MJ conferenceThe anti-corruption community is in danger of becoming an echo chamber with too much consensus and not enough debate, Michael Johnston, Distinguished Professor at IACA, said at an event co-organized by IACA and the US Embassy in Austria on Monday.

In a wide-ranging lecture in Vienna on anti-corruption since the end of the Cold War, Prof. Johnston noted that despite changing attitudes towards corruption and greatly increased efforts to combat it, the last three decades have seen “high hopes, indifferent results”.

“It’s been a very exciting time but also frustrating. After 30 years the number of success stories is depressingly few,” he observed. “I would encourage the anti-corruption movement to take a step back, catch its breath, and do some fresh thinking.”

Prof. Johnston, who is also Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Colgate University in the United States, pointed to several common shortcomings in current anti-corruption efforts around the world.  

These include a “one-size-fits-all” approach to different countries and regions, and a “zero-tolerance” policy that can become counter-productive when the costs of additional anti-corruption measures outweigh the benefits.

Moreover, he continued, too many anti-corruption actions deal with symptoms instead of systemic problems, or make general appeals to civic virtue that fail to address citizens’ direct interests. Furthermore, corruption is often seen as a purely national trait when it is more often an international or sub-national phenomenon.

“By looking at corruption just as a national thing we’re missing about 95% of what’s important and interesting,” he asserted.

Prof. Johnston said more anti-corruption efforts should be linked to specific areas in which people have a direct stake, such as improving schools, police forces, public utilities, and permit issuance.

In addition, and despite the importance of local context, countries can learn from success stories elsewhere. Finally, he urged the audience to remember that fighting corruption is a long-term process that needs more than two or three years to yield significant results.

“Let’s remember the value of contention – about who will govern, how, and within what limits. Let’s be a bit more tolerant of the political. And let’s realize the full complexity of bringing greater justice to a society,” he concluded.

The lecture was followed by questions from the audience that addressed the links between corruption and issues including security, social media, money-laundering, and bitcoin.

Prof. Johnston also lectured at IACA last week to the new 2017 – 2019 Master in Anti-Corruption Studies class.