Beating Corruption by Building Consensus

Beating Corruption by Building Consensus

By Jeff Baron

Staff Writer

Brian Pinkowski started his career by dealing with environmental disasters, but he’s become an expert in governmental ones.

It turns out that pollution and corruption have a lot in common.

The jobs, he says, are not as different as you might think. As a project manager for many years in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program coping with some of the nation’s most serious cases of industrial pollution, he worked with communities, environmental groups, local and national businesses, and local and national governments. “I looked at Superfund as [a] process of helping design a solution that built agreement across all of those groups,” he said in an email interview. “Because there were so many emotionally charged elements to deal with, it was very similar to development work.”

“I helped communities and government find solutions to challenging social problems — I still do,” he said.

Pinkowski is a consultant in democracy and governance, anti-corruption efforts and the rule of law. Originally trained in civil and environmental engineering, and later in law, he works around the world helping countries and companies engineer an environment that can produce effective policies without corruption.

He said his work in Southern Sudan provides a strong example. For two years, as residents worked toward a referendum to establish their independence from Sudan, they also developed a consensus on building a clean and open civil society and government.

“Over 2,000 opinion leaders participated and were involved in discussing and sharing thoughts about how to help their society achieve its larger goals,” Pinkowski said. “The discussions were well beyond the notions of bribery and into the ideas about building a society and protecting it from decay.”

The result was the Southern Sudan Anticorruption Strategy, which he said could be a model for other countries. “It can be replicated, but most development programs are too impatient,” he said. “Where a society has been struggling to pull things beyond a certain level for more than 75 years, patience with process is critical. And the process includes an extensive education and awareness piece.”

Government processes that shut out public participation and public scrutiny tend to produce poor policies, which in turn weaken the society, Pinkowski said. “People want to build good things, generally,” he added. “Thus, involving them in the process is critical.”

When officials make important public policy decisions without transparency or explanation, the result can be corruption, Pinkowski said.

In Timor Leste, for example, only one company is authorized to provide Internet service, and using any other is illegal. Many residents question the decision to grant this monopoly, in part because the public was not involved or educated about the reasons behind the contract, Pinkowski said. “Discussions with people on the street reveal that they suspect the worst about this deal,” he said. “And because of the poor service and suspicions of corruption, people will smuggle in illegal satellite equipment and risk serious jail time to avoid this law. They are breaking the law because they think the law is corrupt.”

This sort of “no-confidence vote” is one of the major reasons people don’t follow established policies in governments and other organizations, Pinkowski said. The two others, he says in a 2010 booklet on fighting corruption in organizations, are criminal intent and ignorance of the policy or what it means.

Pinkowski has worked on anti-corruption and pro-democracy efforts in Iraq and Kenya as well as Southern Sudan, Timor Leste and elsewhere. He is a board member of the Africa Foundation for Human Rights & Tolerance (East Africa), based in Nairobi, Kenya.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. )

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