From corruption research to effective anti-corruption action: The role of think tanks

Children join a demonstration against corruption in Senegal. How can donors work with think tanks to improve anti-corruption efforts on the ground? Photo by: Transparency International / CC BY-NC-SA

Corruption kills, and ineffective anti-corruption programming fails to save lives. Despite the importance of getting it right, there is often a tragic disconnect between academic thinking on corruption, empirical research and aid industry action on the ground.

Below, I outline three such disconnects, and then discuss how donors could work through think tanks in developing countries to improve anti-corruption efforts on the ground.

Disconnect 1: Cultural, social and psychological factors

For example, there is a wealth of academic research that clearly indicates that while corruption is a worldwide phenomenon, it is also strongly culturally, socially and situationally contingent. Nevertheless, the aid industry shies away from discussing social understandings of corruption and psychological factors.

As a result, many options for effective action are never explored, let alone flagged for follow-up by policymakers and nongovernmental organizations. For example, in some contexts, simply hanging a copy of the biblical Ten Commandments on the wall can measurably decrease unethical decision-making, but I have never heard of a think tank exploring the links between officials’ religious beliefs and their propensity to take bribes, let alone suggesting anti-corruption interventions primarily centered on religious messaging.

Disconnect 2: The availability heuristic

A second disconnect is between the size of corruption and the attention devoted to it. The aid industry has a tendency to target the visible tip of the iceberg — the corrupt traffic cop on the street corner, the teacher pocketing a few dollars — while political elites continue to rake in hundreds of millions through systematic market distortions and rigged infrastructure tenders.

There are many donor-funded surveys quantifying how often citizens pay bribes when they interact with state schools and discussing possible remedies, but how many donor-funded studies try to quantify how many dollars a country’s wheat and petrol import monopolies cost the average family every week?

Disconnect 3: Generic policy recommendations

The third disconnect is between field demand for actionable advice and the generic recommendations offered by most aid industry publications.

As a seasoned anti-corruption practitioner, I don’t need to read any more donor-funded research that concludes that some government “should become more accountable.” Also, I don’t need to hear again that “the role of civil society should be strengthened,” not least because some of the most impressive anti-corruption successes in history, from Prussia to Singapore to Georgia, were achieved top-down without any significant civil society involvement.

Using national think tanks to overcome disconnects

Think tanks in developing countries are the actors best situated to bridge the gap between academia and anti-corruption practitioners, identify the most salient avenues of intervention, and produce actionable policy advice tailored to the information needs of national stakeholders.

Donors and the aid industry have recognized this, and are increasingly strengthening policy research in developing countries. Today, there is a wide range of initiatives and platforms that work to support and connect think tanks worldwide, including the Think Tank Initiative, the Think Tank Fund, Politics & Ideas and the On Think Tanks blog.

As an anti-corruption practitioner, there are three things that I’d like to see donors doing even more in the coming years in their work with national think tanks.

Insist on detailed and actionable policy recommendations

Donors should insist that any think tank studies on corruption they finance present detailed and actionable policy recommendations to enable effective follow-up by governments and local advocacy groups.

Such recommendations should:

● Draw on the academic literature, including on nonempirical approaches, to propose solutions that do not rely on rational choice approaches alone.
● Refocus the attention of policymakers, activists and the media away from petty corruption and redirect it toward where the real money is.
● Show evidence of critical thinking that goes beyond the simplistic, ahistorical and often empirically unsupported models often found in the aid industry.
● Use tool boxes like the Open Government Guide to draw up lists of possible transparency and anti-corruption measures, critically compare these options, and identify the most promising approaches given local realities (disclosure: I currently work as a consultant for Transparency & Accountability Initiative, which produces the Open Government Guide).
● Identify positive examples of successful anti-corruption action taken in comparable countries or sectors, and analyze how these could be adopted by various local actors.
● For a shortlist of “top recommendations for action,” clearly outline who should do what, when, where, why and how, plus the time and resources required.

Encourage think tanks to act as conduits for new ideas

Donors should encourage think tanks to work with reformers within government and local anti-corruption NGOs to bring new ideas into circulation and encourage people and institutions to experiment with fresh approaches that are relevant in the local context.

Think tanks could make local practitioners aware of the huge range of anti-corruption tool boxes accessible online. The Open Government Guide alone contains hundreds of tools, and is partially available in Spanish and French. Think tanks could also help local practitioners shortlist the most promising approaches, and assist them in translating these into concrete activities that avoid the pitfalls outlined above.

Filling research capacity gaps with national think tanks

Ideally, state actors and local NGOs involved in the struggle against corruption should be able to draw on a strong in-house policy research function to design transparency, accountability and integrity programs that go with the grain of local political, economic and cultural realities. However, in many cases, key actors lack research capacity of their own.

Donors’ current approach of addressing this weakness by directly designing anti-corruption programs has not been noted for its success. The track record of donor-designed anti-corruption drives in state institutions is disappointing, and many if not most local NGO projects in this sphere — indirectly designed by donors through very detailed calls for proposals — are formulaic, unimaginative and ineffective.

As donors step up their work with think tanks worldwide, they should encourage local researchers to work with local change agents to develop the kind of effective anti-corruption programming that truly can save lives.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Till Bruckner

    Till Bruckner is the founder of TranspariMED, an initiative that works to end evidence distortion in medicine, and manages advocacy for Transparify, an initiative promoting transparency and integrity in policy research. In his previous life, he worked in international development, occupying both field and research roles. Till is interested in the hidden power relationships that structure global politics and our everyday lives, and in finding new ways of using research and advocacy to make the world a better place. Till holds a Ph.D. in Politics from the University of Bristol, U.K.