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Law student studies international corruption with help from alumnus

Will Johnson '14 worked with Bill Sedlak '09 to further his research in San Salvador, to continue research in Pakistan

By Will Johnson

Editor’s Note: Will Johnson is pursuing a concurrent J.D./MA in International Studies, and is scheduled to complete his degree requirements in May 2014. During the 2011 summer, Johnson blogged for Oregon Law about his initial work in El Salvador. Below is a first-person update from Johnson on the fellowships he has been awarded and how they are helping to further his international research.

In late December I arrived back in San Salvador, this time alongside a childhood friend, Bill Sedlak, a 2009 University of Oregon J.D./MBA alum. Bill and I have known each other for about 20 years, and after attending school together in Lincoln, NE, we separately relocated to Oregon for graduate school. In 2010, Bill was hired by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) as a Contracting Officer and moved to Washington, D.C. In late spring of 2011, several months after I decided to spend my post-1L summer in El Salvador, Bill informed me that he might soon be posted there. Unfortunately, I left the country about 10 days before he arrived, so I was happy when I got a chance to do a follow-up research trip. Since Bill works at the U.S. Embassy, which is in a much different (and much nicer) part of town than I was in all summer, this was a good chance for each of us to show the other our very different slices of this beautiful country. My research trip was funded in part by a Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (SYLFF) graduate fellowship for international research, an award given by the Tokyo Foundation, yet also made possible by Mr. Sedlak’s willingness to house me in exchange for good company and insight into the best pupusarias in San Salvador.

I spent the summer of 2011 in El Salvador working alongside several professors and lawyers and volunteering at the human rights organization Asociación Pro Búsqueda (a group that investigates cases of forced disappearance and provides legal and other forms of advocacy/support for victims and their families – see probusqueda.org.svfor more info). My original goal for the trip was to do research into human rights and legal reform issues in post-conflict Central America, which was my proposed master’s thesis topic at the time. However, as often happens with research projects, I soon realized that the questions I hoped to ask were wrong from the outset; everyone told me that the problem wasn’t legal reform or lack of human rights laws but rather that corruption and impunity acted as barriers to the implementation of law. When I returned to UO in September to begin my year in the International Studies Department (the one year of the J.D./MA program that I will spend outside the law school), I reframed my research and decided to focus my thesis on corruption.

Will Johnson and Bill Sedlak

Will Johnson and Bill Sedlak standing over the crater of the El Boquerón volcano outside San Salvador

El Salvador, like many countries in Central America, has a bad reputation when it comes to corruption. This trip was focused around a set of taped interviews I had with various people from both the public and private sector, and my goal was to gain from these interviews a better understanding of the way government officials and human rights lawyers deal with (i.e. work “within”) what many consider a corrupt legal and political system. The questions did not address specific cases of corruption (I didn’t want to know names or dates), but instead focused on perceptions of the problem itself, its causes, and its possible solutions. In this project I also hope to draw correlations, if possible, between perceptions of corruption and levels of violence or human rights abuses within a country to help support preliminary hypotheses.

I interviewed the representatives from the Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudsman’s office, the relatively new Tribunal de Ética Gubernamental (the supposed anti-corruption agency recently created by the Salvadoran government), several members of the NGO community and their lawyers, two representatives of the Corte de Cuentas (the administrative agency that is in charge of monitoring and distributing government money), an anti-corruption activist, and two members of the U.S. State Department. Although it is too early to truly speak to the value of the material I collected with respect to my future thesis, I feel confident that the trip was a success.

Corruption itself is a complex problem, both as defined by scholars studying it and as practiced in the real world, and I was quite certain that anyone really connected to the corruption problems in El Salvador wasn’t going to talk to me about it. But, to be honest, I was surprised at what I heard: the majority of my interview subjects were very willing to discuss the issues, and even the non-answers (e.g. the government employee who told me there had only been two cases of corruption in El Salvador) were answers in themselves. Also, considering that I had never completed an interview for research like this before – not in English, let alone Spanish – I was surprised at the information I was able to gather. Luckily, a recent law graduate of the National University of El Salvador (UES), whom I befriended during the previous summer, was able to come with me to most of the interviews and help open doors and support me in the event of any misunderstandings.

My goal now is to turn my thesis into a comparative study across two countries that have very similar corruption problems, but are from very different regions. I recently was awarded a Short Term Lecturing and Research Fellowship from the American Institute of Pakistan Studies, a member of the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC), to continue my research with attorneys and government officials in Islamabad. An exact trip itinerary is not yet set, but I’m planning to go to Pakistan for two months (starting in late December 2012) to work alongside Hassan Aurangzeb, a Pakistani Supreme Court Attorney who visited UO in April of 2011. The trip will also mirror my El Salvador research in the sense that I will conduct taped interviews with lawyers, public officials, and activists.

I personally believe that despite the fact that corruption exists everywhere in the world, and has existed throughout time, it is an extremely understudied topic. Additionally, the fact that the majority of scholarly work addressing it has focused on economic effects (i.e. how corruption has inhibited the expected benefits of neoliberal economic reforms in developing countries) means that many lawyers, scholars, and policy makers have a short-sided – and I argue misguided – perception of this very serious problem. However, I must admit that I am in the initial phases of this project and have a lot of work to do before I can wholeheartedly stand behind that statement. I guess it is good that I still have more than two years of my concurrent degree program left to figure that out.

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