- Assessing Progress in Transparency and Anticorruption
At the turn of the twenty-first century, as part of an overall trend toward market reforms and so-called neoliberal policies, transparency and anticorruption became buzzwords in international development. The promise of uncorrupt governments managing transparent information was as simple as it was appealing: increase government transparency, get rid of corruption, enforce the rule of law and all your problems would go away. Proponents argued that transparency would help deepen and consolidate democracy because stakeholders would have access to information, reducing the asymmetries that breed inequalities in the representation of society’s interests.1 Ending corruption would get rid of rent-seeking induced inefficiencies in the economy, allowing for increased effectiveness that would help lower extreme poverty and perhaps curb inequality.2 Even after international [End Page 262] mandates to reduce the size of governments, privatize public companies, liberalize trade, and deregulate had weakened, transparency and corruption remained cornerstones of international development policy. In other words, the promise of transparency and anticorruption, if not as immediately impactful as other contemporary policy mantras, has been as long lasting as any in shaping policies in the developing world, particularly in Latin America.
It is time to take stock. Is the promise of transparency and anticorruption still alive and well in Latin America? Have we revised expectations about its implications? How has our knowledge advanced in terms of measuring the effects of transparency policies? Coming from different disciplines and focusing on different cases, the books reviewed in this essay help answer these questions through different yet compelling approaches, providing a comprehensive picture of the status of corruption, transparency, and accountability in the region. A number of common threads run through these books, including the improvement—or lack thereof—of accountability mechanisms, the role of formal institutions such as legislatures and bureaucracies, the pervasiveness of common corrupt practices such as bribery, nepotism, clientelism, or patronage, and the stickiness of formal and informal institutions and practices.
This review essay starts with broader works and proceeds to narrower studies that address specific institutions, practices, and cases. The first section looks at two cross-national comparative studies. Stephen D. Morris and Charles H. Blake review the status of corruption in the region, and Merilee S. Grindle examines reform efforts to create more professionalized bureaucracies. The second section treats the Brazilian case. Timothy J. Power and Matthew M. Taylor’s edited volume provides an understanding of the electoral impacts of corruption and the roles of accountability institutions charged with addressing corruption. Meanwhile, Amy Chazkel’s book offers historical analysis of the jogo do bicho, a clandestine but long-standing lottery that sheds light on some deeply embedded attitudes prominent in Brazilian culture. The third section shifts to perennially underexplored cases, examining Carlos Guevara Mann’s work on the pursuit of personal gain in the Panamanian Assembly, and Kregg Hetherington’s outstanding ethnography on peasant activists using transparency claims to aid their political struggles. The final section concludes by providing an overall assessment of the findings and insights that this remarkable collection of...