If we're serious about anti-corruption, we need to change the way we think about it

Local community leaders and representatives in Turkmenistan. In the fight against poverty and injustice, local leaders need the tools and power to demand and deliver greater accountability. Photo by: United Nations Development Programme in Europe and CIS / CC BY-NC-SA

As the world works to eradicate extreme poverty by 2030, corruption remains a significant challenge to that goal. This is because corruption not only steals the precious resources that could create jobs, improve health care, or build infrastructure, but also erodes trust in public institutions and chills private investment. And though corruption has been a primary concern for both donors and developing countries, we haven’t made much progress.

That’s not for lack of trying, however. The problem is that too many donors and practitioners hold an antiquated view of corruption — and it’s holding back the fight to improve accountability and good governance. If we’re going to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, what we need now is not more of the same, but a willingness to try new and better approaches to fighting corruption.

For many of us in international development, the battle against corruption seems like an episode of “Law & Order,” a hunt to catch bad guys who are breaking the law. This is the spirit that pervades most anti-corruption efforts. Donors, and the organizations they support, see corruption as a function of ignorance or fecklessness on the part of people in poor countries; a lack of formal procedures and technical ability in governments, like legal loopholes and lack of oversight institutions.

As a result, donors and organizations invest in the creation of anti-corruption agencies, independent court systems, public financial management reform, and the passage of good government laws and regulations. Alongside these efforts, donors impose increasing controls on their own aid to ensure it won’t be stolen or diverted.

On the face of it, these seem like wise investments, especially paired with the hope they’ll be able to train partner country officials to “govern like us.” But years of such investments have proven otherwise. And yet, when the interventions fail, donors often blame lack of “political will,” suggesting that if locals just had more passion for good government, the interventions would succeed.

It’s clear that our traditional approaches to corruption have not delivered. Just look at Global Integrity’s “implementation gap,” which measures the difference between the quality of legal systems and how well those systems actually fight corruption. On paper, countries like Uganda and Venezuela earn some of the best scores for the quality of their laws. Yet both rank in the bottom tier of corruption perception surveys.  

In these situations, corruption starts to look less like Law & Order and more like “The Wire.” Meaning corruption seems to be less about a few bad apples and more about complex systems that include pathways that reward corruption. And like in The Wire, when the overworked good guys take down one bad guy, another pops up in their place because the system enables it.

The problem with the Law & Order approach is that it ignores the history of how good government institutions actually emerge. Accountable government in rich countries didn’t suddenly appear because someone came up with the perfect law — and they weren’t imported from abroad. Our accountable institutions emerged locally, over time, through trial and error, as citizens demanded new leadership and change. A process that continues even today.

A single development project will have limited impact when the challenge it seeks to address is rooted in the broader politics of a country. But that doesn’t mean donors and implementers can’t play an important role in supporting accountability. Increasingly, donors are pairing their investments in stronger institutions with efforts to support the ability of citizens to demand accountability. These approaches look at the whole political system — who wins, who loses, and how to shift power in the direction of citizens. Rather than dictating what measures countries adopt, or demanding specific anti-corruption actions, donors are partnering with local leaders in government, civil society and the private sector to help them strengthen accountability in a wide range of areas. The focus becomes less on “did someone steal?” and more on “did citizens get the outcomes they were promised?”

The U.S. government has been slow to adopt this approach. But there is optimism that recent reforms can strengthen U.S. efforts to support citizen accountability. To do so, the U.S. needs to make three big changes:

1. Shift emphasis from punishing corruption to rewarding accountability. 

U.S. officials and the American public rightly don’t want to see their aid lost to corruption. But the levels of control the U.S. imposes on its aid makes it difficult to work with the local leaders who will ultimately decide how successful their country is fighting corruption.

The U.S. needs to be better at identifying and supporting those leaders in government, civil society and the private sector who are doing the right thing and demanding accountability, to create greater incentives for good governance. The Millennium Challenge Corp. provides a good example through its emphasis on countries that perform best on governance indicators.

2. Work within local systems, rather than try to impose new systems. 

Too often donors impose solutions that aren’t rooted in the local political reality. As a result, new systems fail, even when shown to work elsewhere, because local citizens and leaders don’t trust or understand them.

U.S. aid agencies need more flexibility in program design and management in order to respond to unique local realities. And politics needs to stop being a dirty word for development professionals. In fact, only those governance interventions that are designed to understand and acknowledge politics will be successful. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s recent Local Systems Framework is one sign of how the U.S. government is trying to grapple with this challenge.

3. Give local leaders the tools and power they need to demand and deliver greater accountability.

It’s commonplace for donors and implementers to try to work around local systems, rather than within them. While this is intended to protect aid dollars in the short term, it undermines the strengthening of local systems and the delivery of accountable governance in the long term.

The U.S. government should do more to ensure it can work more directly with local actors, allowing them to take greater responsibility for how aid is implemented. USAID’s Local Solutions initiative is an early and positive sign that U.S. policy is changing.

There is no quick fix for corruption. Donors and international implementers need to be humble about how much they can do. History shows that progress toward accountable governance must grow from the bottom up — and can’t be imposed from the outside. But with changes, donors and implementers can make stronger contributions to support the ability of citizens to demand faster, more transparent progress in the fight against poverty and injustice from their own governments.

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About the author

  • Gregory Adams

    Gregory Adams is the director of aid effectiveness at Oxfam America. Gregory works with allied organizations and individuals to generate momentum for foreign aid and development policy reforms that are driven by a long-term commitment to effectively reduce poverty.