Islands of Integrity™: Replicating La Paz’s Successful Anti-corruption Experience

How can cities effectively tackle corruption? Through a transformative process that involves those who are part of the problem, argue Ronald MacLean Abaroa and Ana Vasilache, who have developed their own successful anti-corruption methodology.

It was in 1985, during the worst economic crisis that Bolivia had ever gone through that I, Ronald MacLean Abaroa, started my mandate as Mayor of La Paz. The rate of hyper-inflation was at 26,000 per cent, and public authority and public services were collapsing. Within the first two years of my administration, we successfully restored and improved the municipal government services, multiplied city revenues, and increased investments in public works tenfold, thereby regaining the city’s international creditworthiness and effectively defeating corruption.

To translate the successful anti-corruption experience of La Paz to a strategy that could be used elsewhere, Ana Vasilache and I developed the Islands of Integrity™ Anti-Corruption Methodology (A-C Methodology). Working with our methodology, we succeeded in replicating La Paz’s experience in 30 local governments from eleven CEE/SEE1, four from Latin America2 and one from Africa3.

The A-C Methodology has gained international recognition by winning the UN Public Service Award in 20114, and is widely used by UNDP and other international organisations. It is also taught as part of anti-corruption courses at academic institutions worldwide, including Harvard University and the International Anti-Corruption Academy in Vienna.

The Concept: Pockets of Effectiveness

We created a “pocket of effectiveness” in La Paz, defined by researchers5 as a public organisation that provides public goods and services effectively in a bad governance environment. Such pockets of effectiveness come into existence through problem identification, engagement with multiple stakeholders, step-by-step experimentation, and political acceptance. The process applied in La Paz and condensed into the A-C Methodology has similar features which aim to create “islands of integrity” in a sea of mismanaged public administration.

Underlying Assumptions

Two main underlying assumptions guided the La Paz experience and our A-C Methodology:

  1. Most people are basically honest. Except for the very corrupt who ride the system for their private gain, there are many public officials, businesspersons, professionals, civil society activists and citizens willing to confront corruption and to engage in collective action for positive change, if given the opportunity.
  2. Corruption is a symptom of malfunctioning organisational systems. Corruption is a symptom of an underlying problem – namely, a dysfunctional organisational system. The “War on corruption” approach has focused mainly on the symptom, and has proved to be ineffective, expensive and accompanied by harmful side-effects. This is also what we learned from La Paz: anticorruption strategies should focus on changing the context in which individuals live and work, not by insisting on scaring individuals through controls, criminal punishment, and moralistic pressures, as most strategies have done – and failed.

The Context that Breeds Corruption

People are tempted to engage in corruption when the context allows them to gain (much) more than they would lose if caught, when the probability of being caught is low, and possible penalties are mild and not always enforced. Benefits from corruption will increase when people garner them as a function of their degree of monopoly (M) over a service or activity, their discretion (D) in deciding who should get how much, and the degree to which their activities are transparent (T) and accountable (A). Professor Robert Klitgaard’s famous formula defines the context that breeds corruption as C=M+D-A/T.

Creating Islands of Integrity

We propose to public leaders and managers who want to transform their organisations into „islands of integrity” to act as institutional reformers, rather than judges or prosecutors. The two key undertakings we propose are a participatory process and strategic reform process, similar to the one applied in La Paz.

Participatory process: the process involves those who are part of the problem in the elaboration and implementation of solutions. As in good therapy, the results of self-diagnosis and self-prescription are remarkable: together, the participants are able to develop a deeper, shared understanding on how the organisation functions and how the corrupt systems works, as well as draw up a treatment plan for curing and prevention that no outside intervention could ever achieve.

Through this process, people connect to each other as human beings with real concerns and issues, discussions focus on what they can do, and not on what others need to do for them. This creates trust and commitment to put the changes into practice. This is most likely to happen when:

  • leaders with democratic legitimacy, clear principles and political will initiate and endorse the reform process,
  • a focal point (a key person or a team) coordinates collective actions,
  • skilled Anticorruption Practitioners (ACPs, trained and certified in using the A-C Methodology) facilitate the process and support people to overcome fear and defensiveness by understanding that corruption is a problem of bad systems, and that addressing it is the entry point for reinventing a better and fairer organisation.

Strategic process: the process moves from diagnosis to solutions and implementation. The most dangerous and harmful forms of corruption are strategically identified, analysed, and addressed by applying the anti-corruption conceptual frameworks.
The path contains the following three steps:

  1. Building the capacity of Anti-Corruption Practitioners: We train “change agents” through a comprehensive Anti-Corruption Training (ACT™). This training has three components: (1) knowledge building, (2) skills building (3) real-life interventions in local governments. ACT™ goes beyond training by supporting participants in acquiring new knowledge and skills and apply them in real-life situations as facilitators of change processes in local governments.
  2. Raising awareness of public leaders/managers: The Anti-Corruption Methodology has been presented to more than 500 mayors during workshops organised in fifteen CEE/SEE countries6 on three continents.
  3. Working together: We mentor and support the best Anticorruption Practitioners (ACPs) to work with modernising mayors who are willing to fight corruption, as well as to share experiences and network.

Ronald MacLean Abaroa

Ronald MacLean Abaroa is a Bolivian politician who was elected mayor of La Paz four times between 1985 and 1997. He also served as national cabinet minister for Foreign Affairs, Finance, Sustained Development, Communication, and Planning and Economic Coordination between 1978 and 2001.

As a Senior Research Fellow, he worked at Harvard Institute for International Development from 1997 to 1999 and at the World Bank as a governance and decentralization specialist between 2003 and 2011. Currently, Ronald MacLean Abaroa is a lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School, Harvard University and the International Anti-Corruption Academy.
Ronald MacLean Abaroa

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    Ana Vasilache

    Facilitator, Anti-Corruption Practitioner, Lecturer at The Hague Academy and the International Anti-Corruption Academy
    Ana Vasilache is an architect and urban planner, trainer and international consultant with extensive experience as facilitator of participatory planning processes in communities and organisations.

    She is also the founder of the Partners Foundation for Local Development (FPDL), a Romanian NGO promoting good governance in the CEE/SEE region and beyond. Together with Ronald MacLean Abaroa, she trains and certifies anti-corruption practitioners, supports the application of anti-corruption methodology worldwide, and educates public officials in courses at IACA/Vienna and The Hague Academy.
    Ana Vasilache

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