Western accountability in the global anti-corruption dynamic

22nd June 2023

Author: Alexandra Hartwig, Masters graduate of Philosophy in Development Studies at the University of Cambridge

Alexandra Hartwig photo

The Fishrot files today: how has Namibia's largest corruption scandal evolved?

In my recent article, "Evaluating the cost of anti-corruption in political and economic terms: a case study approach," I explore a 2019 corruption scandal in Namibia's fishing sector. The Fishrot files, as the scandal has been cheekily named, is the largest in the country's history. It involves high-ranking Namibian officials who illegally allocated fishing rights to Samherji, an Icelandic processing company. The case highlights the disproportionate costs borne by developing countries in instances of cross-border financial crime. Though the trial has not yet started, the Namibian people have already paid high economic, environmental and political costs for the bribes accepted from Samherji. By the time the trial begins in October, nearly four years will have passed since the Fishrot files were exposed; and yet, the Icelandic firm has faced no repercussions for its involvement. In the absence of an extradition treaty between the countries, Samherji may never have to pay for the crimes it committed in Namibian waters.

As the officials involved await their time in court, Namibian citizens are already feeling Fishrot's effects. Corruption certainly has high costs across many dimensions, but my study highlights the fact that anti-corruption efforts can also have significant costs of their own. They can inadvertently cause reputational damage by drawing negative attention to a country or industry, which in turn can deter foreign direct investment and stunt economic growth.

New challenges in the Namibian fishing sector following the scandal are evidence of this effect. Not only have strained relations with Samherji resulted in a loss of jobs, but increased industry scrutiny after Fishrot has also led to negative employment outcomes (Dell, 2023). Researchers from Namibia's National University interviewed a number of individuals in the fishing sector; they found that many had unexpectedly lost their jobs and were unable to pay for their children's education, while others had even turned to crime to support themselves (ibid.). The cost of government-level corruption has become a very personal reality for these individuals.

Beyond Fishrot: anti-corruption and dynamics between Ukraine and the West

As I state more at length in my original article, I am critical of the disproportionately high price that Namibians have paid for the Fishrot scandal. I argue that this case exemplifies an unsettling imbalance in accountability between the global East and West. My conclusion recommends a more holistic approach to anti-corruption efforts – one that recognises the high cost of expectations imposed on developing countries by the West.

The reputational cost of failing to meet these expectations is often overlooked, but it has meaningful implications for developing countries. A negative Western perception of corruption levels can preclude countries from political and economic opportunities, limiting access and delaying progress towards development objectives. Since writing on the Fishrot scandal, I have observed this dynamic at play in the engagement between the West and wartime Ukraine.

Ukraine's perceived levels of corruption have been at the centre of the conversation on sovereignty and military aid. On one side, Russia has capitalised on Ukraine's corrupt reputation in an attempt to undermine its credibility on the global stage. Russia has reframed Ukraine's campaign against corruption to suggest that the country is too crime-ridden and unstable to self-govern (Shankar & Savage, 2023). Ukraine, on the other side, has aggressively prioritised anti-corruption initiatives to refute this suggestion. The loss of several public officials to corruption scandals has certainly not been ideal, especially in wartime, but President Volodymyr Zelenzky understands that improving the country's reputation is essential for maintaining support from the West (Waterhouse & Chatterjee, 2023). Both military aid from Western allies and the acceptance of Ukraine into the European Union are contingent upon proving that the country has the political will and ability to root out corruption (ibid.).

As part of this anti-corruption campaign, Ukraine has adopted the Dekleptification Guide, a handbook drafted by the United States for combating corruption globally (USAID, 2022). It outlines reforms for cleaning up businesses and the courts, while also pushing for greater financial transparency. The handbook calls for "public transparency," a detail that has been pivotal in bringing corrupt officials to justice in Ukraine over the last several months (ibid.). "Public transparency" requires that non-governmental agents have access to information about public officials' spending. This information can be – and has been – leveraged to identify corrupt activity and excessive spending within the wartime government.

The bar for "public transparency" is quite high. As I've noted, satisfying Western expectations for anti-corruption can be costly for developing countries, and the heightened stakes in wartime arguably add a premium to that cost. Among the individuals who have stepped down as part of the "dekleptification" were high-ranking officials in Ukraine, including the deputy minister of defence and the deputy head of President Zelensky's office. Losing key leadership in the midst of a war is disruptive, but a zero-tolerance policy is key for shoring up confidence in the West.

Interestingly, the United States fails to satisfy the level of transparency that its own guide recommends for other countries. A recent article in the New Yorker calls attention to this fact, asserting that the United States has itself has become a "prime nesting place" for financial crime (Lardner, 2023). The author criticises the government for failing to pass stricter financial transparency legislation, arguing that America cannot say that it has even begun to "heed its own good advice" (ibid.). Similarly, the European Union demands that Ukraine crack down on corruption before it can be admitted to the bloc, and yet, the European Union parliament is embroiled in its own money laundering scandal for accepting bribes from Qatar.

Next steps in the fight against global corruption

In both the cases in Namibia and Ukraine, it is evident that Western control over the anti-corruption narrative has led to an imbalance in accountability. My hope is that the reader will come away from my earlier study on the Fishrot files and this discourse on Ukraine with a more critical eye for global anti-corruption dynamics. There is work to be done in improving anti-corruption outcomes in both the East and the West, and that process begins with recognising the disproportionately high cost of corruption borne by developing countries.

About the author

Alexandra Hartwig completed her master's degree at the University of Cambridge in 2022. She received a Master of Philosophy in Development Studies with distinction as a Lenox-Conyngham Scholar.

Alexandra previously earned undergraduate degrees with distinction in both Commerce and Religious Studies from the University of Virginia. She specialised in finance specifically, and her professional experience includes consulting and investment banking in the renewable energy and infrastructure sectors.

Alexandra is particularly interested in the intersection of international commerce and ethics, especially as it relates to issues of poverty and corruption. She is currently working as an Associate Consultant at Bain & Company in New York City.


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