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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Muspratt

A Good Contagion: Social Norms Makes Its Move in Anti-Corruption Thinking

By Matthew Muspratt

As anti-corruption advocates dial in to virtual meetings and COVID-19 wipes clean the slate of forthcoming conferences (see, e.g., the OECD Global Anti-Corruption & Integrity Forum), we at the Fletcher School’s Corruption, Justice & Legitimacy Program are finding encouragement in the recent diffusion of something more medically benign, though highly significant to our sector and those who bear corruption’s consequences: social norms. The concept is appearing more widely and deeply in the anti-corruption ecosystem of workshops, conferences, literature, and blogs. And we are excited – and intrigued – by the unexpected questions that social norms approaches to corruption are raising.

Social Norms Definition: the mutual expectations held by members of a group about the right way to behave in a particular situation.

This past November, the CJL team witnessed a groundbreakingly high level of attention to social norms at the International Conference on Anti-corruption in Fragile States in Berlin (see the conference Minutes and Outcome Document). Hosted by the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH (GIZ), in addition to Transparency International Germany and the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, the event not only acknowledged fragility as requiring a unique corruption response, but did so via the attendance of high profile panelists from German ministries, post-war reconstruction authorities, and other key international institutions. CJL Co-Director Diana Chigas participated in a session examining informal and customary power structures in fragile settings, in which social norms emerged as a talking point, especially as an aspect of corruption analysis and a key element of the networks undergirding livelihoods in periods of fragility. That linkages to social norms are surfacing at such high-level venues (and on conference agendas themselves, see below) is a strong signal of recognition that social norms play an important role – and that there is interest in understanding and addressing them. Indeed, the Berlin conference’s outcome document suggested that political economy analyses “need to do a better job of capturing the social and political norms that underpin” fragile environments.

Before the Berlin conference, Diana made presentations at Newcastle University’s Beyond Corruption workshop and a USAID systems thinking conference. The former event, subtitled “Rethinking African moral economists and anti-corruption practice,” featured a keynote lecture from the well-known Kenyan anti-corruption activist and former journalist John Githongo, who asserted that “the era of technical fixes is over” in the anti-corruption field. The participants – largely university-based – echoed this sentiment, offering a variety of alternative lenses, from morality to underexplored pressures facing actors in sectors as diverse as law enforcement, surgical services, and public procurement. Diana joined Chatham House’s Leena Koni Hoffmann for a session specifically focused on social norms and corruption and noticed the high potential for researcher-practitioner synergies in the field: when it comes to social norms and corruption, the academic researcher’s timeframe and modes of operation may not often align with the practitioner’s, but do they nonetheless offer perspective unavailable to the practitioner who seeks to measure social norm change but is constrained by tight project-to-project lifecycles?

And what if the corruption practitioner interested in social norms is measuring and collecting evidence about the wrong thing – or the right thing but interpreting it from the wrong lens? Questions like these surfaced at the USAID event, a sector-agnostic workshop where Diana presented on the corruption analysis methodology we developed based on causal loop mapping. The resulting discussion raised the possibility that a social norms approach to corruption might be concerned with mechanisms of influence – relationships, feedback, pressure – not so much the quantum of change. If that’s true, traditional methods of collecting evidence may not be appropriate, may look in the wrong places, or may miss the salient point. That is, perhaps the savvy social norms practitioner shouldn’t worry about finding evidence that norms are changing to the measurable benefit of a community; they should be on the lookout for changes in relationships and evidence related to, for example, how people construct or signal to others their membership in a particular social group with particular social sanctions and rewards. Those t-shirts that a newly formed group of positive deviants want to wear to signal their new identity? Maybe we should ask not what the t-shirts do for corruption in the community, but rather ask what they do for the advocates themselves and the signals they send within and without that social group.

At CJL, the take-home from conferences and workshops like these is that social norms is finding its way into the corruption conversation in diverse ways. Be it ministry-level conversation about fragile states, academic discourse on morality, or nuts-and-bolts examination of technical methodologies, social norms as a corruption driver surfaces ever more frequently when anti-corruption thinkers and stakeholders gather.

Importantly, in a time of limited travel and desk-bound workplans, we are encouraged that research, professional papers, and the blogosphere are following this trend. At the risk of overlooking important contributions to the social norms and corruption field and some of our close colleagues (please be in touch with us if we have!), we highlight the following recent outputs:

  • Last month, CJL’s Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church and Fletcher School colleagues submitted to DFID’s Strengthening Uganda’s Anti-Corruption Response (SUGAR) facility their findings from a participatory exploration of the social norms that impede administrative sanctions from being implemented in convicted cases of public servant corruption.

  • In a January publication from U4/Chr. Michelsen Institute, David Jackson and Grant Walton examined informal systems of reciprocity in Papua New Guinea, finding “the role they can play in shaping state-society relations falls along a continuum, ranging from providing potentially lifesaving benefits, at one end, to encouraging corruption, at the other.”

  • At the close of 2019, Claudia Baez Camargo of the Basel Institute on Governance and Utrecht University’s Tobias Stark both published posts on Global Integrity’s Anti-Corruption Evidence Research Programme blog about an intervention in Tanzania leveraging social norms through and social networks to address bribery in the health sector

We are confident there is more to come as TORs, studies, and evaluations that touch social norms increasingly circulate (and more work reaches the public domain). The expectation at CJL is that over the next months such momentum and conversation – as virtual and long distance as it may be – will only increase.


About the Author

Matthew Muspratt is Project Manager for the Fletcher School’s Corruption, Justice & Legitimacy Program and an independent consultant with expertise in international development and sub-Saharan Africa. A lawyer, Matt spent most of the past decade living and working in Sierra Leone, Ghana, Kenya, and Rwanda. He headed the legal departments for ProCredit Holding AG financial institutions in Ghana and Sierra Leone; was Senior Advisor to Sierra Leonean legal aid group Timap for Justice; and advised several social enterprises on business plans and corporate and contracts matters, including the Right to Dream Academy, Africa’s leading boarding school for elite football/soccer players. His international consulting for entrepreneurship advisory firm Koltai & Co. LLC included projects for the U.K. Department for International Development, a Fortune 100 company, and a major American family foundation.


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