Look beyond the nation-state: Local-level success stories may reflect different power dynamics

Look beyond the nation-state: Local-level success stories may reflect different power dynamics

Look beyond the nation-state: Local-level success stories may reflect different power dynamics

Tom Shipley

The corruption field has long had a preoccupation with country-level study, with national ‘Corruption Perception Indicators’ setting the tone since the 1990s. This focus is gradually being challenged. Paul Heywood, for example, has highlighted how disparities in corruption at the sub-national level do not respect the country borders we see on the map and questioned why so many anti-corruption measures focus at the national level. He considers that part of the reason may be a natural desire in the field to find answers to ‘big’ questions. Another explanation could be a mode of thinking known in regional studies within political science as ‘methodological nationalism’. This is the ‘unreflected choice of the nation-state as a unit of analysis’, which glosses over regional variation and the complexity of multi-level statehood. In heterogeneous countries, local conditions and political settlements can sometimes present better opportunities for corruption reform irrespective of state-wide circumstances.

Such a perspective among anti-corruption professionals seems slowly to be starting to change. Many innovative new approaches are to be found at the sectoral level. Examples include the Infrastructure Transparency Initiative, the Maritime Anti-Corruption Network and Transparency International’s Defence and Security Programme to name but three. When it comes to sub-national administrations, the Open Government Partnership launched a pilot programme in 2016 which is open to government at the local, municipal, city, or regional level. Integrity Action has also initiated community integrity building initiatives. However, these examples are few when we consider the importance of sub-national administrations in service delivery and the wide scope for their involvement in anti-corruption reform. Some of the inherent challenges for the field, such as measuring and attributing the effects of anti-corruption interventions, would also be more manageable in more defined settings.

An example from Nigeria

Nigeria illustrates well the limitations of an exclusive focus at country level. Its federal structure has three tiers of government – the federal centre, 36 states and over 770 Local Government Areas (LGAs) – and oversees a highly diverse country where the conditions for reform vary markedly across its regions. Although the LGAs have been the focus of one recent study by the Overseas Development Institute, the role of the states in anti-corruption has been little explored despite the fact that they are key service providers and manage around half of national revenue. This is likely because of well-warranted scepticism about governance standards in the states: the majority are highly indebted, dependent on hand-outs from the centre and serve as the personal fiefdoms of all-powerful governor figures, no shortage of whom have featured in Nigeria’s highest profile cases of grand corruption. This general picture should nonetheless not lead us to overlook cases where there are signs of change.

Lagos state, home to the commercial capital and with a population size estimated to be greater than two-thirds of African countries, is one such example. Whilst the narrative of transformation – from chaotic sprawl to modern megacity – can at times seem stretched, there is no denying marked improvement in governance since the end of military rule in 1999. This is best demonstrated by the dramatic increase in annual tax revenues which rose from $190m in 1999 to over $1bn in 2011. Increased revenues have led to major investment in infrastructure and seen the state attract significant private investment as well as flattering international media coverage.

Anti-corruption has not been an explicit focus of governance reform, but there are several measures where the goals of improving service delivery and reducing corruption most naturally converge. In October 2011, the state adopted a procurement law, which introduced a regulatory board and revised tendering procedures. Although the act contains flaws and transparency is still lacking, its adoption puts Lagos far ahead of many of its state peers which have not domesticated federal procurement law. Another important measure was the adoption in 2009 of a financial autonomy law for the State House of Assembly, which has enabled the House at times to demonstrate assertiveness in challenging the state executive, whereas in most other states the relationship is largely subservient.

Nobody would claim Lagos has resolved its corruption problems and its performance on different governance indicators has been mixed. As is generally the case in sub-national contexts, studies on the effects of these measures on lowering corruption are unfortunately lacking. However, what we can see from this brief example is that the conditions for measures to take hold are present at a level of government which might have been thought of as off limits for anti-corruption work.

Identifying local opportunities for anti-corruption

In the Lagos case, there are three major contextual factors which created the right conditions for these reforms. The first is the historical distance politically between Lagos state and the centre. The state has long been a centre of opposition politics, where competitive local politics and civic activism puts pressure on elites to deliver services in addition to meeting patronage demands. Some reforms, such as the attention to internally generated revenue after a dispute over federal funding, were born out of confrontation with the centre and fostered self-reliance. To this can be added the importance of pockets of bureaucratic effectiveness in key agencies which have implemented reforms. And finally, there is the role of leadership. Lagos state’s two previous governors, Bola Tinubu (1999 – 2007) and Babatunde Fashola (2007 – 2015), while not without controversy, had a vision for the state supported by a diversified elite, which has often not been in evidence elsewhere. These factors make it possible to speak of an emerging social contract between the state government and citizens into which anti-corruption measures (both direct and indirect) might be bound.

There are other examples scattered across the literature where distinctive local conditions created an environment for reform. A study of successful anti-corruption measures in the Bolivian capital La Paz highlighted the role of visionary leadership by the former mayor, Juan del Granado, as well as bureaucratic reforms promoting integrity in the city’s civil service. In Guangdong province, China, a combination of leadership and civic activism have led to more scrutiny of government actions and ultimately lower misuse of public funds than in other provinces. This has been supported by a long history of open government in Guangdong, which has included publishing all local budgets online since 2010. Innovations in governance in China have often developed from experimentation in its provinces.

These cases suggest that as anti-corruption work engages more at the sub-national level, it must move beyond an exclusively country frame of analysis. The distinct local practices of governance and the relationship between the administration and public need to be clearly understood. Anti-corruption measures must be designed to align with salient local, rather than national, political priorities. And if local elites are key to instigating and determining the success of reforms then we must also recognise that the motivations guiding their actions may be fundamentally different from what we see at the country level. Sub-national examples of progress against corruption are out there but they have generally not been brought to the surface. It seems worth our efforts to build up the evidence on effective anti-corruption strategies at levels of government below the nation state.

Tom Shipley is an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded PhD researcher at the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption