Easy and Hard: Developing a Strategic Anti-corruption Presence in the U.S.
By Zoe Reiter
Zoe Reiter is acting representative to the United States for Transparency International, and its senior project leader on major international anti-corruption initiatives.
It has been nearly 10 years since I last worked for Ford as a consultant, doing so almost non-stop for 12 years. Since then I have been working for Transparency International (TI), the network of more than 100 independent civil society organizations, or “national chapters”, battling corruption and defending democracy around the world.
Two-thirds of TI’s national chapters are in the Global South. Unfortunately, we have never had a strong presence in the United States, which is why TI is the largest and most powerful anti-corruption organization that most Americans have never heard of.
This will change, hopefully. Since earlier this year, I have been tasked by TI’s leadership to work with U.S.-based stakeholders to develop a strategy for a renewed TI presence in the United States with two goals: One, to support the reduction of domestic corruption in the U.S. and, two, amplify regional and global efforts to tackle systemic corruption by connecting the dots between US-based stakeholders and the TI movement and partners throughout the world around shared areas of concern.
The latter goal, connecting the dots to amplify global and regional anti-corruption efforts, is a fairly straightforward pursuit. Figuring out how best to support efforts to tackle domestic abuse of power for private gain, which is TI’s definition of corruption, is a bit more complicated. As one friend suggested, this is both an easy and a hard job.
What about this job is easy? First, and foremost, in the wake of the 2016 elections corruption is much more on the radar of U.S. civil society organizations. President Donald Trump’s election has been a wake-up call on multiple levels.
It became clear in the election that establishment political rhetoric was no longer convincing to a large portion of the American electorate. Whether you were a Bernie Bro calling out oligarchy and claiming the system is rigged, a Trumpian seeking to drain the swamp or someone who merely chose to sit out the election, it has become difficult to disagree with the argument that a considerable portion of voters has little faith in the ability of elected officials to consider their needs rather than those of special interests.
This problem analysis, that the political class is largely captured by special, typically corporate and hyper-wealthy interests, increasingly guides the strategic interventions of many of TI’s chapters.
Second, Trump’s practices since becoming president have illuminated some of the systemic problems that weaken the capacity of our democracy to reflect the interests and voices of its people. Case in point: How many of us had heard, much less understood, the word “emoluments” before?
I won’t outline all the ways in which engaged Americans today have a much clearer understanding of how our legislative frameworks are actually quite limited in their capacity to fight what we at TI call “legal corruption”. But just to begin with, our conflict of interest codes, capacity to hide illicit connections in anonymous off-shore accounts, and such recent Supreme Court decisions as McConnell and Citizens United, underscore our failure as a society to make politics more resilient against incursions by the super-wealthy to control political outcomes.
This is not just about our campaign finance laws. Much of the tactics of this capture have been in the making for decades, including the dark arts of influencing public opinion long before a voter gets to the polls. Consider, for examples, the Koch Brother’s funding of think tanks and covertly-funded opinion shapers, and the media moguls and other actors who hide their own interests in wealth-accrual behind a “personal responsibility” spin that has successfully divided the working class along color lines.
The dark arts involve the backing of media pundits and news stories that misconstrue facts to paint a picture of refugees as a threat to national security, and the African-American poor and Latino immigrants as a drain on the economy.
The dark arts also include the systematic disenfranchisement of American voters. Whether through gerrymandering or voter suppression tactics, America is cutting a disenfranchisement path of its own. In most of the countries where TI works, the problem is at the polls themselves, tinkering with the results or paying off voters overtly or through clientelistic practices to sustain one candidate over the other. But many U.S. states, with the support of the White House, are working along multiple lines of voter suppression in order to disenfranchise particular groups of people within the electorate, especially African-Americans.
So, this is what is hard: The evidence-based advocacy which has been the bread and butter of U.S. civil society has hit a wall of punditry so high that simply “speaking truth to power” is not enough.
If TI is going to support U.S.-based efforts to reduce corruption we need to work with our civil society organization partners to create new narratives that engage not only the traditional base of supporters for anti-corruption efforts, but also effectively engage the “persuadables” across the country, regardless of party affiliation.
But in order to engage those persuadables, we need to understand the issue from their perspective. We need to understand what persuadables mean and feel when they talk about the system being rigged and draining the swamp, and we need to find our shared values regarding the role of democracy in America.
Which brings me to something else that is tricky about my work in the U.S. For many Americans (not to mention donors and other civil society organizations) the word “corruption” traditionally has been understood in its more basic sense of bribery. For TI, bribery, both small and large, is of course a bread and butter issue. But as a movement, we have evolved over the decades to take a much more aggressive and systemic look at corruption writ large, especially grand corruption epitomized by the systemic political capture by kleptocrats, despots and oligarchs.
So, fundamentally this is a question of defending democracy. If the experience of TI around the world has demonstrated anything, it is that the abuse of power undermines democracy and consolidates wealth into the hands of kleptocrats, authoritarians and nativist populists, and that anti-corruption approaches are an essential component for rights-based outcomes.
This is why TI is delighted to collaborate with Global Integrity and the Sunlight Foundation to host several “Democracy Dialogues” in Washington, D.C. and around the country, bringing civil society representatives from around the world to share their experiences with U.S. democracy defenders along three inter-related lines: media, corruption and elections.
There is much more to say about what is hard and what is easy about working with U.S. civil society to identify what might be the best role TI can play in tackling domestic corruption. One major challenge is that open governance activists are largely urban and largely white. We need to engage Americans on this issue in a way that does not doubly marginalize communities of color while creating in-roads to engage white, non-urban Americans as well, many of whom themselves live in conditions of poverty and weak access to health care, education and transportation.
Clearly it is time to start networking the activists who have been tackling and identifying the abuse of power from different angles in the U.S. But that work can only be built slowly, based on a shared understanding both of the problem at hand and the values that unite us.
For any information regarding our work in the U.S., to make suggestions or voice concerns, please do not hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Zoe Reiter went to work for the Ford Foundation in 1996 as a consultant for the Human Resources office, and beginning in 1998 consulted for several offices, primarily the Education, Sexuality and Religion unit. She coordinated the Women and Social Change Task Force, and wrote an internal report for the Higher Education program on the history of the Foundation’s social science funding.