The International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) took place in Washington DC from 6-11 December 2022. The CSC’s Dan Hough reflects on an intriguing week.
The International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) is the calling card of the international anti-corruption community. In December 2022 over 2,000 participants from all round the world came together in Washington DC for this biennial event. The key questions driving discussions at the 2022 jamboree were ones that anti-corruption activists everywhere will easily recognise; which anti-corruption policies, approaches, strategies and tactics work in affecting change? Which of these have had less success and why might that have been the case? What needs to be done differently? How best can the anti-corruption agenda (continue to) be meaningfully mainstreamed?
The questions that were asked through five days of at times lively discussion are certainly intellectually challenging. Implementing any answers is also practically far from straightforward. Be that as it may, those questions have relevance round the globe – corruption remains far from a preserve of any one set of countries – and that was reflected in the fact that participants had travelled from far and wide to be there.
Those participants were generally activists, although there was also the usual smattering of academics, lawyers and members of various governmental organisations. Although this particular academic has been thinking about corruption and anti-corruption for longer than he cares to remember, it was my first in-person experience of how an IACC works in practice. It was an enlightening one.
The thing you immediately notice is the enthusiasm and energy that so many activists bring to the event. There is an infectious sense of impatience and indeed a need to ‘do something’. The feeling of bamboozlement at the many acronyms evident in the conference programme soon gives way to an awareness that organisations both large and small are trying their best to make the world a better place. For regular participants in big political science conferences where methodological disputes are par for the course, where your statistical approach of choice often becomes the key discussion point and where process often seems to be much more important than outcome, the feeling of relevance and real-worldness at the IACC came as a real breath of fresh air.
The panels inevitably focussed on some themes more than others. The challenge of getting beneficial ownership legislation right was a constant topic, as was the issue of de-kleptification (a term that even those who spend their living thinking about it admit is decidedly clunky) and the nexus between climate change and corruption. Examples of folks engaging with all of these things were much to the fore.
Plus, of course, one of the key purposes of an event like this is to bring people together so that they can take discussions forward informally. The IACC offers a forum to (horrible though the term is) network, see if ideas might fly and to compare notes on how much progress is being made. The world of Zoom undoubtedly adds something to our lives, but meeting, chatting, discussing and pondering also happens offline in the corners away from the conference rooms. IACC really is an excellent forum for doing all of that.
And yet. Much as the event was both interesting and at times positively inspiring, I couldn’t help but feel that a few tricks were being missed somewhere along the line. Three things in particular spring to mind.
Firstly, as noted above, academia (particularly in the USA) can have a fixation on methodology. Discussing which type of multivariate regression analysis to use really can be the main point running through papers given at conferences organised by bodies such as the Midwest Political Science Association (MPSA) and the American Political Science Association (APSA). No one can accuse participants at the IACC of falling into that particular trap.
However, at times things did go too far the other way. Anecdotes and stories obviously have their place, particularly in terms of talking about lived experiences. Stepping back and injecting (just a bit of) analytical rigour does nonetheless help in coming up with more sustainable solutions. Method and theory matter not because they appear to some to add a veneer of academic respectability. It’s more that they add more backbone to the explanations and they offer great opportunities to develop solutions that aren’t relevant to one (often quite) specific context.
Secondly, there will always be some issues that get less airtime than they others. That can be for a whole load of eminently understandable reasons. Many of those who bemoan the absence of something can also actually be saying that what they *really* want is more of what they themselves research on/engage with. That’s a circle that conference organisers will never be able to completely square.
Yet it seems odd that a conference on corruption that’s being held in Washington DC engaged very little with the role that money plays in all of this. Lawrence Lessig famously talked of Congress – a building little more than three miles from the conference venue – being the home of institutional corruption. Politics ‘inside the beltway’ is the politics of influence-trading, lobbying and financial gain. That there are corruption stories to be told there would have been obvious to more or less all participants …. yet there was very little specifically on any of that. I’ve little doubt that some of this comes down to the conference organisers creating a programme around the suggested panel topics that were put to them. Maybe there just wasn’t the willingness to talk about these things. Perhaps this is where the organisers might need to go out and approach the experts to come and get involved. Either way, it felt odd that this got so little traction.
One example illustrated that quite nicely. Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State and an all round big hitter in the Washington world of politics, spent two hours at the IACC on Friday evening. He acted as a question-master in a (rather oddly named) fireside chat with three (impressive) anti-corruption activists. All fine. But maybe someone in Blinken’s position could have been asked to say something substantive? It would probably have been unreasonable to have expected Blinken to subject himself to a rigorous Q & A from what could have been an unpredictable audience, but to get him along and then for him to say, well, basically nothing seemed rather odd somehow.
Finally, corruption is about power. Discussions of power lead you inexorably to discussions of politics. As Mark Philp persuasively argued back in 1997, your understanding of corruption will be indelibly linked to what you understand the appropriate nature of politics to be. For some, politics is about deal-making and finding ways of getting things done. For others, those same deals and the same drive to get achieve goals can be symptoms of a system where corruption is very much in the game.
Why does that matter? It matters because purity of principle was much in evidence at the IACC. And that is in many ways to be lauded. But enacting change involves engaging with folks who you might not necessarily want to engage with. It involves compromise. It involves forgoing some things in order to achieve broader aims. In other words, moving the anti-corruption agenda forward involves engaging in politics.
There was very little at the IACC on how to get things done. We heard lots about protest (and that’s good), we heard lots about awareness-raising (and that’s good, too). But how do you get those turkeys (in power) to vote for Christmas (a Christmas that might well see them lose portions their power)? Constructive engagement has to be a part of the armoury, and more analysis of how that sort of constructive engagement might pan out in practice would have been really enlightening. To be clear, the IACC is a super event and it has a lot going for it. I’m certainly looking forward to the next one (scheduled for 2024 and taking place in Lithuania). In the spirit of nothing ever being perfect, I do nonetheless think that it might well be possible to make a good event even better.