effective sanctions when necessary (Fox, 2007).

Following this brief explanation it is obvious that, in the fight against corruption, it is necessary to have both clear transparency and also strong accountability (responsibility + sanctions). In Fox’s terms, answerability should not be expected to come out of opaque transparency, just as strong accountability should not be expected from answerability. For this reason, in order to go from transparency to strong accountability (indispensable for bringing about changes in behavior and, in this way, for being able to fight corruption) it is necessary to have a clear regulatory system, an independent judiciary and a strong civil society that demands accountability for all government actions.

In this context, many of the commitments included in OGP National Action Plans (NAPs) relate to the need to have more information (and, of course, data) about the activities of governments – that is to say, greater transparency. But, if this increased transparency is not accompanied by deeper changes it will not ultimately curb impunity, which results in the failure of so many measures that on paper would seem to contribute to less-corrupt societies. Among others things, some of these changes should be related to achieving judiciaries (in reality, members of judiciaries) that are truly independent as well as to creating institutional mechanisms that guarantee administrative and/or judicial sanctions (depending on the case).

Lastly, it is also necessary to highlight the need for there to be organized and engaged civil society actors willing to demand accountability from their leaders. In many cases, these organizations have the necessary expertise to monitor government actions that to ordinary citizens might appear very technical and complex.

Commitments in the Americas related to anti-corruption and their potential impact (Source: OGP Explorer)

In conclusion, there are no magic formulas. There are many elements and actors needed to implement measures that will be effective in reducing the high levels of corruption in many countries in the region. OGP, which recently created an Anti-Corruption Working Group, provides an ideal platform for including a wide range of actors from diverse fields. But the incorporation of these actors (which in many cases are already collaborating) is only the first step. More ambitious commitments must be pursued – commitments which will lead to real change. Without this, we will only see partial, isolated improvements. It is a question of all of us, each from our own country and social sector, promoting and striving to achieve effective changes that will improve the quality of life of all Latin Americans.

References:

Fox, J. (2007). The uncertain relationship between transparency and accountability. Development in Practice, 17 (4-5), 663-671.

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