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How a Scholar Uses Her Ph.D. to Combat Corruption Around the World

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In 2012 and 2013, Nieves Zúñiga was an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Fellow at The John W. Kluge Center, researching a project titledIndigenous Struggles over Recognition in Bolivia: Contesting Evo Morales’s Discourse of Internal Decolonization.” Today, she is putting her knowledge of Bolivian society to use as part of the EU-funded project Anticorruption Policies Revisited. Global Trends and European Responses to the Challenge of Corruption (ANTICORRP), examining anti-corruption policies in Bolivia and Rwanda. She talks with Jason Steinhauer about how her scholarship has informed her current work.

Hi Nieves. Welcome back to the Kluge Center. Refresh our memory: what was the subject of your research when you were here years ago?

Hi. Thank you! When I came to the Kluge Center as an ESRC Fellow, I was a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Government at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom. My thesis was about the recognition of indigenous peoples in Bolivia. I was analyzing the discourse that the government of President Evo Morales was using to recognize indigenous peoples and how indigenous peoples were responding to that recognition.

What had been the status of indigenous people in Bolivia prior to his administration?

Indigenous peoples in Bolivia, as well as in other countries in Latin America and in the world, have struggled to get their rights recognized. President Morales recognized them at different levels. Foremost, he recognized their right of self-determination. This is a key right that indigenous people claim but states are reluctant to grant because it involves potential conflicts surrounding land and natural resources. As well, he turned the nation state into a multi-national state, meaning that indigenous autonomies are constitutionally acknowledged as legal political forms of organization, indigenous languages enjoy the same official status as Spanish, and an indigenous flag is now a national symbol.

However, despite the answer that these acknowledgements represent to historical indigenous demands, several indigenous leaders remain dissatisfied with these changes. My thesis provides a political explanation of why the recognition of cultural diversity in Bolivia has fallen short. My argument is that the indigenous dissatisfaction can be explained by the divergence between the discourses of the state and of indigenous struggles. The cultural recognition granted by Morales is based on an essentialist idealization of indigenous identity that does not correspond with reality. One of the indigenous leaders that I interviewed told me that before indigenous people could not participate in politics because they were thought to be inferior, and now they are considered pure and they are forced to maintain that pure image, which is another form of control. I suggest that this tension reveals a different understanding of what decolonization and recognition mean, not only between the Bolivian government and the indigenous peoples, but also among indigenous peoples in the highlands and the lowlands.

What did you find at the Library that helped you understand these issues?

I found lots of literature of Bolivia before Morales and during Morales’s time. And something really interesting is that I found many pamphlets from Bolivian social movements and local authorities—materials that are quite difficult to find in the field because you have to gather them from across different regions. However, I found them here concentrated all in one place, which was very helpful.

Nieves Zuniga
ESRC Fellow Nieves Zuniga conducting fieldwork in Rwanda, July 2016. Photo provided by the scholar, used with permission.

So following completion of your thesis, where did you go?

After my PhD I continued working in Bolivia. My project now is on anti-corruption policies. Since 2014 I am research fellow at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham for the project ANTICORRP funded by the European Union. The main objective of the project is to examine why some anti-corruption policies work, and others don’t. We are twenty multidisciplinary research groups in fifteen EU countries working on identifying factors that promote or hinder the implementation of effective anti-corruption policies.

At the University of Nottingham, together with the Developmental Leadership Program at the University of Birmingham, we are doing a comparative analysis between the anti-corruption policies in Bolivia and Rwanda. Even though Bolivia and Rwanda appear to be very different, they have interesting similarities in the way they understand corruption. For both of them the problem of corruption stems from colonialism. The solution, therefore, is to reconnect with indigenous and pre-colonial values and institutions. Our approach is to see how the promotion of integrity and values can play a role in anti-corruption in combination with a compliance approach, and both countries place an emphasis on values and ethics as key tools to fight corruption.

However, it’s very interesting to see how they are getting different results. Anti-corruption is one of the most celebrated achievements of Rwanda in the last years, whereas in Bolivia the negative perception on the levels of corruption has hardly improved. In Rwanda, the education in values is a continual activity and they use diverse formal and informal mechanisms to reach the different groups of the society, which explains, among other political and historical factors, a change in attitudes toward corruption. In Bolivia, activities regarding educating citizens against corruption are sporadic and isolated and, in reality, there is a prioritization of regulatory codes and compliance over values that prevents to change a mindset that condemns corruption in theory but tolerates it in practice.

How does your Ph.D. thesis, and your research at the Kluge Center, give you insight into your current project?

For me it was really good to have the background on Bolivia coming from my Ph.D. It helped me to contextualize the anti-corruption policy that Morales’s government is trying to implement and to better understand the response of the society. For example, one of the pillars of the anti-corruption policy is to increase the participation of civil society in monitoring the government. My previous knowledge about the tensions among social movements and their relationship with the government has helped me to understand some of the struggles and limitations of the policy, in particular, regarding the value and challenges for an effective social accountability

What will be the end result of your current work?

The main product will be a report on the promotion of integrity in fighting corruption. We propose to move the debate from fighting corruption to promoting integrity in public management. Everybody believes that integrity is good and necessary, but very few know how to define it, and even less how to implement it. With this report we try to provide an operational definition of integrity and ideas for its practical implementation in public institutions. This report will be presented to policy-makers, public officials and practitioners in the EU and other international contexts.

Another main product will be the comparative analysis of the anti-corruption policies in Bolivia and Rwanda, and more in depth papers on each case. I recently presented a preliminary analysis in the OpenGov Hub in Washington, D.C. on what is working in anti-corruption with successful examples from Rwanda and the municipal government of Juan del Granado in La Paz, an exception in Bolivia. It was nice to see in the audience Ronald MacLean Abaroa, former mayor of La Paz who has done a lot of work on anti-corruption, meet him personally, and talk further over coffee.

What does the future hold for you—what role do you see for yourself moving forward?

My future will hopefully involve doing something that is a bridge between the intellectual world and pragmatic results. I want to do research, coordinate projects and work in teams to make a positive impact in society. This is what I really want to do.


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