• Jean Ensminger, the Edie and Lew Wasserman Professor of Social Sciences at Caltech

Corruption Research Brings Caltech Anthropologist to Congress

A conversation with Jean Ensminger
Jean Ensminger, a Caltech anthropologist, first went to Africa 40 years ago to study the economics of small Kenyan villages. While there, she stumbled into a web of corruption in projects run by the World Bank, an international money-lending organization charged with reducing poverty. 
Ensminger, the Edie and Lew Wasserman Professor of Social Sciences at Caltech, had focused her research on experimental economics—more specifically, on how social norms of generosity, trust, and cooperation co-evolved with the market economy in a rural region of Kenya. That is what she was doing when the World Bank brought a goat-restocking project to her research area. Soon, she began hearing stories of corruption in the project from local villagers and she decided it would make an interesting economics study. She had collected extensive data on social networks, demographics, and wealth, as well as information about the income levels for the same individuals over 30 years, all of which helped her shed light on how corruption networks function. 
Eventually, she wrote a paper about what she learned and presented it at academic conferences over the next few years. In 2007, at the urging of a friend, she presented it at a World Bank research seminar. That's when "all hell broke loose," she says. Within hours, word of her research made its way back to the administrators of that particular World Bank project, who authorized the project's Kenyan headquarters office to send a convoy of vehicles to her remote research village to investigate the situation.
The bank's response aroused her suspicions that what she observed in one village might also be happening in hundreds of others where the project also operated. She started digging and hasn't stopped. 
Her work recently caught the attention of the U. S. House of Representatives, which makes decisions about how much funding the U.S. will send to the bank. Though the bank has 189 member states, the United States supplies 20 percent of its funding. This gives the U.S. Federal Government some sway over the bank's president and board of directors as they make policy decisions. 
Ensminger went to Washington, D.C., in March to testify before the House of Representatives Financial Services Committee Subcommittee on International Monetary Policy and Trade.
The experience turned out to be nothing like what she expected.

Were you surprised when you were asked to testify? 
I had an inkling that it was coming. A friend of mine had been invited to testify at these hearings, but he didn't feel that it was really his area of expertise. He told them that I was the right person and that's how I came to their attention. 
Did you know right away that you wanted to do it? 
I had never appeared before Congress, so I had to give some thought to whether I wanted to do it, especially in these highly volatile political times. I decided that it was important to do it, because when you're this deeply into these kinds of issues, it's put up or shut up. If you want to try to have a positive impact, then you have to speak out when it's appropriate. 
What was the actual experience like; were you nervous?
First of all, it's hard to even see the committee members. They're pretty far away, and there's a big space between you and them. They're not all there at once. They cycle in and out. They've got other hearings to go to and whatnot.
I don't think I was quite as nervous at the beginning as I was once it got started and I realized how impossible some of the questions might be to answer.
I tried to prepare for what I thought would be obvious questions. All of that preparation was for naught, because I received almost no questions that I could conceivably have anticipated. Questions were all over the map. There was also some grandstanding on the part of some of the Congress people, speaking to the cameras, speaking to their constituents.
One member of Congress—I think for the sake of his constituents—asked a question about Iran. His question was, "Can we condition our future contributions to the World Bank on having a U.S. veto power on further loans to Iran?" Fortunately, that question did not come to me. I would've had no response to that question, because I didn't know the history of bank lending to Iran or what their current policy is.
It sounds like they weren't actually asking about something that was your expertise.
No, and this was my biggest frustration, as I was specifically invited to address corruption, which I did do in my written testimony and in my oral statement.  One question that I was asked was whether the World Bank should be influencing educational curricula to undermine ideologies that are incompatible with freedom and growth. My instant reaction was that this was a treacherous question. I did not wish to get into a philosophical debate about the pros and cons of various religious value systems, for example, and especially not based upon two seconds' reflection.
As a cultural anthropologist, the subject of how values change is one that interests me, but not one that I would wish to address as a sound bite in a highly charged ideological context.
Was this an experience that you'd like to have again?
I wouldn't say it's an experience that I would like to have again, but if asked, I would probably do it again. 
I am still engaged in a back and forth with the congressional staffers, as is the World Bank, and that is where progress on reforms may happen. Or not. Although the questions at the hearing focused little upon corruption, I was asked afterwards to respond for the record to about a dozen questions about corruption and the World Bank, and to address implications for specific policy changes. These were excellent questions that demonstrated deep understanding of the issues. I was told that some of the issues I raised had not been on Congress' radar, and now they are. So we wait to see if any reform follows.
I find that as I get more mature in my career, the nature of my research has moved more from abstract science to policy issues. I think that it's appropriate at this stage of my career that I try to put to use some of the things that I have learned and engage with policy makers if there is any hope of progressive reform.


Written by Emily Velasco