Why re-think corruption? An introduction to the symposium

Why re-think corruption? An introduction to the symposium

Why re-think corruption? An introduction to the symposium

Elizabeth Dávid-Barrett and Paul M. Heywood


It would be hard to argue that the major attention devoted to anti-corruption efforts over the last quarter century has resulted in signal success: according to the most widely-cited measures (for all that they are open to criticism), the global picture has remained pretty static during that period.  If we look at indices of corruption at the level of the nation-state, little has changed since Transparency International’s CPI and the World Bank’s Control of Corruption indicator were first published in the mid-1990s. Much of the developing world continues to be plagued by corruption at all levels, and even established democracies – supposedly the benchmark – seem ever more mired in scandals involving their elites and political classes.  Corruption, it appears to many, seems to be getting worse.

Yet, whilst there has been no shortage of efforts to assess and measure the extent of something that is usually, by definition, clandestine and opaque, there has also been a growing tendency in recent years to ask more fundamental questions about how to identify and tackle corruption.  Increasingly, those engaged in tackling corruption – notably researchers, international financial organisations, civil society organisations and dedicated anticorruption agencies – have been calling for a ‘rethink’ of our approach, both in regard to how we understand corruption itself and also how we should go about addressing it. This blog symposium is itself a product of one such initiative, deriving in large part from the Anti-Corruption Evidence (ACE) programme funded by the UK Department for International Development, 2015-21.

For some, limited progress in the fight against corruption results from a combination of lack of capacity, lack of political will and/or inappropriate implementation of correctly specified policies.  For others, the issues are more fundamental, reflecting a failure to pose the right questions about corruption, the adoption of unhelpful analytic frames, an inadequate identification of targets, and insufficient attention being paid to political feasibility and vested interests.  The blogs in this symposium seek to address these latter questions, seeking to contribute to a reframing of how we should approach the issue of corruption.

A systems approach to tackling corruption

One of our goals in initiating this blog symposium is to encourage academics and practitioners to talk to each other more. Academics often operate in silos, partly because the pressure to publish – and to focus on a so-called ‘top tier’ of journals – incentivises them to narrow their research questions and avoid taking risks in research design or methodology. But corruption is an area where academic researchers engaging with practitioners would offer obvious advantages. And practitioners’ experience of trying to combat corruption in the field – whether in low-income or high-come countries, in private, public or third-sector contexts – provide a wealth of relevant experience which could benefit research design. More communication among these two communities could yield much more evidence on which to base anti-corruption policies and programmes. More specifically, Johannes Tonn calls for academics to be more transparent about how they are defining the problem and what assumptions they are making about the context and mechanisms. International development assistance has become much more adaptive and flexible; research, he suggests, could follow suit.

One big assumption that merits interrogation, argues Elisabeth Kramer, is that democracy erodes corruption. She brings evidence from Indonesia to question that relationship and suggests that decentralisation, in particular, may simply create more opportunities for patronage and nepotism. Similarly, Claudia Baez-Camargo, Saba Kassa and Cosimo Stahl report findings from their research which suggest that political elites, as well as citizens, can become entrapped in social norms which steer them towards corrupt behaviour as they seek to fulfil social obligations. Heather Marquette and Caryn Peiffer also argue that greater appreciation of the social and political context is necessary if anti-corruption reforms are to prompt sustainable behaviour change, citing evidence from Uganda and South Africa. This can help us to foresee unintended consequences and assess the risk of blowback. Phil Mason takes a more macro view to argue that governments could also be more creative in using government-to-government leverage, going beyond development aid approaches to exert pressure through other tools and instruments. All these authors suggest that corruption is a systemic problem that requires a systemic – but flexible – approach, applying pressure from multiple sources, adapting to changes in behaviour over time, and accepting that pragmatic trade-offs must be made.

Broadening the definition of corruption

Scholars have long debated how we should define corruption, recognising that there is no consensus and that the practices seen as corrupt vary across countries and over time. However, there remain continuing sources of bias in the way that corruption is routinely conceived by both academics and practitioners. Keatinge and Moisienko urge us to recognise that, for all our growing awareness of the need to confront ‘Western enablers’ of kleptocracy, we should also explore more effective complementary interventions in ‘source’ countries.’ If we recognise this, we can gain access to a much wider set of potential agents for change, as developments to build integrity in the global financial system demonstrate. Rrita Ismajli and Miranda Loli, meanwhile, argue that our definition of corruption often overlooks gendered dimensions of the problem, not least the fact that abuses of power can include sexual extortion and harassment.

Moving away from compliance-based regulatory approaches

The tighter oversight and controls often recommended by principal-agent theory do not always produce sustainable changes in behaviour. They may even encourage a tick-box approach where organisations and individuals simply fake or feign compliance. Happily, the authors in this symposium report on a promising range of new and alternative strategies.

Johann Graf Lambsdorff notes that, in some contexts, such as central banks, high levels of discretion and autonomy go hand-in-hand with professional pride; in others, architecture can be used to create a sense that organisations prioritise transparency and have nothing to hide. Sofia Wickberg describes how the OECD has also embraced a behavioural science approach, while at the same time calling on society as a whole to take responsibility for the public integrity system. Sebastian Bauhoff, Sarah Steingruber and Aneta Wierzynska agree that compliance-based approaches are often little more than “reputational armour” and suggest that donors intervening in healthcare systems draw on forensic economics and enterprise risk management instead.

Emanuela Ceva and Maria Paola Ferretti argue from a philosophical standpoint that clientelistic practices are regulated by a logic of clientele which makes access to services a matter of privilege rather than right; anti-corruption strategies, they suggest, should fight such systems of incentives since they obfuscate the wrongness of corruption. Abdulkareem Lawal describes a UK Aid-funded project in Nigeria that is doing just that, encouraging citizens to draw links between patronage politics and poor service delivery, thereby seeking to activate and extend community norms that have traditionally sanctioned corrupt behaviour.

New roles for the private sector in tackling bribery and corruption

As new norms take hold globally, even traditional regulatory approaches are seeing some interesting departures from convention, and this is particularly evident in the role of business. Hock highlights the unlikely emerging role of business as an advocate for better cooperation among national law-enforcement agencies. Cooperation can lead to the ‘bundling’ of bribery cases into one settlement, which companies may see as preferable to the risk of multiple prosecutions in many jurisdictions. This may be a perverse consequence of greater anti-bribery enforcement, and one that is not uncontroversial, but Hock argues that it has created a forceful agent for change. Friederycke Haijer notes that, when assets are recovered in anti-bribery law enforcements, enforcement authorities often benefit while victims go ignored. We could learn from human rights law, she argues, to establish a Victims’ Trust Fund and avoid situations where recovered assets are returned to corrupt governments. Nick J Maxwell lauds the potential of collaborations between the private sector and law enforcement agencies to promote reporting and information-sharing, but also warns that they risk blurring lines of responsibility for criminal investigations.

Brook Horowitz and Jan Dauman, drawing on their work in the UK and Vietnam, report that small and medium-sized enterprises are particularly vulnerable to bribery and corruption, and need much more targeted – and positive – support to motivate change. Tahiru Azaaviele Liedong, in turn, addresses the question of why businesses in Africa are often silent about corruption, arguing that they fear repercussions and also lack formal avenues to lobby for more systemic change. He encourages business leaders to push for transparency in public bidding and for political finance reforms, but advises that they will need support from governments and international development partners.

Engaging more local and community partners in anti-corruption

If there is no ‘one size fits all’ anti-corruption strategy, then, several of our authors argue, perhaps it makes sense to decentralise and delegate more of the responsibility for anti-corruption. Jennifer Widner and Tristan Dreisbach contend that decentralisation to the agency level can allow individual programs to respond more appropriately to the risks facing the organisation. Widner and Dreisbach show how such initiatives played out in Mauritius and Indonesia, and offer three key lessons. Tom Shipley uses the example of Lagos state in Nigeria to argue that local conditions and political settlements can sometimes present better opportunities for reform than exist at the national level; reforms may even arise as a result of confrontations between the state and the centre.

Bonnie J. Palifka, Luis A. Garcia and Beatriz Camacho report on how, in Nuevo Leon, a northern state in Mexico, a civil society-led Anti-Corruption Coalition has enhanced the National Anticorruption System. While the process has been criticised for becoming politicised, it has undoubtedly engaged a wider range of expertise in fighting corruption and helped to build checks on government. David Jackson and Jennifer Murtazashvili highlight the potential for working with a new kind of partner: traditional local leaders or ‘customary authority’. They point out that such leaders often operate with long-term time horizons, are already positively engaged in changing community norms, and are often highly trusted and legitimate. Such partnerships are not without risks, but Jackson and Murtazashvili set out some conditions in which they are likely to work best.

Tom Wright, Eliza Hovey and Sarah Steingruber showcase the acclaimed ProZorro open contracting project in Ukraine, but explain why it is not easy to transfer the learning to the contexts in which they are now working: Uganda, Zambia and Ghana. When entering a new context, it is necessary to understand what the reform might mean to local stakeholders, which means engaging and listening. Finally, Phil Nichols argues that it is ordinary people who are so often the real agents of change, even in contexts where corruption has long appeared endemic or systemic. Academic research should focus on gathering evidence about motivations for fighting corruption and understanding how anger and frustration can be harnessed to bring about change.

The endeavour to understand corruption and to design policy and programmes to lessen its harmful effects cannot be exclusively academic or purely practical. Institutional and social change takes time, but this blog symposium showcases an impressive depth and breadth of expertise that has accumulated in the past quarter century. We hope that, in a small way, this symposium might accelerate learning across disciplinary and professional realms and help to build further fruitful networks of engagement.

Elizabeth Dávid-Barrett is Director of the Sussex Centre for the Study of Corruption and Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Sussex.

Paul M. Heywood is Sir Francis Hill Professor of European Politics at the University of Nottingham, UK and a Trustee of Transparency International-UK.