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  • Writer's pictureMichael Johnston, Colgate University (Emeritus)

Don't Fight Corruption - Fight for Justice

By Michael Johnston, Colgate University (Emeritus)

Photo: Fethi Hamlati, Wikimedia Commons

Anti-corruption strategies abound in pledges to “combat” corruption and “fight” for integrity, but often as not they assume—without telling us how—that such disruptive interventions can and should culminate in social consensus and stability. Since nearly everyone suffers from corruption, we often think reform should readily draw widespread support. Transparency will enable citizens, political interests, and officials to police each other and assert a shared interest in honest government. “Building a culture of integrity” envisions extensive agreement on what government ought to do and on citizens’ roles in the process, along with efforts by all to uphold shared values. Political and economic institutions must be strengthened and, in some visions, made more autonomous—or, in others, opened up to respond to the public will. Either way, the goal is orderly, consistent governance.

Those are fine ideas, but problematic for several reasons. While they spell out what many would see as desirable outcomes, they tell us little about how to get there. Moreover, they are strikingly apolitical—not surprising, since one longstanding reform tradition regards “politics” as corrupting and undermining good government. Just how politics would be kept out of a reformed world, however, is left unclear. There remain also questions of who, if anyone, would have a strong stake in sustaining such reforms and, thus, of how collective action problems might be overcome.

Seldom discussed but equally urgent: stability and consensus as reform goals are fine for those who are doing well in a society, but for the poor and marginalized they may only amount to more of the same—to maintaining the boundaries and inequalities that keep you on the outside, looking in. Not only is that a matter of injustice; it is one more reason why pushing corruption control as a public good is likely to fail.

What Douglass Teaches Us

In 1857, the American abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass told an essential truth: "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." Corruption fighters and peacebuilders will recognize familiar challenges: much corruption rests upon imbalances in power that allow the few to exploit the many; the abusers of power will defend their advantages; and while checking corruption would benefit vast majorities, mobilizing the weak and vulnerable against the powerful is a heavy lift. Moreover, reform campaigns may not only be futile; they can end in repression and violence.

Can we challenge corrupt officials without endangering the very people we would hope to benefit? How can we know whether we are succeeding, failing—or having any effect at all? Can “we” reconcile international reform groups whose strategies are based on assumptions of consensus and stability with domestic leaders and followers seeking far more fundamental changes?

Image of Frederick Douglas, Creative Commons

One possible answer lies in understanding the differences between conflict and direct confrontation against a regime, on one hand, and focused contention emphasizing more limited but still essential demands on the other. Historical and contemporary examples suggest that limits on corruption have often come—sometimes as a byproduct—when people demand that those in power change their ways. Appeals to civic virtue will not suffice. But social pressure for change is difficult to sustain for resource reasons, because of the risks involved, and as a result of collective action problems. Challenging the powerful entails sustained effort and, at times, danger, for the sake of goals that may seem remote. Meanwhile, entrenched elites may respond with threats, manipulate petty inducements to buy support—or resort to violence.

So what then are the alternatives to doing nothing? Starting fights we cannot win or even survive? Short-term, donor-driven reform projects? Dramatic people-power episodes that may even topple a leader, but do not produce fundamental change?

In this post I argue that focused contention offers corruption fighters and peacebuilders a way forward by allowing us a greater opportunity to act with citizens rather than for them. Practically speaking, this means highlighting quality-of-life grievances although they may seem only indirectly linked to corruption. It also means enabling people to assert their own interests and spotlighting positive change that is occurring even within countries shaped by endemic corruption.

Conflict versus Focused Contention

Photo: Ezequiel Scagnetti, Flickr

There is a difference between direct confrontation (i.e., conflict) and focused contention based upon specific grievances. The conceptual distinction is far from precise; indeed, conflict is often treated as the expression of differing interests, and contention as a disruptive problem. But I regard conflict and direct confrontation as an open-ended dispute, possibly involving violence, in which conflicting sides seek domination, while contention revolves around more limited issues. In the former, citizens might try to drive a regime from power (viz. Tunisia in 2011) while the regime tries to silence its critics. In the latter they might press for improvements in public utilities, education, or treatment by the police, and for a voice in such changes. Conflict can become an all-or-nothing struggle, while contention might be resolvable by specific improvements and enable citizens to push for further improvements. Indeed, such outcomes can offer benefits on all sides and thus be sustainable over time.

What does that mean strategically? Organize around quality-of-life issues and build upon rooted social networks and leadership—not externally-funded civil society programs. Gather indicators and benchmarks of government performance on the issues in contention to show whether citizen efforts are having an effect: is power available more consistently, or are medical supplies reaching the grassroots? Further—and perhaps surprising—where performance is improving, use that fact to build support for accountable leaders. Giving credit where it is due may encourage further cooperation.

Can we tell whether progress reflects reduced corruption, or just more general changes? As a scholar I'm intrigued by that question, but as a reformer I don't care: if government is paying more reasonable prices for basic commodities, for example, we are likely squeezing some of the scope for corruption out of the system. Moreover, demonstrable quality-of-life improvements offer ways both to reclaim key issues from illiberal "populists" who appeal to a similar sense of exploitation but have nastier goals in mind, and also point toward better theories of change by not only identifying, but validating, ways to check abuses of power.

Photo: Randeep Maddoke, Wikimedia Commons

There is no magic here. Even gradual steps can be premature in authoritarian or post-conflict settings. In early phases we might not want to make corruption our top issue; here I echo Kaufmann's notion that "you don't fight corruption by fighting corruption.” Focusing on better government performance may not directly change fundamental imbalances of power, but citizens who win a series of sustainable improvements establish themselves as a force capable of demanding better performance, and of rewarding it, in political terms. Yes, contention can spark severe conflict—something over which we may have little control—but this seems less likely if people demand better schools than if they tell a regime it must go.

By emphasizing the benefits of contention over direct conflict, does that mean we are once again telling suffering citizens they just have to continue to wait? Not if we emphasize and demonstrate quality-of-life improvements. Peaceful sustained change can be transformative. Outside reformers cannot dictate strategy; local leadership and grievances are essential. If situations move toward conflict we must protect citizens as much as possible, rather than hunkering down to safeguard our own assets. The goal, ultimately, is not just "good governance" or “best practices”; we must enable citizens to push actively for justice.


Michael Johnston (Ph. D. Yale University, 1977) is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Colgate University. From January 2017 through May 2019, he was a Distinguished Professor at the International Anti-Corruption Academy in Laxenburg, Austria. His most recent book, The Conundrum of Corruption: Reform for Social Justice (co-author Scott A. Fritzen), was published by Routledge in December, 2020. Transitions to Good Governance (Edward Elgar; co-edited with Alina Mungiu-Pippidi) appeared in 2017. Syndromes of Corruption: Wealth, Power, and Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2005) won the 2009 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order, presented by the University of Louisville. He has served as a consultant to numerous international organizations, and between 2009 and 2014 was involved in long-term reform efforts in the Philippines. In recent years he has prepared a review of issues in measuring corruption and governance for the World Bank, developed an analysis of connections between corruption and political instability for a US Government agency, and presented a lecture and chaired a panel discussion at the OECD in Paris. In 2016 he was a member of a team organized by the University of Southern California that conducted a mid-term evaluation of the Open Government Partnership. Current projects include helping develop typologies of corruption risks for the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency of the World Bank. He lives in suburban Austin, Texas, with his wife, Betsy, who will likely re-introduce cats to the household within the coming year. How long they will let us continue to live in their house remains to be seen.


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