Daniel Eriksson: The number one challenge is the rise of autocracy, and the erosion of democracy

An interview with CEO of Transparency International in Berlin Daniel Eriksson. Not only TI as a movement is celebrating 30th anniversary (the organization was founded in 1993), TI CZ was founded 25 years ago and thus is celebrating as well. What are the biggest challenges of today? And is TI doing its job well enough? How will AI be used in the democratic processes? Interview done by Františka Rohlíčková.

Daniel Eriksson, CEO of Transparency International secretariat (TI-S) | source: TI CZ

Do you remember when you first heard about Transparency International (TI)?

Yes, very much so. It was when I was doing my PhD on efficiency in international humanitarian aid, that was in 2001 I believe. Already back then I was seeing corruption as one of the major blockers for development and humanitarian aid. So, for me personally it was 20 plus years.

Let’s jump those twenty years. What would you say are the biggest achievements or areas and topics in which TI is or was interested?

We are working as a movement on the national, regional and global levels. And they are obviously linked to each other very much. And to explain it simply we use the term SHE – steal, hide, enjoy. Where the corrupt steal, they hide the money, and they enjoy the money.

And over the last couple of years, we have had recommendations for instance, that beneficial transparency ownership will increase, which means the anonymous shell companies, which is a critical part in both stealing and hiding… and enjoying the money of the corrupt. And our campaigns around beneficial ownership transparency in Europe, because in the end the global north is where most of the money is hidden and enjoyed, have had a lot of success. 

The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) is another area, which there is a lot of talk about.

Corruption Perceptions Index 2022 | source: secretariat (TI-S)

Which of the achievements do you think the public connects to TI the most? Is it the CPI?

Yes. It’s the CPI, that’s very very clear that there is a strong connection between the CPI and TI as a brand. Which is great, but also a bit unfortunate, because the CPI is only a small percentage of what we do.

Corruption Perceptions Index – CPI is published annually by Transparency International (TI) since 1995. The index ranks countries according to the degree of perception of corruption in the public sector and business using a scale of 0-100, where 100 points indicate a country with almost no corruption and 0 points indicate a high level of corruption.

The ranking is compiled based on the results of surveys among experts, respondents (whether individuals or organizations) evaluate, among other things, the ability of government institutions to suppress and punish corruption, the effectiveness of anti-corruption measures, the extent of corruption in various areas of public administration, the degree of transparency of its functioning and the degree of abuse of public functions and public funds. You can read more about the latest CPI assessment on a separate page.

What would you like to be more highlighted apart from the CPI?

I think the realization that we are the world’s premier organization when it comes to fighting corruption. Not only measuring it because the CPI measures it. We fight it! We do investigations, we work with investigative journalists, we make recommendations to decision makers and to governments on how to strengthen the laws and how to enable the enforcement.

Just as an example, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we were working with numerous financial intelligence units and monitoring their work in order to enable them to become more effective in implementing the sanctions.

Autocracy on the rise

As we are approaching the current times, you spoke about actually fighting and not only measuring corruption, what would you say is the number one problem right now? I know you are going to say there is a lot, since we are a global movement so it differs around the world, but still, can you pinpoint one? Would it be the Russian Ukrainian conflict or something else?

As you said, it is really hard and not only because we are a global movement, but because these systems are all interrelated.

The number one challenge we see right now is the rise of autocracy. And the erosion of democracy. That drags with it a whole lot of subsidiary challenges. The propaganda and disinformation, the rise of populism in the global north and seemingly acceptance of corrupt behavior of the leadership by the country’s people. That is the number one problem.

And number two, which is driven by the previous one, is the shrinking civic space. Over the last three years we as a movement have had to close down, evacuate, hibernate more offices and chapters than ever before in those thirty years. And that trend is really accelerating.

The reason I am asking was because I saw in a post on your LinkedIn, that you wrote “The challenges and risks are now higher than ever”. Is this what you meant by it? The erosion of democracy, rise of disinformation etc.?

Yes! Because we were founded around the principle of corruption being an obstruction to sustainable development in the global south. The premise was that if we could deal with corruption in the global south, those countries would see more economic growth and reach the same level as the global north.

What we now see is corruption being used as a political tool. Corruption and geopolitical security issues. All of a sudden, working against corruption we became a threat to the populists. Because the populists themselves say to ‘drain the swamp, we are here to fight corruption, all your democratically elected officials, they are all corrupt, vote for us and everything will be fine’q. Whereas we know that they are at least as corrupt if not more.

And that has put us in a world where it is no longer possible to be neutral. Either you are for the fight against corruption and thereby for democracy and human rights, or you are against it. I am not one for making everything binary black and white, but in this situation, there is no other way out. You cannot be neutral, because if you are neutral, you are taking a side.

You mention these “anti-corruption parties”, which we have also experience with in the Czech Republic, but that is a trend in many countries. And the parties win elections with that claim. Based on that, do you think the public actually recognizes corruption as a problem?

I think the public recognizes it, but they don’t see the complexity of it. They see what’s on the surface, the top of the iceberg which sticks out. And they want to deal with that.

But you know, there is research done about how to deal with corruption, particularly about the global north, we talked about beneficial ownership transparency, about political party financing etc. There are many tools that can be implemented in order to make it a lot harder for corruption to take root in democratic nations.

But if you ask to replace the corrupt official by a non-corrupt one, in some time they will also be corrupt. It’s the systems that need to change, not the individuals.

To change the narrative

You speak about the situation being worse than ever and at the same time having a thirty-year anniversary. I have to play the devil’s advocate here and ask: are we doing a good job then?

Well, this is something we ask ourselves and we should do repeatedly. Are we doing a good job… our mission, even though it is the same, has changed very much in the last three to five years. And the importance of our work has changed dramatically. That means that we have to change the way we work.

Because of the challenges that we are being confronted with, this new reality of corruption is immense. And as I said we can start pulling the string of anti-corruption, but what comes behind it is the future of democracy.

Podcast Stošestka by Transparency International Czech republic which focused on the 25th anniversary and the chapters‘ achievements | source: TI CZ, graphics: ateliér Klimsz

Since we are talking about the movement, don’t you think sometimes we can be a bit Euro-centric?

Because the way we are set up as an organization…?

Yes, but currently we focus a lot of our attention to the Russian Ukrainian war as well.

The thing is the Russian war is a result of a global problem. There are many conflicts around the world, but only a few that might kill democracy. What Russia is doing has the potential of dramatic implications all over the world, boarders that we have been used to since the cold war, are being put into question.

So, in this context, I don’t think we are being Euro-centric. But what I do think is that particularly the audience at large, we have a lot of work to do as TI to convince them that corruption is not a global south problem. Corruption is a global north problem. Because so long, as we have industries of enablers that support, facilitate and profit from corruption, we cannot expect countries in the global south to work on anti-corruption.

Now we are waking up and realizing that our facilitation of corruption is actually hurting ourselves. Because it is eroding our democracies. This money comes back and bites us and we have to step up and root it out.

I think Ukraine – they were second most corrupt country in Europe – once they woke up and realized that corruption is going to kill them, it doesn’t matter if they win on the battlefield, if they don’t battle corruption, they will lose their democracy and independence anyway. Which has happened in Belarus and other countries.

Once that has settled and became a realization, the fight against corruption became a lot easier. And by no means Ukraine is free from corruption, but the drive and determination amongst the citizens to deal with head on with the sense of emergency as well, if we us could have the same sense in the democratic world, we could do a lot, but we are not there yet.

Is this what you speak of when you say “we need to change the systems”? Could Ukraine be an example of good practice? Even though they are literally at war, they still find the time and place to fight corruption.

Definitely. And the systems need to be resilient, so we need to have the relevant rule of law, independent judiciary and the laws themselves that ensure that corruption cannot get a foothold. And also, once again to ensure that corruption has the stigma.

When I was working in Afghanistan and Iraq for that sake, as well as many other countries in the global south, corruption was seen not with a stigma but as an income opportunity for individuals. The famous concept “it’s my turn to eat”. If you see an opportunity to grab a little bit of money into your own pocket, you do that.

Sure, obviously we see corruption as a problem, but again coming back to the Euro-centric view, in countries such as Afghanistan and others, fighting corruption is probably not on the top of you pyramid of needs. Isn’t it hypocritic from us to expect these people to see corruption as we do?

First of all, we in the global north need to lead by example, we cannot ask them to do something that we cannot do ourselves.

It’s not that corruption doesn’t exist once you are in an emergency, we have seen this during the pandemic! Corruption became worse than we have seen in ages, even the CPI has been stagnant. Once again, the drivers of corruption are large amounts of money being spent fast. And I don’t argue that the clarity of the need of the population to fight corruption should be obvious.

Daniel Eriksson is the CEO of Transparency International in Berlin. Daniel joined the organisation in January 2019 as Head of Technology and oversaw Transparency International’s work on the role of emerging technologies in corruption. Prior to his appointment as CEO in April 2021, Daniel served as an Interim Managing Director for a year.

Daniel brings with him a wealth of leadership experience in both the private and not-for-profit sectors, developing and implementing strategy for multi-country teams in a variety of sectors. Daniel has been an employee with the Swedish government, the United Nations, the European Commission, civil society organisations and, in recent years, in leadership roles of publicly listed corporations. Notably, he was the country manager for a multinational corporate security services firm in India which provided services, including investigations into suspected corruption.

Having started his career as a military peacekeeper in the conflict in former Yugoslavia, Daniel was inspired to work in the humanitarian sector. Subsequent work in sustainable development in Africa, Asia and the Middle East redirected his focus towards corruption as an obstacle to human development. He is a passionate anti-corruption advocate and a big believer of the role of technology in global efforts to end the injustice of corruption.

Daniel is a Certified Information Systems Security Professional and has a BSc in Information Systems Analysis from Linköping University, Sweden, and a PhD from Coventry University, United Kingdom.

Focus on youth and technology

Do you think there is a topic or an area that we as TI overlook? Or do we stay behind in?

Do we have any blank spots? We have a very broad strategy with seven objectives. But in that, the seventh – working with youth – there are only a few TI chapters that do that successfully.

And why is that?

Because we come with the history of approaching corruption very academically, where we want to see ourselves as a friend of the bureaucrats where we go and advise them. But in some countries, particularly the ones where there is no civic space and where autocracies are taking foothold, our only hope is with the youth, because they have not yet been indoctrinated by corruption as an opportunity. They still have the values and energy and drive to change the system.

Secondly, and this is the original reason why I joined TI, so I am a bit biased, but technology. The future of technology, anything from the fourth industrial revolution and the way forward, digitalization, access to information, AI (artificial intelligence)… we are not doing enough. We are not linking our work enough on that topic.

And third, political integrity. There we have done a fair amount of work, but I think we could do more on the linking of corruption and democracy and be clear. Because the topic has been a bit of a taboo, particularly during the first ten years of our existence, because you should be able to fight corruption in any society. And we as TI have to adjust ourselves so we can operate in a totalitarian or authoritarian context.

But doesn’t that contradict each other? 

Exactly. It might have worked during the cold war, when you had capitalism and communism as two extremes. But now when you have autocracy and democracy, fighting corruption…we know that to be successful you need transparency and access to information, you need vibrant civil society… 

Which is exactly what you don’t get in these regimes… 

Yes, all the things you do not want as an autocratic leader. Meaning that it is impossible to fight corruption in autocracy. And also, because corruption becomes a central tool to autocracy leading to kleptocracy. If you want to lead your country, you use money as a way of bribing people and keeping the status quo. You can centralize and monopolize corruption. You know, it might be completely forbidden for a police officer to charge a bribe for a speeding ticket, but the whole central political systems is built around corruption.

Daniel Eriksson, CEO of Transparency International secretariat (TI-S) | source: TI CZ

How to use AI for both corrupt purposes and anti-corruption work

Well let’s go to your second topic, which is technology. Why do you think technology and corruption have not been connected as much in the public eye? Most often we talk about it separately, why not together? 

Because technology develops exponentially and for the past ten-ish years I would say, technology that has been available off the shelf has not been revolutionary. It’s not like it’s been impossible for our government to go and buy a piece of technology that would enable them to do something that would significantly reduce corruption.

And this goes both ways, technology can be used for corruption and against it. We see countries like Estonia or once again Ukraine, that can lead ahead of other countries by using technology smartly. And it doesn’t have to be super advanced artificial intelligence, it could be platforms for access to information like ProZorro and coupled with the surrounding infrastructure of oversight and civil society involvement.

These technologies should not be an excuse for not ensuring public access to information for instance. A lot of beneficial ownership transparency registers still do not provide structured data. Why? That is a thing from the 1990s.

You have already mentioned artificial intelligence (AI), which again is a bit of a topic, but not necessarily connected to corruption and anti-corruption work. So, what is this connection? How can AI be used for corruption?

To begin with, AI systems have been available for over ten years, now it was ChatGPT, that made the public understand, once again more clearly, what AI is. And in the past, and still today, in the news I get super annoyed when they write about these robots going around and that AI will take your job. My mother has this picture of a robot walking in and replacing the average citizen.

And within corruption… if we have all this data readily available and structured, or even non-structured, seeing that AI will become cheap labor essentially. We could program, and again this is already happening through anti-money laundering (AML) perspective, so we could program AI agents to search for suspicious ownership structures or transactions or things that could be detected in large amounts of data.

And we could teach those agents what it is that we are trying to find. And particularly in data dumps like Pandora Papers and others that are becoming ever greater and bigger, which is something by the way that I think will change, because AI can be used to ensure less leaks from the other side of the spectrum, stronger cyber security and stronger information security. It’s a weapons race.

That is just an example of the use of AI to control large amounts of data. AI can also be used to replace humans in certain decision making. Either AI or simple digitalization. To replace humans in certain decision-making processes, which further reduces the risk of corruption, of course there is a risk of corruption with regards to the underlying algorithms of those agents and somebody who is very smart could figure out a way of creating algorithms that benefit their purpose.

Overarchingly, with the risk of becoming esoteric, there is also the opportunity for AI to be used in a future form of democracy. The concepts of cyberocracy and algocracy have been discussed widely. We all know that democracy is awful, but it is the best system that we have right now. And with the developments of technology, I see that within the next 15 to 20 years, there will be an opportunity to completely revamp democracy.

Cyberocracy is a term used to describe governing-style, especially using interconnected computer networks. This concept includes information and its control as a source of power and a hypothetical form of government that rules through the effective use of information.

The exact nature of cybercracy is still largely speculative, as no cybercratic governments currently exist. However, a growing number of cybercratic elements can be found in many developed countries. Some sources liken cybercracy to algorithmic governance, although algorithms are not the only means of information processing.

Algocracy defines the possible rule of an algorithm or a socio-economic system that is moderated, or completely controlled, by computer code – an algorithm.

It is computer algorithms that are deployed in more and more areas of our economic, political and social life. The decisions these algorithms make have a profound impact in sectors such as healthcare, education, employment and banking. Their application in the fight against corruption is also increasingly evident, especially in the fight against money laundering.

How do you think that will work in 20 years‘ time? 

In 20 years‘ time? Oh…this is going to be very sci-fi.

Sure, let’s do it. 

Alright. Today you have committees doing analysis on specific topics to give suggestions to government and parliaments for political decisions. But say that you had AI engines that could be tasked with solving really big and complex problems and giving options on how to proceed.

We take one country and we are dealing with climate change and how we should invest in the green economy. Obviously depending on your political inclination, one party will say we should not reduce the number of fossil cars and we should instead increase our investment in nuclear power. And another party is saying that we should increase our investment in sun and electrical cars. And the use of a parliament is then to vote on how to twist this forward.

What could be a future is that we have a base algorithm that works out all the space of possible solutions on a given problem based on vast amount of data. And then you feed that with ideologies. So, you have five or ten ideologies, and those ideologies are weighted based on the votes of the population.

So, we have the green ideology that says that we weigh certain things like nuclear power lower. And you have these dilemmas where things are put against each other – what is more important? Economic growth or equality in society? Any many of these dilemmas, which are very clear and understandable to a human being, me and you, being presented by ten ideologies and being told you have to choose one. Vote. And I do.

The artificial intelligence system is then generating a space of all possible solutions, the ideologies are put on top of that, and outcomes are weighted. A solution comes out, that this is the way forward. That is then presented to parliament and then at that point in time you have a lot more objectivity than you have today, granted that the work of the actual machine learning system can be quite opaque. But the space for subjective decisions and thereby corrupt influence on the politicians would be reduced.

We are far away from that, twenty years to be exact. But that could be a model of cyberocracy or algocracy. And once again a number of warnings are in that. But I can see us going in such direction, because it would make the political cause much more transparent and less subjective.

That is quite impressive but can be scary to many. Does technology make you personally more excited or worried?

Well, do fast cars make me excited or worried? Does money make me excited or worried? All of this depends on who has it in their hands.

In relation to the discussions that have been going on recently online around the need to stop the development of AI in order to develop regulation around it, I was thinking that imagine that in 1940s and 1950s that the decision would be to stop the development on nuclear weapons. And that would then result in Russia or Nazi Germany getting them, because they wouldn’t have stopped. How would that have looked like today?

I think that we have to realize that AI is going to revolutionize the world eventually. But we in the liberal democracies of the world have to do research and push the boundaries of technology to make sure it is being developed for the good of democracy.

Let’s roll back to TI and our work. What do you think our work will look like in those 20 years?

Unfortunately, there will always be a need for TI. As much as our vision is a world free of corruption, we will never get there. Because there will always be ways for the corrupt to affect and manipulate the system.

How will our work look like in 20 years? I think we will work more globally. What we are seeing now, for example climate change is showing that, but also the aging demographic and the complete change that the world will go through in the next 20 or 30 years. And that means we as TI, as we are already starting, need to work much closer together as one.

Are we on the right path?

Yes, we are. The challenges are immense. But our work makes me feel hopeful in what we can do going forward.

Author: Františka Rohlíčková


Czech version also available: under this link.

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