How can the Anti-Corruption Movement sharpen up its act?

Spent a day earlier this

Surprisingly Enjoyable
Surprisingly Enjoyable

week in a posh, but anonymous (Chatham House Rule) Central London location, discussing the state of the global anti-corruption movement with some of its leaders. The meeting took place in a posh, very high ceilinged room, under the stern gaze of giant portraits of assorted kings, aristos and philosophers. I wondered what they would have made of the assembled academics and aid practitioners being subjected to goldfish bowl methodologies and other participatory tricks of the trade. Actually, I came away convinced that goldfish bowls are great for such ‘expert groups’ (as usual, everyone seemed to know what they were talking about except me), combining a real conversation between a small group of people with the assurance that everyone who wants to will get a chance to speak, and a non-confrontational way of getting rid of people that drone on with a simple tap on the shoulder (if only it was always that easy).

The starting point for the meeting was pretty gloomy – 25 years or so of anti-corruption work have produced many recipes, but not much in the way of a square meal. Not only that, but some places we thought were clean have now slipped into reverse. As usual when faced with a ‘why change doesn’t happen’ problem, I reached for the 3is: ideas, interests and institutions.


Banging on about corruption may appease the Daily Mail, but otherwise the framing is pretty disastrous. It is easily couched in highly moral terms that allow advocates to ignore issues of power and politics, because they think they have found an absolute right/wrong issue. It’s ridiculously broad, covering everything from using a connection to get your kid an internship, to the pillaging of entire nations by kleptocrats, so not surprisingly, it doesn’t translate well, with a fair amount of disagreement at the margins (does lobbying = corruption? Or sending your kid to private school? Or paying a bribe so your business can actually function, employ people etc?). Then there are the endless medical metaphors, such as corruption = cancer, which encourage politicians and aid bosses to demand single, universal ‘cures’.


corruption is deadlyI was reminded of Chris Cramer’s great book ‘Civil War is not a Stupid Thing’. Corruption is not necessarily an evil thing. For example it can act as a political stabiliser in weak governance systems, eg buying off the warring parties to ensure the success of a peace agreement.

But even when it is an evil thing, the aid business is poorly placed to tackle it, because so much official aid goes through governments, which often include precisely those who profit personally from corruption and/or whose political survival depends on corrupt proceeds to meet expectations of political patronage (tin roofs, school fees, a contribution to a celebration etc). Turkeys; Christmas.


Aid institutions seem terribly unsuited to work on anti-corruption. As mentioned, they are over-reliant on national governments as partners of choice. They are outsiders, easy to denounce as enemies of the nation if they do start to threaten corrupt interests. Their short time scales are a serious obstacle when many successful transitions take decades rather than years. And the results agenda is problematic when many successes are actually side effects – historically most countries that have reduced corruption have done so as an unintended consequence of making other things work better.

So what?

Some in the room challenged the negative starting point, pointing to progress in areas such as the arms trade or extractives. Other factors may be contributing to the negativity – the gloomy cloud hanging over US and UK liberals makes them see the whole world in darker terms, and perhaps the greater levels of reported corruption are a sign of better reporting rather than more corruption. Lots of ex-presidents in Latin America are currently being prosecuted for corruption – does that mean things are getting worse or better?

But overall I came away from the day feeling that the anti-corruption movement is a bit stuck and really does need to rethink. One

But it's not actually true.....
But it’s not actually true…..

option would be to stop using the ‘C’ word altogether because it’s such a terrible starting point. Another, perhaps more realistic, approach would be to piggy back on the progress made in the related areas of governance and institutional reform – it feels like the anti-corruption movement is in dire need of a greater injection of ideas from the ‘Doing Development Differently’ and ‘Thinking and Working Politically’ coalitions, e.g. on ‘working with the grain’ or ‘politically smart; locally led’ programming. I had thought this discussion was already well advanced, but am now not so sure.

My own suggestions would be:

  • Get more serious about a bottom up approach. There are better ways to understand what corruption means to poor people than the occasional public opinion survey. What could we learn from governance diaries about how poor communities experience and deal with corruption? How could we combine that with the more analytical approach that captures the higher levels of corruption that damage entire economies and polities, but that may not always make it onto poor communities’ radar?
  • Positive deviance: identify any bits of the state (ministries, provinces, city administrations) that appear as positive outliers with low corruption/good governance. What can be learned from them and spread to other areas? (see the Islands of Integrity project)
  • Think much harder about anti-corruption work in fragile states. Is it even worth pursuing? If so, it probably needs a different approach, with broader coalitions of players filling in the holes where the state should be, such as faith organizations, traditional leaders and CSOs.
  • Let’s see corruption specialists working with those trying to crack real world problems – like bad roads, or poor quality health and education services – rather than sitting with other anti-corruption experts talking about corruption and so risking being pulled into generic and abstract debates about indicators.  Corruption is a part of many big problems in development, but it is rarely the only part.
  • But overall, I have to say my conclusion was that the sooner aid gets out of the anti-corruption business, and local politics takes over, the better.


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13 Responses to “How can the Anti-Corruption Movement sharpen up its act?”
  1. Joe Powell

    Hi Duncan,

    Fully agree on need for local politics and processes to take over – which is precisely why the Open Government Partnership was set up. OGP is not a “development partner” and it is universal – conversations on anti-corruption in OECD countries are just as hot in OGP as in developing countries. The key attributes – high level political leadership, govt-cso collaboration, independent accountability (via the partnership) and peer – peer learning – are all designed to support the reformers in govt win their own internal battles (your islands). Where the aid/development partners come in to support this framework is ensuring civil society has the space and resources to advocate and collaborate with government champions, and then getting behind the country-owned and created reforms that come out of the OGP process (e.g. open contracting, beneficial ownership reform, strengthening asset disclosure etc). OGP is a platform that is implementing the DDD/PDIA principles – but is still a somewhat under-understood/utilised platform for some of the leaders on anti-corruption thinking who were presumably at this discussion.

    Joe P (from OGP 🙂 )

  2. Narayan Manandhar

    ” 25 years or so of anti-corruption work have produced many recipes, but not much in the way of a square meal”. With this statement you have hit the nails. Are we in a situation of Omelette Thesis – breaking lots of eggs without being able to make an omelette?

  3. Tanya Green

    Hi Duncan love your blogs.
    My partner responded to a call for trustee or similar for a ‘leading’ anti corruption organistion; as engineer, entrepreneur, Harvard MBA & lots of corporate experience. He responded to a call in The Guardian. The CEO or MD – with whom he was offered an audience was more arrogant and rude than any interview he’d attended in banking ( he thought he was invited for informal discussion). They had no idea about the ad ! No interest in his forensic mind, integrity & experience. He was outraged by the ‘incident’ came away unimpressed by lack of professionalism or interest beyond their organizations narrow coterie ……

  4. Tanya Green

    Ps. Professor Wangari Maathai – the inspirational democracy and environmental campaigner had a great recipe: she said corruption is endemic in Kenya , therefore it happens in theGreen Belt Movement. When we find it, the individual is not sacked as that doesn’t solve the problem – and there will just be someone else. They stayed in the GBM had to take a demotion, pay back the money/bribe etc., ( a grassroots ‘name & shaming’) .
    And she has a Kiswahili saying for all of GBM -and badges : ‘ I do not give small things’ …- as just asking for a Coca Cola amounts by customs official was a form of bribe …
    She was an inspirational woman …

  5. ronald young

    A good and highly relevant post, Duncan – I was just bemoaning the presence of such professional and academic silos in this post – – which is one of a series I’m doing about the situation in Romania
    My feeling is that the interests of the various academic and professional groups are simply too strong to make such obvious collaboration possible. Here’s a telling quote from an OECD report of 2009 – ”As a result of interviews with senior members of ten donor agencies, it became apparent that those engaged in anti-corruption activities and those involved in the issues of statebuilding and fragile states had little knowledge of each other’s approaches and strategies” (quote from Network on Governance’s Anti-corruption Task Team report of 2009 on “Integrity and State Building” (the link is broken). That was 8 years ago!!

  6. dieter zinnbauer

    Dear Duncan great, provocative post – do not agree with everything but a very welcome jolt to get us out of what can be quite insular thinking. Re. new research strategies and a somewhat different attitude towards innovation in the governance area, perhaps bits of this are of interest . . It spells out some of the points that I tried to make in a very unintelligible way during our group discussions. With regard to the perennial, yet rather unproductive discussion on culture and corruption, perhaps this could be of interest: . It seeks to steer this issue into more fertile territory.

  7. Daniel F. Bassill

    Thanks Duncan. Appreciate your recommendations, especially this: “Positive deviance: identify any bits of the state (ministries, provinces, city administrations) that appear as positive outliers with low corruption/good governance. What can be learned from them and spread to other areas?’

    I created a concept map a while ago showing platforms collecting data that others could use to better understand problems. It would be useful if others were creating a similar map, pointing to platforms where people were collecting bits of information showing “positive outliers” or people doing good work that might stimulate similar efforts in different places, while giving positive reinforcement to those doing the good work. Maybe you or some of your readers are aggregating such information?

  8. Agreed with your takeaways, Duncan. I was likewise surprised that there wasn’t greater recognition of existing insights from the seemingly omnipresent DDD/TWP- thinking re complexity, power, and the role domestic actors can play.

    Because of this, it seems intent and framing of the workshop proved to be right: Starting off the debate with a wide-ranging and high-level discussion about unresolved challenges and mapping possible entry points, should help this group to figure out where to go next and propel us collectively toward greater clarity — while being inclusive in nudging along the evolving Doing Anti-Corruption Differently agenda.

    In terms of substance, fully agreed that we need to do a much better of understanding how to frame integrity and anti-corruption efforts at programming, advocacy and research levels for different audiences while not boxing ourselves into a space where we can’t communicate nuance and trade-offs. One good effort on this front is Charles Kenny’s recent book ‘Results – not receipts’ ‘Results – not receipts’. Other initiatives that build on existing insights, work across sectors and undertake to make a compelling case of where to go next include the SOAS/DFID ACE program here and the Open Data Charter’s efforts to test how open data Open can be used to combat corruption here. Worth taking a listen/look.

    There are of course many others that who have started making in-roads. Perhaps there is value in taking stock of existing initiatives? Anyone out there who has already ventured into doing this?

  9. I certainly understand the frustration expressed, and I agree that efforts to counter corruption need more focus on operational results. Academic policy dialogues have their place, but the realm of implementation deserves no less in terms of attention and resources. Unfortunately, many development professionals are not versed in the programming that targets legal, institutional, and citizen engagement in the types of medium to long-term projects that have shown success. Moreover, the grim reality is that development assistance continues to under resource challenging systemic reform work because it is easier to avoid the difficult conversations that must be had with aid recipients. Providing food, medical, and other direct assistance to the needy is of course important, but it is high time that development assistance adequately resource the types of structural programming that empowers the needy to hold their government(s) accountable, ensuring that direct aid has the impact intended. Politicians and elites used to at least reference the importance of rule of law, human rights, fighting corruption, etc., with some frequency, but even such cursory attention appears to be difficult to find these days. It seems like we all need to think creatively about how we can influence decision-makers to truly engage on the underlying structural concerns.

  10. I know of successful top-down and bottom-up anti-corruption campaigns.

    In India there is the web site, “I paid a bribe”. People document every time they paid a bribe, bringing routine low-level corruption in to notice. Not only does it shame corrupt officials, but it puts pressure on local agencies to take action, just like has got councils to fix potholes.

    When I was in Moçambique, in 1979, President Samora Machel launced a public anti-corruption campaign, “A offensive politica e organizaçional”. 10% of the civil servants were moved to an organisation investigating corruption in the other 90%. People were encouraged to report corruption to them, to journalists and in public meetings. I lit a play put on by technicians in the university engineering departments on APIE, the housing agency. There were daily articles in Noticias exposing corruption. The origins of the campaign were in the classes at the university for Frelimo cadres, where they learned from Marxist economists how dire the economy was. The central committee privatised a lot of small businesses that had been taken over when their Portugese owners left after independence. Samora Machel even turned up at the privatised restaurant in the airport, where he asked some of my friends about the quality of service there. He had lead personally, as several of his ministers were corrupt – on a small scale then, but on a massive scale after Guebeza became president.

    In both cases, the anti-corruption campaign was public. They rely on public pressure to overcome resistance from Insiders who benefited from corruption. Contrast that with the transparency projects designed by accountants. All rules on reporting transactions can be avoided with enough effort.