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  • Writer's pictureJared Miller, CJL

Addressing Endemic Corruption: There’s Reason to Hope

By Jared Miller, Senior Associate, CJL

Discussions of endemic corruption can leave one feeling overwhelmed, helpless, or a bit depressed about what can be done. Yet there are reasons for hope. In this blog, I offer three: how anti-corruption (AC) failures have spurred innovation; advances in bridging peacebuilding and AC efforts; and new tools in systems thinking.


Some welcome space for reflection and action-oriented thinking

My three reasons for hope were sparked by discussions at CJL’s annual Team Learning Meeting in December last year. We used it to take a step back to reflect on our ongoing work, what we were learning, and what this means for addressing endemic corruption.


The activity was a reminder of how helpful it is to make space to reflect on new ways to address endemic corruption. And although corruption can be a bleak subject, the general mood was upbeat and, for me, inspiring. Here’s why.  

"Endemic corruption is complex and doggedly resistant to change, but we’re not out of options. We know more than ever before, and we are continually coming up with new ways and tools to address it."

Three reasons for hope


1. We know a lot about what hasn’t worked and why – and that’s a good thing

If you’ve followed the anti-corruption field over the last decade, you may be struck by the number of studies that show how few anti-corruption programs have had a lasting impact. For a blog that’s supposed to be about hope, that’s not very inspiring, is it? In one way, no it’s not. But if we look at ‘failure’ in the way that Thomas Edison did, it is.


The story goes that when asked about his many failed attempts to create a lightbulb, Edison replied that he hadn’t failed, he had simply found several thousand ways that didn’t work. I believe that we can look at the failed anti-corruption strategies in the same way. We know more now than ever before about the factors driving corruption, and why some strategies are effective and others not.


A key example of this is the story of corruption and social norms. Ten years ago, talk of how social norms could drive corruption was rare and there was general skepticism about it. Yet in the last decade, there has been growing recognition of how social norms can drive corruption (also see SNAG’s work), excellent guidance on how to understand social norms, and crucially, emerging practices seeking to address them. Now, addressing social norms is even becoming part of anti-corruption policy agendas for agencies like USAID. These developments came about because of the deep desire to understand why certain anti-corruption approaches weren’t working and to explore others.


2. There are advances in bridging peacebuilding and anti-corruption

It has long been recognized that corruption can drive violent conflict and vice-versa. Yet peacebuilding and anti-corruption are often treated as distinct issues that remain siloed, despite the lessons that each can offer the other. Here are two advances made in breaking down these silos: one maps lessons from peacebuilding onto AC efforts, and the other looks at how we might leverage the strengths of each for more effective AC programs.


Identifying how anti-corruption can fuel conflict

In the late 1990s, humanitarian aid researcher Mary Anderson asked a hugely challenging question: how can international aid inadvertently worsen conflict dynamics? The way that Anderson and others responded created the foundation for the principle of ‘do no harm’ and the need for conflict-sensitive approaches when working in conflict-affected environments. And in the AC field, while much AC work takes place in conflict-affected environments, most programs have in fact been ‘conflict blind’.


So, we asked a similar question to Anderson’s: how can AC programs inadvertently fuel conflict? In some groundbreaking research, CJL’s team found 8 ways that AC programs can inadvertently fuel conflict. These range from AC instruments being weaponized against opponents on one side of conflict, to the violent backlash that some AC programs can spark. Though not yet a guide for how to mitigate these risks, understanding the risks is a critical step towards understanding how AC programs can take a conflict-sensitive approach. This is an ongoing endeavor.

A CJL paper covering this is being published in the coming weeks, and will be made available through our Brightspots letter. 


Joining up peacebuilding and anti-corruption for innovative practice 

As I mentioned earlier, corruption and conflict are often enmeshed in mutually reinforcing vicious cycles. Yet there is generally little collaboration between peacebuilders and AC practitioners around how to break them. This needs to change. We need innovative strategies to better address corruption in conflict-affected countries to improve the chances of long-term peace.   


We’re designing projects that seek to do exactly that. We aim to use research as the basis for innovative action – by studying the outcomes of current attempts to address corruption in conflict-affected environments, and then letting this inform the design and testing of more effective strategies. Peacebuilders already have a wealth of experience in issues that keep the corruption wheels turning – such as power, politics, resources, and social norms. They have a lot to teach AC practitioners and it’s time to leverage these insights.  

3. New tools have been developed to make systems mapping practical

Causal loop systems mapping is an excellent way of visually depicting the systemic nature of corruption and showing how different factors can influence a corrupt behavior. As a visual person who likes to see the big picture, I find this tool incredibly useful, but at times, overwhelming and abstract. A forthcoming CJL paper describes two helpful approaches to making systems mapping more feasible and practical: one to ‘jumpstart’ the analysis process, and a second to make the analysis more practical for designing programs.


Common patterns as starting points

While different contexts generate unique systems maps, there are common patterns of corruption across contexts. We are exploring how these can be starting points to ‘fast forward’ the analysis process so that practitioners can more quickly move to action. Four common patterns can be used as frameworks for customizing individual contexts: bribery; diversion of public resources; patronage and inequality; and corruption in procurement. An initial test suggests how these efforts could help to speed up the analysis, and in turn to reap the benefits more quickly. More testing is needed before we can draw any firm conclusions, but the signs are promising.


From micro to macro: mapping different levels of a system

The second innovation is a three-level map. Using an existing systems map, we

separated out the dynamics at play into macro, meso, and micro-levels of analysis. This allows us to see how a corrupt behavior driven by a social norm at the micro-level relates to broader institutional or political factors more visible at the macro level, and the intervention points that were more visible at the meso level. Systems maps can be overwhelming, both as a learning resource and as a tool for program design. But these three distinct levels make the process more intuitive and practical, and no less rich in detail.


Subscribe here to the Corruption in Fragile State Blog. We have a three-week publishing cycle — to keep you informed without cluttering your inbox.
Sign up to our Brightspots letter for the forthcoming papers on conflict sensitivity, and systems mapping.


The road ahead 

If I can leave you with one takeaway from this blog it’s this: yes, endemic corruption is complex and doggedly resistant to change, but we’re not out of options. We know more than ever before, and we are continually coming up with new ways and tools to address it. That gives me hope.

Look out for more blogs and publications as we record and discuss the progress being made.


Jared is a Senior Associate with CJL. Jared has more than seven years of experience as a practitioner and researcher focused on peacebuilding, corruption, and governance issues. Outside of his work with CJL, Jared is also pursuing his PhD in International Relations at The Fletcher School at Tufts University with a focus on how to strengthen accountable governance in contexts of systemic corruption. Jared is also a Fellow with the Institute for Human Security and a Research Assistant with the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University. Previously, Jared worked in Nigeria for Search for Common Ground on issues ranging from human rights accountability and accountable governance to youth-led efforts to counter violent extremism.


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