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  • Writer's pictureAlex Ralph, CJL

Best of 2021

By Alex Ralph, Editor, Corruption in Fragile States Blog

This past June I became editor of CJL’s Corruption in Fragile States blog. In many respects, the position is a natural extension of my day job as an instructor of writing at a school of public policy. In both positions, I talk with writers on how to sharpen their ideas and prose—and no one with any sense will seek my advice on crunching data for a program eval.

Our blog underwent much change in 2021, most notably with our snappy design revamp. In addition, CJL published important new work on social norms, including a summary of M&Es and multiple short guides for practitioners, as well as a lit review on adapting anti-corruption strategies in fragile and conflict-affected settings.

Personally speaking, a great pleasure of being editor is the opportunity to work closely with our in-house and guest writers. It’s a privilege to talk out ideas with such knowledgeable and committed folks, and by my count, I’ve zoomed with authors and prospective authors on four continents. On my 2022 bucket list: a zoom call to the South Pole. So for those of you considering that urgent Antarctica peacebuilding post, be in touch right away.

It’s a Corruption in Fragile States Blog tradition to begin the new year aggregating the five most read posts of the previous year. Hope you enjoy the wrap-up. We at CJL look forward to sharing more of our biweekly offerings throughout 2022.

Lastly, if you have an idea you’re interested in writing for us, reach out; I’m a reliable email pen pal. And should you have a new pet, may you have better results than when I, channeling my best anti-corruption maxims, instruct her to “Do no harm.” (For the curious, my inter-faith pooch—see photo—was good enough not to mar a friend’s Christmas set-up.)

Bo Rothstein takes a macro view in his post, analyzing why anti-corruption programs don’t always work out the way they’re intended. A better approach, according to Rothstein, is to shift our conceptual focus from the problematic principal-agent theory and instead draw on a social contract theory. “It is not by directly confronting corruption,” he writes, “but by erasing the dissatisfaction with how the state handles its part of the social contract that it will be possible to get corruption under control.”

It’s unprecedented for our blog to have the same author pen the two most widely read posts. In this ambiguously titled offering, Professor Rothstein defends his “Three Reasons Anti-Corruption Programs Fail” post against a critique from Matthew Stephenson of the Global Anticorruption Blog. Suffice to say that for this editor, a relative newbie to the field, the Rothstein-Stephenson exchange was a reminder of the conceptual challenges of thinking through optimal approaches to anti-corruption reform.

In their post, Mark Pyman and Paul Heywood acknowledge that many front-line reformers want to combat corruption despite obstacles and personal risk. Through their conversations with these stakeholders, Pyman, a veteran practitioner, and Heywood, an academic, have identified two common themes: “First, those in front-line positions feel ill-equipped to evaluate which specific corruption challenges they can feasibly address within their circumstances. Second, they often feel constrained by being complicit themselves.”

To help would-be reformers address these concerns, Pyman and Heywood have developed an actionable mental model they term SFRA, or Sector, Focus, Reformulation, Approach. SFRA, they note, “helps enable a positive, pragmatic mindset” that could become “part of a long-term approach to corruption reform, where progress is almost always partial, and recognized as a normal part of the political contestation process.”

CJL’s Dhaval Kothari spoke to Cristina Bicchieri, a preeminent scholar of social norms change, to better understand the importance of applying social norms into anti-corruption programming—and the perils of doing so poorly. Their conversation concentrated on three primary topics: 1) causes accounting for the ineffectiveness of some social norms change programs; 2) trendsetters’ role in shaping social norms change programming; and 3) how anti-corruption reformers should conceptualize social norms change interventions.

According to Bicchieri, norm nudging often operates within a black box; those anti-corruption programs that prove ineffective have usually failed to grasp how social norms operate and the motivating factors that undergird people’s behaviors. We trust that our blog readers will find Bicchieri’s wide-ranging ideas bracing and necessary.

Your humble editor found Michael Johnston’s post eye-opening. Specifically, his concern that the costs of anti-corruption reform efforts are often borne by those who are most vulnerable. “[W]hile checking corruption would benefit vast majorities, mobilizing the weak and vulnerable against the powerful is a heavy lift,” Johnston writes. “Moreover, reform campaigns may not only be futile; they can end in repression and violence.”

In his post, Johnston asks how we might “challenge corrupt officials without endangering the very people we hope to benefit?” His solution: focused contention. Rather than direct confrontation, Johnston argues that contention can better serve what should be anti-corruption reformers’ ultimate goal, namely, not just “good governance” or “best practices” but justice.


Here’s to hoping that our 2022 has a bit more justice in it. All best from us at CJL.


Alex Ralph began serving as the Corruption in Fragile States Blog editor in June 2021. In addition, he is a lecturer at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, where he teaches expository writing and courses on storytelling through public policy. When not editing or teaching, he is at work on a novel set in 1970s Detroit. His reporting on mental health and addiction service providers has appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer and other outlets. He received his MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan and currently lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.


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