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The BOTA Foundation Revisited -- Part Three: Why was BOTA So Successful?

As noted in my previous post, BOTA has been cited by several major newspapers in recent months as the most successful example that the United States has for accountable, transparent and effective return of recovered corruption assets, and in its final report on the foundation, the World Bank called BOTA “a remarkable achievement.”  

To what can we attribute BOTA’s success? In my view, the following factors were paramount:

Political will of the Government of Kazakhstan (GoK): Its probably safe to say that the President Nazerbayev would have preferred to quietly keep the $84 million, plus interest, which was frozen in a Swiss bank account in connection to the James Giffen FPCA case in 1999, as when news of this secret account was revealed it created a political crisis for Mr. Nazerbayev, referred to as “Kazakhgate.” However, once the President signed on to the “BOTA solution,” he instructed his government ministers to facilitate the work of the foundation in every way possible. 

Starting in 2009 until BOTA closed its doors in 2014, the Prime Minister of Kazakhstan issued an edict to all relevant ministries (education, health, communications, etc.) ordering that they develop annual plans on how they would cooperate with BOTA. The Foundation, for its part, prepared a similar plan on how it would like to cooperate with counterpart ministries. This translated into laws being changed for BOTA, free publicity on state controlled media outlets, and many bureaucratic hurdles being overcome. 

One can imagine that if BOTA didn’t enjoy the strong backing of the government, it wouldn’t have been able to achieve so much in so little time.

Integrity, Integrity, Integrity: Kazakhstan’s corruption is the reason that BOTA came to be in the first place, yet BOTA had a zero tolerance policy towards corruption and conflict of interest. IREX, the US non-profit that managed BOTA (as well as BOTA’s own internal controls) and the World Bank all worked in concert to ensure that all funds were tracked and accounted for.

Extremely competent local staff: BOTA’s timing was good in that a high percentage of its staff had experience with for international organizations and they routinely exceeded expected standards. Staff were motivated by BOTA’s mission and empowered to contribute to the foundation’s strategic development. All except two of the small cadre of expat directors that started the foundation were phased out and replaced by local hires once BOTA’s programs were well underway.

Noncontroversial mission: BOTA’s focus on helping the poorest and most vulnerable children, youth and mothers in Kazakhstan was easily supported by public officials, local non-profits and private citizens.

License to innovate: BOTA was a learning organization, which was allowed by its governance structure to develop new approaches and techniques. For example, BOTA developed Kazakhstan’s first “proxy means test," given in on and offline formats, which allowed selection of very poor beneficiaries without having to prove income or demonstrate lack of resources.

Other important factors underpinning BOTA’s success are detailed in my recent case study, “The BOTA Foundation: A Model for the Safe Return of Stolen Assets?” which can be found here.


Aaron Bornstein was the Executive Director of BOTA Foundation, employed by a Washington, D.C. based NGO called IREX, from 2011 until its close in 2014. He has worked in eight different countries on a variety of anti-corruption, institution building, poverty alleviation, and other projects. Currently available for new consulting assignments or speaking engagements on stolen asset return, Aaron can be contacted here.

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