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  • Writer's pictureCheyanne Scharbatke-Church - CJL

Unpacking corruption paves the way for social norms analysis

By Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church, Co-Director, CJL and Richard Nash, Senior Governance and Anti-Corruption Advisor, RTI International

Social norms are experiencing a rare moment in the spotlight. Considered by many to be a “new approach” to complex issues like corruption, the appeal of social norms is understandable. However, approaching corruption from a social norms lens is not a quick fix.

To determine which social norms contribute to corruption in a given context, international development practitioners must first unpack what that corruption is. A clear and specific understanding of corruption – including whether it is one-off, a pattern, or systemic – is needed before designing programs that leverage social norms to effectively address it.

"The lessons we’ve identified so far echo those we’ve seen in other regions and sectors. We believe this learning can apply to other fields and regions as well."

To build the knowledge base around social norms, the Corruption Justice and Legitimacy (CJL) Program has partnered with RTI to explore whether and how social norm driven corrupt practices undermine governance of protected areas as part of the USAID-funded Sustainable Interventions for Biodiversity, Oceans and Landscape (SIBOL) project in the Philippines.

While this work is ongoing, we have already uncovered useful insights that can inform future programming. Since the lessons we’ve identified so far echo those we’ve seen in other regions and sectors, we believe this learning can apply to other fields and regions as well.

What counts as a corrupt behaviour?

One of the issues the SIBOL project seeks to address is how weak governance structures result in decisions by Protected Area Management Boards(PAMB) that may undermine effective conservation of the protected areas in the Philippines. This occurs for a number of reasons – from inadequate financial resources to limited experience in using scientific data in decision-making.

Photo by Richard Nash

Our effort focuses on decision-making by one of the 240 PAMBs in the Philippines and the role that social norms play in determining this board’s outcomes. We were interested in learning whether and how social norms – which are the unwritten rules that dictate behavior within a group – were responsible for what appeared to be corruption within PAMBs.

“The label of corruption is also commonly used to define results we just don’t like. The real issue could instead be poor process, bad communication, slow systems, or non-functioning institutions. Digging past a general description is important because tackling slow bureaucratic systems requires different work than addressing processes that have been manipulated for personal gain.“

Since norms drive behaviors, we first tried to determine what, specifically, was happening in terms of corruption. This requires a two-part interconnected assessment. First,one needs to articulate the type of corruption in behavioral terms. A behavior is what an individual does, such as placing a cash-filled envelope on a contract officer’s desk or demoting someone who refused to comply with a request to lose a file.

Second, one needs to possess a locally grounded understanding of corruption to apply to that behavior. While some countries have a legal definition of corruption, others experience corruption so commonly that legal language is an insufficient starting point and boundaries around what is referred to as corruption may be overly broad.

For more on how to identify social norm driven behaviors, see Diana Chigas and Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church's "What you must know to differentiate norms from what's normal."

Depending on the perspectives and interests of specific groups, an issue may be corrupt. For example, promoting the development of tourism in protected areas may boost jobs and incomes for local people and bring in resources for the park’s management; however, if this is done in a non-transparent or non-inclusive manner, or in a way that has a negative environmental footprint in an area that a group may have an interest in protecting, this could be seen as corrupt.

Photo by Richard Nash

But the label of corruption is also commonly used to define results we just don’t like.The real issue could instead be poor process, bad communication, slow systems, or non-functioning institutions. Digging past a general description is important because tackling slow bureaucratic systems requires different work than addressing processes that have been manipulated for personal gain.

For practitioners without significant expertise in the local context, this distinction can prove difficult. Knowledgeable domestic actors are best placed to provide insight into the meaning and types of corruption at play, which can provide the nuance and understanding as to what is “corrupt” and why it might be happening. In this process, several initial questions can be helpful if unpacked:

  • Who is getting to decide what is corrupt?

  • Is there a difference between how the government defines corruption and what civil society or communities define as corruption?

  • What is the normative lens through which corruption is being discussed: Is the problem being framed as a criminal law problem, a social issue, or a moral issue?

  • Is this a “national” problem or is there something specific to the place or community the project would be working on?

Photo by Richard Nash

Sometimes the answer will not be clear, and an iterative process of discussion, analysis and investigation may be required. Breaking the habit of using corruption as a blanket diagnosis is important during this process. Specifying cronyism, bribery, or absenteeism, among others, will help determine next steps,as tackling sextortion is quite different than tackling nepotism or state capture.

In contexts of endemic corruption,this analysis will also help practitioners cut through the general noise (i.e., “corruption is everywhere”) and identify the specifics of what is occurring, why it is corrupt, and what might be done about it.

One-off, pattern or a corrupted system?

Corruption may show up as individual corrupt acts, regularized patterns of corrupt behaviors, or the entire process could be set up to give a select set of individuals consistent privilege. In other words, the system itself could be corrupt, not just one factor within it.

When it comes to social norms, one of the signs that a norm may be driving a behavior is when the behaviors are common or typical within a group. So, we look for patterns of corrupt behaviors that were regularized or common, rather than one-offs.

Photo by Richard Nash

With the PAMB, there were general assertions that political interference was a concern, but we needed to understand this more practically. Did political elites make phone calls to PAMB members to pressure them around a specific decision (i.e., one-off behavior)? Or was more subtle commentary dropped into casual conversation when people happened to meet? We needed to understand the specific behavior and how that specific political interference behavior fit into other factors that contributed to decisions being suboptimal – from inadequate financial resources, confusion around role and functions, limited exposure to conservation aspects of governance, management challenges, and limited experience in using scientific data in decision-making, insufficient time to attend meetings, large membership, etc.

Photo by Richard Nash

With regards to the idea of a system of corruption, this suggests an inter-related set of factors (e.g., attitudes, behaviors, processes, regulations, political structure, etc.) that, when examined individually, might not be corrupt, but collectively they serve a corrupt purpose. In these instances, there are no specific corrupt patterns of behavior – no bribing, no nepotism. Instead, one can lawfully adhere to each step in the process, while collectively the process gives undue privilege or preference to a select group. The function of the system itself is an abuse of power for the gain of a select group – what one could call 'lawful but awful.'

So where do social norms fit in when there is a system of corruption? We have several ideas. It is possible that they could drive key patterns of behavior in the system that in themselves are not corrupt but central to keeping the system of corruption functioning. It is also possible that social norms exist that block integrous behavior and make changing the system difficult.

Onward to social norms analysis

When facing poor conservation outcomes, it can be tempting for practitioners to label the problem as simply “corruption.” While this may contain elements of truth, it is vital to unpack precisely what is meant by “corruption” and how it manifests practically, particularly when seeking to develop a social norms analysis.

Photo by Richard Nash

In the SIBOL case, there was much anecdotal evidence around alleged issues related to lack of compliance and integrity in PAMB decision-making. However, documented evidence and analysis was limited.

So, we embarked on our own iterative process, reflecting on what counts as corruption and then sorting through the possible reasons for suboptimal conservation decisions. With that in hand, we can now figure out if there are social norms driving behaviors that, if changed, would make a difference in conservation decisions. Stay tuned for updates once that is done!


Cheyanne is the Executive Director of Besa Global and the Co-Director of the Corruption, Justice & Legitimacy Program. As a scholar-practitioner with a lifelong interest in governance processes that have run amuck, she has significant experience working on peacebuilding, corruption, accountability and programmatic learning across the Balkans and West/East Africa. For fifteen years, Cheyanne taught program design, monitoring and evaluation in fragile contexts at the Fletcher School/Tufts. Prior to that she was the Director of Evaluation for Search for Common Ground and Director of Policy at INCORE. 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.


Richard Nash is a Senior Governance and Anti-Corruption Advisor with RTI International. Richard has worked on governance and anti-corruption issues for 15 years with a variety of organizations around the world including the World Bank, DFID and the World Wide Fund for Nature.


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