From Talk to Action: 5 changes that I hope result from the USG’s prioritizing anti-corruption
By Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church, Co-Director, CJL
It would be near impossible to be connected to the global anti-corruption conversation and not know that the United States Government has made countering corruption a core US foreign assistance priority. Between the Summit of Democracy, the Anti-corruption Evidence week and the first ever US Strategy on Countering Corruption, the Biden Administration has named and claimed the issue as central to democracy and security.
The Americans are not the first major geopolitical player to plant the flag at the base of the hill of corruption and declare war. The Brits did it in 2013, with then-PM David Cameron using the G8 meeting as his launch pad. Steps continued in the right direction until “the Brexit vote happened…[and] Whitehall collectively dropped the ball on the issue.”
My hope is that the USG avoids the fate of Whitehall’s diminished anti-corruption efforts. And, frankly, I’m cautiously optimistic. Over the past several months, I’ve had the privilege of presenting in five different State Department sessions and I sense great potential. Despite the different audiences, session formats and topics, consistent themes emerged. I’ve boiled these themes into five aspirations that I hope come out of the USG’s attention to anti-corruption and that, if adopted, could produce genuine advances in the corruption fight.
Taking on power, politics and social dynamics when working in contexts of endemic corruption means ending the days of anti-corruption as a purely technical and apolitical endeavor.
1. Differentiate between endemic and one-off corruption contexts
Tailoring programming to the type of context that the USG seeks to influence came up repeatedly in the sessions. This aspiration, at its most basic, requires us to differentiate the implications of working in contexts where abuse of power for personal gain is the system and acts of integrity the aberration. These systems of corruption are embedded across all sectors and reach horizontally and vertically through government. From a systems perspective, they are complex and adaptive which explains why they are so resilient to ‘simple’ interventions.
Far more nuanced ways to categorize types of context exist which could offer value for those who want to take it a step further. From Vallings and Moreno-Torres’ work which suggests three categories—weak but willing, strong but unwilling and weak and weak—to Michael Johnston’s syndromes, options exist in the literature. But the first step is to systematically understand the basic distinction that endemic corruption requires.
Moreover, this can’t simply be an exercise in labelling. For this aspiration to make a difference, the implications of the complexity that the label suggests must be responded to throughout the policy development and project cycle.
How? Well, read on…
2. Anti-corruption work needs to center power, politics and social dynamics in its construction
Tackling endemic corruption is political. It involves power. Any success will require those in power (formally or informally) to relinquish their ability to manipulate the system to their advantage. Any anti-corruption work that does not require this is unlikely to make any form of difference that matters. This means folks in the Embassy and desk officers must understand who the actors are in the system. Specifically, who has power (officially and unofficially) and who wins with the current system—because someone always is—and who would lose if the current situation changed.
We must consider social dynamics, or the unwritten rules that dictate behavior within a group—and what we at CJL call social norms—in any anti-corruption effort in an endemically corrupt context. When a population views corruption as a generally bad thing (public attitudes) but there is a norm that supports a particular corrupt behavior, guess what, the norm generally wins! Social norms exert pressure to comply with expectations and this pressure can be extremely powerful, even catalyzing behavior that breaks rules or laws when those rules do not align to the social norms. The effects, moreover, cascade beyond an individual’s behavior as the institution behind the rules takes a hit to its legitimacy. Norms are not always a factor, but when they are they will undermine enduring behavior change.
Taking on power, politics and social dynamics when working in contexts of endemic corruption means ending the days of anti-corruption as a purely technical and apolitical endeavor. This requires stopping the use of static anti-corruption templates and embracing dynamic, multi-faceted approaches. There is no standard operating procedure, law, template, training course, equipment or digitalization effort that—on its own—can diminish corruption in these contexts. This means looking outside a traditional toolbox and using multiple tools at once. Multi-faceted efforts that integrate classic solutions such as these with clear-eyed political analysis and cutting-edge social and behavior change efforts is the next generation anti-corruption effort.
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3. Invest in analysis
Understanding the type of context, the role of social norms, the ways that informal power flows within a context all boils down to investing in a quality analysis. This goes beyond describing the problem and dives into understanding the drivers and enablers of it. Regardless of the sector or the tools one hopes to throw at the problem only through a sound analysis can smart strategic decisions be made. (For a quick overview, watch our 3-minute video.)
While year-long research efforts applying academic standards are not reasonable to expect in an aid context, there are ways to pragmatically invest in analysis. Many UN and OECD donors, for instance, cooperate to conduct joint evaluations which may offer a model for joint analysis or two-step granting mechanisms where the first step is the analysis followed by a detailed design of the program.
Program proposals that state they will deal with "corruption" immediately signal that they have not done sufficient analysis to know what are the systems or behaviors driving the problem.
4. Start with the sectoral ‘problem,’ then get specific about the corruption
While the focus on corruption is music to our ears, the energy and current attention will make little progress on the ground if our efforts aren’t integrated into sectoral work. Abuse of power for personal gain is a problem because, among other causes, it diminishes basic service delivery, exacerbates grievances, and drives inequality. Yet stopping the corruption wouldn’t automatically fix any of these problems—inequality would still exist, as would poor service delivery, tension and poverty. Work that attempts to address any of these pressing issues must recognize the role of corruption within it and integrate responses into its theory of change.
Recognizing the role of corruption in a sectoral problem (e.g., education, WASH, peacebuilding) is the first step and must be followed by a dive into specificity. Corruption is a basket filled with an enormous range of behaviors that are inherently different—small-scale bribery is not nepotism which differs from political interference and sextortion. Each has its own logic and therefore requires different programmatic responses. Program proposals that state they will deal with ‘corruption’ immediately signal that they have not done sufficient analysis to know what are the systems or behaviors driving the problem.
Doing something is not always better than doing nothing. Without thoughtful analysis based on an understanding of the type of corruption context and the role of power, politics and social dynamics, anti-corruption policies and programs can make things worse.
5. There is no diminishing fragility and conflict without fighting corruption
Corruption has the potential to exacerbate all dimensions of fragility, from political to social, and can be an enabler and cause of conflict. For a quick example, read CJL’s “How the Séléka/Anti-Balaka Crisis is Gas on the Fire of Corruption in the Central African Republic” or Sarah Chayes’ Thieves of State for the connection between corruption and security. Or dig into Rachel Kleinfeld’s A Savage Order which explores how to get a corrupt government to want to fight violence. This means that all work that aims to diminish fragility or prevent conflict must consider the role of corruption and then take it into account in programming.
And don’t make it worse: (Okay, you could say I’m sneaking in a 6th point!) Doing something is not always better than doing nothing. Without thoughtful analysis based on an understanding of the type of corruption context and the role of power, politics and social dynamics, anti-corruption policies and programs can make things worse. They can increase the amount of corruption and decrease people’s willingness to participate in anti-corruption through increased cynicism as shown by Cheeseman and Peiffer’s work. Further, those benefiting from the corrupt system—political elite, narco-traffickers, militias—will fight back, and when they do the consequences can be much worse than cynicism. We need to expect it, plan for it and integrate mitigating strategies.
Are these five tall orders? Maybe. But in an unprecedented year of commitment and attention to corruption by the largest actor in the international aid community, we can’t ask for anything less.
Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church is a scholar-practitioner with a lifelong interest in governance processes that have run amuck. She has significant experience working on issues related to peacebuilding, governance, accountability and learning across the Balkans and West and East Africa. For fifteen years, Cheyanne taught program design, monitoring and evaluation in fragile contexts at the Fletcher School. Prior to that she was the Director of Evaluation for Search for Common Ground and Director of Policy at INCORE. As part of her consulting practice, she has had the privilege of working in an advisory capacity with a range of organizations such as ABA/ROLI, CDA, ICRC, IDRC, UN Peacebuilding Fund and the US State Department. She can be commonly found in the Canadian Rockies with her fierce daughters and gem of a husband.