TNRC Blog Lessons from the field: Assessing corruption risks that undermine law enforcement action against natural resource crimes

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Lessons from the field: Assessing corruption risks that undermine law enforcement action against natural resource crimes

This blog post captures expert insights and responses to practitioner questions raised in a TNRC Learning Series Webinar on Lessons from the field: Assessing corruption risks that undermine law enforcement action against natural resource crimes. This webinar, held on 25 August 2021, addressed four learning questions: 1) What are the advantages and challenges of implementing Corruption Risk Assessments (CRAs) with Natural Resource Management (NRM) agencies mandated to investigate and prosecute natural resource crimes? 2) What conditions and resources are conducive to implementing CRAs efficiently? 3) What are the risks in conducting CRAs? 4) What are early examples of practical findings from the study that could lead to effective risk mitigation measures in the target law enforcement agencies? This learning event was attended virtually by practitioners based in 43 countries. A TNRC publication on the topic is available here. A recording of the webinar is above, and a PDF of slides can be downloaded here.

Key Takeaways

  • Corruption risk assessments (CRAs) in law enforcement agencies are typically a collaborative exercise: facilitators work with relevant stakeholders to illuminate corruption risks, assess their likelihood and severity, and jointly devise a realistic mitigation plan that is appropriate to the context.
  • CRAs have the potential to improve law enforcement outcomes and strengthen conservation and natural resource management (NRM) by helping to inform the design of coherent interventions that can prevent corruption from undermining investigations and prosecutions. They can also help practitioners to assess risks related to supporting law enforcement in conservation programming.
  • Both NRM and law enforcement involve complex processes and large numbers of actors, sometimes with overlapping roles. To assess corruption risks that may be buried in these folds, it is essential to first detangle the system by mapping actors, responsibilities, and processes in detail.
  • CRAs with NRM agencies are most effective when they are system-oriented, i.e., focused on potential vulnerabilities for corruption within the law enforcement process relating to natural resource crimes. Finger-pointing at specific individuals, units or agencies, or a narrow focus on past incidents, are counterproductive and may generate a backlash.
  • Trust and confidentiality are fundamental in discussing such sensitive topics as corruption with members of law enforcement agencies. If successful, though, the CRA process can help to strengthen that trusting relationship.

Corruption risk assessments are a tool that is widely used in the anti-corruption field. The methodology varies depending on the context, but effective assessments are typically a collaborative process in which facilitators work with organization or agency staff (“risk owners”) to map risks, assess their likelihood and severity, and jointly devise an action plan to mitigate those risks.

Although the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and others support the use of CRAs to address vulnerabilities in law enforcement actions against wildlife and related crime, this approach is not yet systematically applied in the context of natural resource management.

Why not? What value could practitioners draw from conducting CRAs and in which contexts? How and where should they start, and what pitfalls should they look out for?

The Basel Institute has applied a tailored CRA approach in three countries – Malawi, Uganda and Peru – focusing on the risks that undermine investigations and prosecutions for natural resource crimes. In this webinar, the authors of the study and government agency participants shared their lessons learned for conservation practitioners considering undertaking a CRA in their own context.

What are the advantages and challenges of implementing CRAs with NRM agencies tasked with investigating and prosecuting natural resource crimes?

Conducting a CRA in law enforcement of NRM requires – and can usefully help to foster – a strong understanding of how the criminal justice system operates in relation to natural resource crimes. This is because law enforcement is by nature a complex system that operates differently in every jurisdiction. This is even truer when it comes to investigations and prosecutions for natural resource crimes, where specialist expertise is required. Legal systems, environmental laws, NRM agencies, other law enforcement actors and their mandates vary wildly and sometimes collide. We therefore started by mapping the criminal justice process in each country as it relates to natural resource crimes, forming a clear basis for the CRA and helping us to identify appropriate risk mitigation measures.

In the next stage, we worked collaboratively with key agency and external stakeholders to characterize the processes and their potential corruption vulnerabilities. This would usually be done in a workshop setting, but due to the coronavirus pandemic we opted for semi-structured interviews. This approach allowed us to have a more free-flowing conversation with participants, generating trust and enabling us to expand on points where the participant had specific knowledge. The big challenge here is that corruption risks are a sensitive topic for government agencies, especially if the one who initiates the discussion is an external party. Care is needed when framing the questions to avoid the feeling of an audit or investigation, which might intimidate participants and trigger defensiveness.

Assessing the risks is a dual challenge. Technical expertise is needed to analyze the interview data, extract relevant risks, and sort, filter, and group them appropriately by prevalence and impact in the relevant phases of the criminal justice system. Yet technical analysis is not sufficient: generating useful insights from the CRA requires interpreting the data based on experience and understanding of the particular law enforcement context, culture and surrounding political economy.

The last stage, developing recommendations for risk mitigation, is the “so what” of the CRA exercise. Ensuring they are implemented, though, especially in a low-resource setting, can be a challenge.

What conditions and resources are conducive to implementing CRAs efficiently?

Aside from financial resources, the first condition is an open door. Securing support from officials in law enforcement agencies who are keen on promoting an anti-corruption agenda eases the CRA process. It helps to ensure that it is tailored to the agency’s needs and boosts confidence among participants. Also critical is a door-opener, i.e. someone with strong knowledge of the local context and connections with relevant stakeholders and agencies. This helps to strengthen the trust that is essential to a successful CRA.

Another critical resource is a team member or partner with relevant international experience conducting CRAs. In combination with insights from a political economy analysis of the local context, these experts can help to identify who should participate and how to approach them. Full neutrality and transparency in a CRA are difficult to achieve, but this at least helps ensure that the chosen participants represent a broad range of voices and have relevant knowledge and experience.

What are the risks in conducting CRAs?

The first concern must be the safety of the individuals who agree to participate in the CRA process. Interviewing officials might make them vulnerable to being targeted by higher officials or other powerful parties who are not in favor of talking to external actors. They may even be opposed to addressing corruption risks. Basic measures include getting informed consent from the participants and ensuring their identities remain fully confidential, including by using anonymous codes instead of names right from the start. Results are aggregated and no individual or institutional information should be shared. There are also risks of backlash or damaging relationships with agencies if the CRA is not undertaken with great sensitivity, as discussed above.

What are early examples of practical findings from the study that could lead to effective risk mitigation measures in the target law enforcement agencies?

Despite their very different contexts, some risks appear to be common across all three target countries. Risks around evidence handling are a particularly big issue. We can already see that even simple measures such as purchasing a lockable cabinet could start to address these weaknesses, even if more complex solutions such as electronic case management systems are a long way in the future.

We also see deliberate weakening of cases. One example is the submission of legal arguments designed to fail in court. More collaboration or peer review when constructing cases for the prosecution could, said several participants, help deter such acts while also building stronger cases that can stand up in court.

A third common risk pertains to deliberate delays throughout the investigation and prosecution phases, for example multiple court adjournments even after the case has proceeded to trial.

The causes of such risks are complex and multifaceted, like law enforcement in an NRM context itself. Mitigating them will require sustained effort over a long period of time. It will also need a smart combination of capacity improvement, updating procedures, and – crucially – political will at the agency and national level.

By providing a method to identify, classify and illuminate corruption risks in a comprehensive and inclusive manner, a CRA could be the start of designing coherent interventions to achieve those ambitious goals.

Further resources

Bacarese, A., Chilima, C., Kumchedwa, B., Moore, K., Musopole, I., O’Connell, D., Parker, L., Tembo, D. 2021. The Role of Corruption in Enabling Wildlife and Forest Crime in Malawi.

UNODC. 2020. Scaling Back Corruption: A Guide on Addressing Corruption for Wildlife Management Authorities.

Kassa, S., Costa, J., Baez Camargo, C. 2019. Corruption and wildlife trafficking: exploring drivers, facilitators and networks behind illegal wildlife trade in East Africa. Working Paper 30, Basel Institute on Governance.

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