Compliance Q&A with Nancy Boswell

Boswell photoNancy Boswell is Director of the American University Washington College of Law’s US and International Anti-Corruption Law Program, a certificate program for practitioners worldwide. CIPE’s Frank Brown discusses Boswell’s academic work, along with general global anti-corruption trends in light of her past leadership of Transparency International USA and her current advisory role at various U.S. and international ethics-centered organizations.

  • The Washington College of Law at American University’s summer program focused on anti-corruption law issues seems to be the only one of its kind in the United States. Can you describe how you conceived of it, how it has developed, and how, if at all, the way it has evolved over these years has surprised you?

The WCL Anti-Corruption Law Program was designed to meet today’s demand for trained public, private, and non-profit sector professionals to carry out integrity and compliance functions.

Public officials are struggling to fulfill the demands of their citizens for more accountable government.  The private sector is confronting a highly competitive global market and, at the same time, a heightened risk of prosecution for illicit dealings.  Development agencies are under pressure to make sure their assistance reaches those in need and is not diverted for corrupt purposes.  Non-profits are pressed to protect humanitarian assistance from corrupt demands under crisis conditions.

The challenge for all these stakeholders is to put into practice what we have learned about fighting corruption.  We have secured global consensus on laws, standards, and practices to address corruption, notably the UNCAC and regional anti-corruption agreements and a host of voluntary private sector integrity and compliance standards.

Today’s challenge is to secure comprehensive, effective implementation and enforcement of these new laws, standards, and practices.  To secure progress on a global scale will take technical capacity and political will.

My intention was to create a program that would contribute to meeting both those needs.  The WCL program is an opportunity for public, private, and non-profit sector professionals from around the world to enhance their knowledge of the evolving anti-corruption legal framework and their expertise on the newest tools and techniques for identifying, investigating, and mitigating corruption risk.  The faculty is expressly comprised of leading practitioners from government agencies, international institutions, and the private and non-profit sectors.  This creates a unique peer-to-peer learning experience.

The professional and geographic diversity of the participants also ensures the relevance and richness of the discussions and contributes to creating a community of like-minded professionals.  Building and expanding this community is key to fostering political will.

The most surprising aspect has been the enthusiasm and bonding among the participants, who, despite their diversity, find more similarities than differences.

The program is always evolving to meet the needs and requests of participants.  We are always working to enhance practical aspects of the courses to assist participants in how to apply laws and standards in their contexts.

  • As someone in higher education, what do you make of the Poznan Declarationthat calls for the formal incorporation of ethics and anti-corruption curricula? Are there pitfalls to a formal, institutionalized approach to such an organic issue, or is this a no-brainer if we are to change attitudes of future leaders?

As a professor and director of a program that seeks to raise awareness of the costs of corruption, the laws and tools to address it, and how to apply them, I am in complete accord with the Poznan Declaration’s emphasis on the need to expand higher education in this field.

But, my views on the importance of ethics in education were formed at an earlier stage.  As a high school student at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, I experienced first-hand the value of introducing at the earliest stages awareness and skills for making ethical decisions.

As each of us will, inevitably, face ethical challenges in our private and working lives, it seems self-evident that we need to ensure a solid grounding in what constitutes ethical conduct – and why it matters.   Indeed, today, values-based codes of conduct, education and training, and sanctions for misconduct are now routinely recommended for employees in the public and private sectors.

Values-based education at the university and professional school level is equally important.  The Poznan Declaration introduces a range of useful measures for institutions of higher education to consider.  As with any such program, tailoring and adapting to the particular context will be vital to their sustainability and relevance.

Two caveats might be noted:

First, we must recognize the scale of education and capacity-building needed – whether at the university or professional school level or in the public or private sectors – to meet the global challenge.  This will require a significant commitment of resources at a time of financial constraints.  In my program, for example, the demand exceeds the resources.

Second, while a massive education campaign is necessary to build capacity and political will, education alone will not be sufficient to ensure meaningful enforcement of the institutional arrangements, transparency measures, and legal framework we know are necessary to prevent, detect, and punish corruption.

Indeed, today, in many countries and sectors, it appears we are losing ground.  The urgent, popular calls for reform, inspired by corruption in so many countries, have failed due to lack of political will.  This is most glaring at the highest levels of government with state capture of legal systems, constraints on civil society and attacks on advocates and journalists.   While most notable in countries rich in natural resources, political will is also an issue where conduct that is not necessarily illegal is widely viewed as corrupt.  Many see the recent financial crisis as caused, in part, by such conduct.  Many also see the undue influence of special interests and political finance as another case in point in even the most transparent and democratic countries.  Designing a curriculum to tackle these issues will be a challenge.

  • A recent essay argues that freedom from corruption should be a human right. What do you think of the idea? Is this part of a general trajectory of anti-corruption initiatives becoming more cross-disciplinary between business, human rights, and political security?

The notion that corruption, particularly grand corruption, constitutes a violation of human rights is valid, but not a new one.  In 1998, Nihal Jayawickrama, former Sri Lanka Secretary of Justice wrote a paper on the linkages between corruption and human rights abuses for Transparency International (TI) as did Laurence Cockroft, another TI early member.

The linkages, particularly to economic rights, were clear to those of us working on corruption.   It was also clear that corruption created the context for human rights abuses.

But, it has taken many more years for those linkages to become more widely discussed and accepted.

Today, the linkages with violations of economic rights is evident, with rates of poverty, infant mortality, and illiteracy highest in the most corrupt environments.  So, too, evidence of linkages to political rights is clear as more countries respond to criticism of corruption and calls for reform with crack-downs on civil society and the media, stifling access to information and free expression and constraining assembly.   Where corruption is egregious and impunity prevalent at the highest levels, political stability is threatened, providing an illegitimate excuse for further violations of human rights.

Most recently, a growing number of advocates have launched an effort to create an International Anti-Corruption Court, similar to the ICC.  Their motivation is clear: an understandable frustration with the slow progress, if not total failure, to hold to account many of those engaged in grand corruption.

While there are differences of opinion whether a specific court is necessary or viable, it is clear that the status quo, which allows those at the highest levels to act with impunity, is unacceptable.  In the same way that over 170 countries agreed to the UNCAC, they must now find ways to make that document a reality.

  • Much of your career has been devoted to breaking new ground and providing leadership on anti-corruption issues. Why is this personally important to you? What legacy do you hope to leave?

My educational and religious training focused heavily on ethical conduct and, so, advocating for integrity and honesty in public and private life has been both natural and highly rewarding.  But, I am acutely aware that the progress we have made is fragile and that continued political leadership and public attention will be needed to forge a new reality.

I hope that the WCL Anti-Corruption Law Program and my service to other organizations will inspire another generation to take this cause forward.

Frank Brown is a Senior Program Officer at CIPE.