Mushtaq Khan, Professor of Economics at SOAS, University of London, is an internationally renowned economist who regularly teaches on IACA’s Master in Anti-Corruption Studies (MACS) programme. (The next MACS programme starts in October 2015, and the application deadline is 30 June.)
His research interests are in institutional economics, where he has done innovative work on many aspects of corruption. Professor Khan, who was born in Dhaka, is a member of the Committee of Experts on Public Administration at the UN, and a member of the Panel of Experts on Policy Implementation at the World Bank.
He recently spoke with IACA about teaching MACS participants, his current research, and developing feasible anti-corruption strategies.
This is the second time you’ve taught on the MACS programme. What’s it like teaching here and interacting with the participants?
I find that the participants are incredibly good. And that’s because they all come from some history that makes them particularly interested in anti-corruption. They’re not random people. Many of them are practitioners in different agencies, or have a deep interest in the subject. So they’re not only listening and taking notes, but they’re also engaged, and they continuously ask very perceptive questions. So it’s a productive experience, both for them and for the lecturer.
You have a busy and varied research agenda. In terms of anti-corruption, what are you focusing on at the moment?
My focus is on feasible anti-corruption strategies that can actually be implemented and have a high impact. So I take a broader political economy perspective of the drivers of corruption in developing countries and then use that to investigate the processes involved.
I’ve been working on corruption for a very long time, at both the analytical and policy levels. I have done a lot of theoretical work on the drivers of corruption, different types of corruption, and their impact. But I also work with institutions like the UK Department for International Development (DFID) or the World Bank or UNDP, looking at the policy-relevant aspects of anti-corruption. I just finished a multi-country study on corruption in Nepal, Sierra Leone, and Bangladesh for DFID. I’m also working now on a programme about education sector corruption in Viet Nam.
You mentioned feasible anti-corruption strategies. Could you say a bit more about what they might involve?
Essentially they involve abandoning a generic anti-corruption programme that tries to attack all types of corruption at the same time with instruments like transparency, accountability, democratization, and liberalization. The problem is that in most developing countries corruption is structural. Everybody from the top downwards is involved in some form of corruption, and much of this is because political leaders and parties are engaged in different forms of rent distribution through informal channels, which are technically corruption. If you try to attack that, you are really talking about fundamental revolutionary changes in the politics of countries. That might be required, but it’s not what I’m good at. I have no recommendations for revolution.
So I work at the level of economic policies and regulations that have a big impact on economic progress, how companies operate, their competitiveness, support policies of different types, education, health, and so on. If you can redesign policies so that it becomes easier to manage the rents to control and discipline the people who are getting the support, then you can improve the outcome by changing the incentives of some of the players. That inevitably involves an element of anti-corruption, but the aim here is primarily to improve outcomes.
So you look at anti-corruption as an instrument for achieving better outcomes, not as an end in itself?
Right. And that makes it easier to sell, because when you look at a corrupt process in a developing country, there are winners and losers. If you have the same anti-corruption strategy for both groups, then you have no support, because even the compliant people have to engage in corruption to survive. So you have to construct a set of multi-pronged policy interventions that enable the potentially compliant to be compliant and deliver better outcomes, and separate them from those who don’t want to be or can’t be compliant. I think a lot of anti-corruption fails because it doesn’t think like that. It sees corruption as a problem that needs to be addressed in general.
Does your opposition to generic anti-corruption approaches mean that you are more in favour of a country-by-country approach? Or do you still think there’s room for regional or global prescriptions?
I think regional or global prescriptions are useful in terms of setting standards and having something to which you aspire. But they are not useful for telling you what to do on the ground. You not only need country-based approaches; you really have to understand the processes at a sectoral level if you’re going to have any impact. A competitive sector in a developing country has different problems from emerging sectors, infrastructure sectors, and service delivery sectors.
If you had one piece of advice for the MACS participants, what might that be?
There are many approaches to anti-corruption and many analytical frameworks for looking at it, and they might often be saying different things. The objective of a course like this is to open the participants’ eyes to these debates. We’re not here to tell them what to do. We’re here to give them a range of different experiences and analytical frameworks, and then it’s up to them to understand which ones make sense in their context, and to make responsible choices. If I can contribute to making the MACS participants more analytically aware and thinking practitioners, then I would feel I’ve succeeded.