Staff Writer Phoebe Lu joins Columbia’s Harriman Institute in a panel featuring leading anti-corruption reformers Adam Stefan and Haykuhi Harutyunyan.
In 2018, Armenia saw a series of anti-government protests against former President Serzh Sargyan’s continued hold on power. These protests, called Armenia’s Velvet Revolution, not only succeeded in ousting Sargyan but also brought new demands for reducing corrupt governance in Armenia. On Thursday, Columbia’s Harriman Institute invited two figures at the front line of this anti-corruption work: Adam Stefan, the Director of the Democracy and Governance Office of USAID Armenia and Haykuhi Harutyunyan, the first Chair of the Commission on Prevention of Corruption. Along with Alexander Cooley, the Director of the Harriman Institute, and Matthew Murray, the co-chair of Innovating Solutions to Systemic Corruption in Eurasia Forum, Stefan and Harutyunyan discussed their approaches to preventing corruption in Armenia.
Stefan began his remarks by highlighting that the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) aims to target corruption by “tak[ing] a systemic approach through collective action.” USAID supports partnerships and policies designed to fight corruption. One of these is the Open Government Partnership, a multilateral initiative where governments commit to being more transparent. Stefan explained that in supporting Armenia to make the commitment to transparency, USAID contributed to leading Armenia to later becoming a part of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. This initiative requires that the Armenian government disclose beneficial ownership in the mining industry, thus reducing corruption in the industry. Beyond the Transparency Initiative, USAID also supported the government in its pension reform. Specifically, USAID worked with the government in tackling corruption in the distribution of social benefits through “develop(ing) electronic systems that were used to centralize payments and improve accuracy of data.” Both these electronic systems and the Transparency Initiative exemplify the idea of a “systemic approach”, turning anti-corruption ideals into policy that bring tangible benefits to Armenian citizens.
While these legislative changes are effective, Stefan asserted that anti-corruption efforts must also involve societal change through collective action of citizens. USAID surveys discovered that many Armenians believe it’s not a duty to report corruption. Stefan’s work thus hopes to shift these beliefs and make citizens and politicians alike hold each other accountable in fighting against corruption. Stefan cited the Transparency Initiative as a successful example of this type of accountability, as all stakeholders shared the same responsibilities and engaged in consensus decision-making, giving rise to productive cooperation. He also mentioned that this cooperation is new to Armenian anti-corruption efforts as pre-Velvet Revolution efforts rarely represented all stakeholders equally.
Whereas Stefan highlighted his role in supporting Armenian reforms, Harutyunyan dove into her role in devising these reforms. Harutyunyan is the chairwoman of the Commission on Prevention of Corruption which was established in late November of 2019. Like Stefan, Harutyunyan also gave the role of technology and civil society special weight in anti-corruption reform. The Commission on Prevention of Corruption (CPC) are developing an electronic platform to use “existing algorithmic decision-making functions” to detect changes in wealth of public officials and their family members. Before candidates are elected to office, the CPC also conducts background checks to detect possible corruption and to predict the candidate’s behaviour once in office. So far, the CPC has already performed such checks on 47 candidates. Though Harutyunyan mentions the analysis of wealth data in these checks, she didn’t further elaborate on what other aspects of this analysis will be digitized. The CPC also worked with USAID to develop methods of detecting risk of corruption in government agencies. Soon, this methodology will be implemented in eight ministries and five public institutions, and Harutyunyan hopes that after the first round of implementation, this methodology of risk assessment can also be digitized.
Harutyunyan also hopes to motivate collective action in society against corruption. She hopes that through normalizing anti-corruption efforts to the Armenian population, these efforts can continue even after CPC concludes its mission. She believes corruption occurs as a “mutual consensus of public officials and citizens” and believes that the CPC must include private citizens in anti-corruption efforts to truly break from the normalization of corruption. She ultimately hopes for a “horizontal extension of ideas and cooperation”, where all of Armenian society and political parties can be involved in fighting corruption.
Fighting corruption is already a formidable task, but with the arrival of COVID and the Nagarno-Karabakh War with Azerbaijan, the CPC faced even more challenges. The CPC formed in late November 2019, but had to pause its public events in March 2020 due to the pandemic. While COVID makes it difficult for CPC to continue their public outreach work, Harutyunyan established that they still “continued the work internally.” Harutyunyan also proposed that though the war brought challenges to their efforts, it highlighted the importance of anti-corruption efforts. To Harutyunyan, the CPC is not only effective in defending against corruption, but also serves to build democracy in Armenia by ensuring accountability and transparency. She believes that having a “strong internal democracy” will also make Armenia stronger in its external relations and more secure against potential attack. The CPC’s internal anti-corruption efforts can translate to strengthen its international standing too.
Concluding the panel, Professor Cooley remarked that Armenia could “very much be in the middle of a paradigm shift” through efforts like Stefan’s and Harutyunyan’s in fighting corruption. This shift also brings technology to the forefront, making mechanisms such as data analysis crucial in curbing corruption. Furthermore, as both Stefan and Harutyunyan mention, new approaches to fighting corruption promise unprecedented multilateral cooperation between officials and citizens.
Listening to the panel, I felt optimistic for Armenia’s path to a future to more transparent governance. However, I remain hesitant about the extent in which technology can be effective in these anti-corruption efforts. Following my experience listening to Professor Ruha Benjamin discussing embedded prejudices in machine learning algorithms and in data, I wonder if we can fully rely on technology to be truly just in detecting corruption. I had also hoped to hear more about whether the CPC will incorporate more humanistic elements into analyzing these data, especially data of changes in wealth in public officials. At the end of her address, Harutyunyan mentioned that we can submit any lingering questions through the website cpcarmenia.am. She communicated that she’s excited to receive innovative ideas from the public through contributions to the website, and encourages audience members to participate. This method of receiving feedback and generating new ideas is highly in line with the CPC’s emphasis on collective action, and I highly recommend anyone who has follow-up questions to submit their inquiries.
Monasterio de Tatev via Wikimedia Commons