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  • Writer's pictureLara Olson, CJL

If Anti-Corruption is a ‘Different Animal’, Do the Usual Approaches to Conflict Sensitivity Apply?

By Lara Olson, Conflict Sensitivity in Anti-Corruption Initiative, CJL

Do anti-corruption programs (AC) interact with conflict dynamics like other forms of international aid? If so, AC should be able to borrow existing, effective conflict-sensitive approaches used in humanitarian, development and peacebuilding efforts.

But I believe this is not the case, and that AC aid is different in important ways. We can learn a lot from existing conflict-sensitive practice, but ‘off the shelf’ solutions may not be enough. To help AC do no harm in conflict contexts, I think we will need to adapt mainstream conflict-sensitive approaches. How – we don’t quite know yet. However, both my in-depth review of conflict-sensitive practice and my own aid background have me venturing some ideas about where to focus attention.

So how is AC aid different?

Broadly, it is less about material aid; it directly challenges power distributions and so generates resistance; and it involves quite different tools from other forms of aid. In fact, some AC tools may inherently foster conflict and polarization – and are seen as legitimate levers for change. Examining these areas also reinforces why conflict sensitivity is so important for AC.

Leading the learning initiative on conflict sensitivity in AC, I have been gathering evidence and practitioners‘ experience on how AC efforts may have fueled conflict. In an earlier blog, I noted that while the AC field has increasingly engaged with how corruption and conflict interact, it has not looked much in the mirror for how AC programs themselves might worsen conflict in divided societies.

Our just released Working Paper shows eight ways we found that AC efforts can unintentionally worsen conflict. These include weaponizing of AC, stoking enemy images, and fueling disillusionment and radicalization. We give concrete examples of the serious consequences for conflict affected societies (and welcome feedback on these findings by the way!).

Having identified these patterns, what can be done about them?

There already exists a well-developed practice of conflict sensitivity in aid. Recognizing that aid is never neutral, about 20 years ago, the broader aid field started taking serious note of the impact of aid on conflict dynamics. Since then, numerous tools have been developed to help interventions be more ‘conflict sensitive’. Broadly, they help agencies analyze a conflict context, discern how an aid program interacts with it, and suggest options for redesigning programs to minimize foreseeable harms and support positive impacts on tensions.

While AC practitioners can learn from these approaches, I believe that some differences in AC aid may necessitate rethinking some aspects of these standard tools.

Three key differences between AC aid and why they matter

1. AC involves fewer tangible resources: its impacts are more through behaviors and ethical messages

International humanitarian or development aid is about bringing concrete material benefits to beneficiaries, by transfers of international resources directly to communities. It can be in the form of basic needs in crisis situations like food, shelter and medical services, or over longer horizons to address more endemic socioeconomic problems. AC, by contrast, involves preventing an undesirable ‘act’: corruption. AC programs do transfer some material resources – for institutional infrastructure, operational costs, or support to partners – but at a much smaller scale. And, the ‘benefits’ AC brings to communities are more indirect and less immediately tangible.

This difference matters for how we analyze and address negative impacts of AC on conflict.

Mainstream conflict-sensitive frameworks identify two mechanisms by which aid can make conflict worse: through ‘resource transfers’ and through ‘implicit ethical messages’ – the way aid actors behave and the values they transmit. Behavior that implicitly sends messages of antagonism, disrespect, differing value for different lives, reliance on arms and coercion, impunity, mistrust, powerlessness and opaque decision making can reinforce conflictual social dynamics.

For AC, as resource transfers are less important, conflict impacts are more about what gets communicated (often implicitly) by the behaviors of the people involved in the program. Some examples (from our Working Paper): when an AC court is weaponized against opponents while ignoring worse corruption among government allies, the message is impunity for the powerful. Or an anti-corruption public awareness campaign reinforces people’s belief that corruption is so ubiquitous that they are powerless to do anything. So, conflict sensitivity for AC may need to zero in on how the implicit ethical messages conveyed by AC may either fuel societal division or facilitate cohesion.

2. Anti-corruption efforts directly challenge sources of political power and legitimacy

Most forms of international aid tend to avoid directly challenging prevailing political arrangements. Conventional AC also tries to keep things ‘technical’ and ‘apolitical’. But the AC field has increasingly recognized that this is not possible: In attempting to correct ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain’, AC efforts engage directly in politics, famously defined as who gets what, when and how. In the blunt words of one AC practitioner: ‘Any time you focus on corruption in a serious way, you are re-allocating power, and this is by its nature destabilizing.’

Direct AC efforts threaten the people benefiting from existing systems. So they will be met with different kinds and intensities of resistance – and this is to be expected. While with other forms of aid, resistance and conflict signal problems, for AC it may mean that the effort is ‘working’. As one practitioner noted, conflict may be a sign that AC efforts are really disrupting corrupt networks. In turn, such resistance can have significant social and political effects, can align with existing intergroup cleavages and exacerbate tensions and manifest in violence.

The difference here also matters.

Existing conflict-sensitive tools tend to frame conflict impacts as inadvertent side-effects to be minimized or mitigated. AC programs might anticipate ‘conflict’ or even violent resistance, but they may be ‘blind’ to how this can link to existing intergroup tensions. I suspect that in AC there will be both more (and expected) conflict directly generated by programs, and also, therefore, more likelihood that such resistance can be used to mobilize groups along conflict lines. For current conflict-sensitivity frameworks, it may be harder to determine what conflict to ‘avoid’ or ‘mitigate’ and what is expected and tolerable (maybe even desirable).

3. Many AC tools are adversarial and can foster polarization

Many of the conventional AC approaches to tackling corruption are intentionally adversarial. They aim to either expose or punish wrongdoers directly, or, through advocacy, mobilize social discontent against ‘those thieves’ to create pressure for change. The powers of enforcement by the state, such as investigations, prosecutions and sanctions, can strip resources, privileges and power from wrongdoers. Watchdog roles and investigative journalism can whip up public discontent through public exposure and tactics like naming and shaming.

Unlike other forms of aid, underlying these AC approaches is often an assumption of adversarial rather than cooperative relationships, where one wins and the other loses.

This difference matters too.

"an anti-corruption public awareness campaign reinforces people’s belief that corruption is so ubiquitous that they are powerless to do anything. So, conflict sensitivity for AC may need to zero in on how the implicit ethical messages conveyed by AC may either fuel societal division or facilitate cohesion."

Intentionally adversarial methods and coercion-based enforcement mechanisms are seen as legitimate and necessary tools in the AC toolkit. Most existing conflict-sensitive frameworks, by contrast, would characterize these approaches as carrying implicit ethical messages that reinforce and legitimate the use of power and coercion between groups.

Conflict-sensitive approaches in AC would need to be able to determine when these approaches are simply fueling intergroup conflict or when they are appropriate and legitimate.

So, as a ‘different animal’, how can AC conflict-sensitivity be more ‘sensitive’?

Given these distinct features and the more conflictual ‘edge’, understanding how AC can anticipate and mitigate unintended negative impacts on conflicts may be even more important than for other aid. The broader trends in AC to rethink conventional approaches, the emergence of newer less adversarial indirect approaches, and the need to think and work politically are positive and helpful developments. And the richness of conflict-sensitivity expertise in the wider aid sphere and already-diverse applications of conflict-sensitivity have a lot to offer AC.

"'Any time you focus on corruption in a serious way, you are re-allocating power, and this is by its nature destabilizing.'"

The differences I have raised suggest specific areas of inquiry, where deeper reflection and learning is needed to inform such adaptation. For this, dialogue between the AC and conflict-sensitivity communities of practice is vital.


Lara Olson currently leads the Conflict Sensitivity in Anti-Corruption learning initiative at CJL, the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Project. A developmental evaluator of peacebuilding programs since 2014, she has extensive experience in the Caucasus (and in general the former Soviet states) and the Western Balkans. Her research has focused on civil society peacebuilding, peace operations, civil military coordination in peace missions, and complex systems in peace and conflict research and practice -- co-directing a project on mission-wide coordination effectiveness in peace operations using systems approaches. While based in Cambridge, Massachusetts throughout the 1990s, Lara directed the original research phase of the Reflecting on Peace Practice project as well as worked with the Harvard Program on Negotiation, the Consensus Building Institute, and the Conflict Management Group on research and practical interventions to address ethnic conflicts in the post-Soviet states. She recently completed a mid-career doctorate in International Relations at Oxford, has an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and a B.A. in Political Science from UBC in her hometown of Vancouver. She is based in Calgary since 2004 with her family.

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