The political nature of corruption and the necessarily political nature of the reform process can be illustrated by the experience of the United States in the 19th century (as I describe in Fukuyama 2014, chapters 9–11). American politics in that period was not too different from politics in contemporary developing democratic countries such as India, Brazil or Indonesia. Beginning in the 1820s, American states began extending the franchise to include all white males, vastly expanding the voter base and presenting politicians with the challenge of mobilising relatively poor and poorly educated voters. The solution, which appeared particularly after the 1828 presidential election that brought Andrew Jackson to power, was the creation of a vast clientelistic system. Elected politicians appointed their supporters to positions in the bureaucracy or rewarded them with individual payoffs like Christmas turkeys or bottles of bourbon. This system, known as the spoils or patronage system, characterised American government for the next century, from the highest federal offices down to local postmasters in every American town or city. As with other clientelistic systems, patronage led to astonishing levels of corruption, particularly in cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago where machine politicians ruled for generations.
But change is possible. Until well into the 19th century, the British public sector was very corrupt. Positions were bought and sold and contracts were awarded in return for bribes. Crises such as military humiliation in the Crimean War helped to shock governments into change. Opportunities for corruption were curtailed: recruitment and promotion were opened to competitive examinations. A new purposive ethic was promoted and serving the nation became the pinnacle of social prestige and self-worth. By the late 19th century, the British Civil Service had become honest and competent. This transformation was largely fortuitous rather than the result of a properly thought-through strategy. But its success reveals the key components of how change can be brought about.
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Journalists and the public alike expect prosecutors to act after each journalistic exposé, with the desired result being arrests, convictions, repatriation of lost assets and other positive outcomes. Owing to limited human resources and a lack of skills, interest or even competence, this expectation is not always realised. However, regardless of law enforcement action or inaction, public exposure can adversely affect, and even stop, criminal businesses operating in other jurisdictions. Such exposure can also influence long-term changes in public attitudes, which can lead, in turn, to protests against, and even election defeats for, discredited parties or politicians.
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The crippling impact of corruption on the delivery of these essential services has deepened economic inequalities, undermining faith in political processes, parties and politicians. In turn, this increases political volatility as politicians retreat to identity and personality politics with its complex web of non-negotiable irrationalities. It also feeds fundamentalism of all kinds – for example, ethnic, religious and sectarian.
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The power of these crime groups stems primarily from their ability to operate with ease across national frontiers. They complete a detailed risk assessment at the country level and then choose the least vulnerable approach to conduct their illicit activities, whether in narcotics, refugee trafficking or the massive money laundering exercises that follow such crimes. The problem for national law enforcement is that, by definition, it cannot follow this type of crime easily or quickly across borders. Data exchanges between states and law enforcement agencies take time. Modern crime schemes are designed to have very short lives to avoid detection, lasting sometimes just months before the associated companies and bank accounts are wound up and replaced by new ones.
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So how do we do this? How do we stop criminal gangs and the corrupt politicians they rely on – conducting business as usual? Firstly, I will argue, through data: more data means more transparency, provided the quality of information is there and supported by tools that allow proper analysis. Secondly, by journalists using advanced investigative techniques, including the emerging discipline of data journalism, to identify the patterns and practices inherent in corrupt activity.