Learning to understand corruption as a systemic problem

Learning to understand corruption as a systemic problem

Learning to understand corruption as a systemic problem

Johannes Tonn

The complexity of corruption means simple approaches do not work

Practitioners and researchers increasingly recognize that corruption is a systemic and complex problem (e.g. Scharbatke-Church/ Chigas 2016, Marquette/ Peiffer 2015). This means there are no simple, one-dimensional cause and effect relationships that can adequately explain why there is corrupt behavior and that it is futile to look for root causes of corruption in isolation from the system and the enabling environment in which corrupt activities play out. It also means we cannot predict the effects and consequences of implementing specific countermeasures.

While the field is increasingly acknowledging that simple approaches do not help — at least not if the intent is to meaningfully reduce corruption and not simply divert its energy to manifest in a different form elsewhere — it may help to step back and think about what it is we can do, as practitioners and researchers, to better address the systemic nature of the problem.

It seems reasonable to not want to waste mental energy, resources and good intentions in continuing to pursue the same type of approach that has yielded limited results (TI 2016, DFID 2015). The important and practical point to focus on is what the alternatives are: What would new approaches look like and for what reasons would they be better? What are the principles and characteristics that can guide them? And whose responsibility is it to come up with them?

The challenges facing practitioners

For the purposes of this blog, I will (over-)simplify and differentiate between practitioners and researchers. Practitioners might scrutinize their approaches to anti-corruption reform learning from a growing body of evidence in the field of governance which suggests that governance reform is inherently political and complex with no one-size-fits-all solutions available (e.g. Building State Capability, Working with the Grain, How Change Happens). Tackling corruption questions in the same vein might mean practitioners will have to make the conscious choice to:

  • engage with the political aspects of anti-corruption reform in a given context. While the application of technical expertise will continue to be useful in certain cases, it is more important to understand and navigate the landscape of incentives, interests, power and politics.
  • acknowledge that affected or vested stakeholders play the primary role in grappling with a particular corruption challenge. Their assessment of a particular situation constitutes both baseline and benchmark of what counts as a problem and what will count as success. External stakeholders might play a useful role in facilitating thinking and action — perhaps even by stimulating collective action — however, solutions will only be sustainable if vested actors agree on their usefulness.
  • embrace imperfect best-fit solutions over unhelpful blueprint ideas of what might constitute effective reform. Success will emerge over time and as a consequence of actions taken and agreed upon by affected stakeholders. External stakeholders can support this process and perhaps speed it up — including by helping vested actors to try out new approaches, to reflect, and to encourage adaptations — key however, is that affected stakeholders find out what is viable to them.

These suggestions will sound familiar to those who follow the evolution of (development-related) governance thinking, especially through initiatives such as ‘Thinking and Working Politically’ or ‘Doing Development Differently’. Is it easy to try these approaches in practice? No. But it seems worth trying, so that the field can continue to explore spaces and approaches that might be more helpful.

How researchers can help

What about researchers, however? If research aspires to meaningfully support practitioners in advancing progress toward solving corruption challenges, what can academia do to support and bolster the effectiveness of practitioners who grapple with corruption as a complex problem? Obviously, not all research is meant to support practitioners in such a way and that is fine. However, what about research that offers itself as a possible resource?

A first answer might be to be as clear (and explicit) as possible about the motivations that underpin a particular research project and to aspire to be ruthlessly inquisitive and honest about any possible normative vantage points or preconceived notions a researcher might bring to the table. This is not to say that any particular predisposition is right or wrong. Taking time to reflect on and to be explicit about priors is however helpful in determining whether critical elements such as problem definition and relevant assumptions are shared by those for whom the research is intended.

Other suggestions include pointers made by various authors who have reflected about how research on anti-corruption can better meet the needs of practitioners:

  • Define a particular type of corruption problem* in a particular context, justifying why it matters, how, and to whom.
  • Make assumptions explicit about the relevance of the project, and the actors involved. How one arrives at the problem definition is key in determining whether and how findings can inform the solution-finding process.
  • Be clear about the value and usefulness of the methods employed, for example through positive deviance approaches and double-check whether these methods actually deliver on their promises. This includes double-checking assumptions throughout, and not taking shortcuts.
  • Think through what solutions might look like from a practitioner point of view and reflect how findings might strengthen implementation before research is kicked off.
  • Think through what findings might need to look like so that they can help practitioners take action which is another way of engaging in the broader but hugely important question about whether and how evidence-based policy-making

In addition, and this is a key point to make, research should not just focus on the substance of what corruption is, but also pay equal attention to the dynamics of how corruption is influenced if and when practitioners and vested stakeholders interact with each other. Action research, in particular, seems to be a substantively under-utilized way to explore how actors engage with each other and thereby influence and shape the system in which corruption takes place. The approach seems especially valuable in that it follows a repeat cycle of planning, action, observation and reflection — a research cycle that allows for the incorporation of new findings that might otherwise go unnoticed or unaddressed. Key challenges within complex systems that action research might address include dealing with

  • Initial uncertainty with regard to both extent and nature of the problem, its implications, and the viability of possible solutions
  • Inclusion of vested/affected stakeholders and/or external actors from the start to define the problem(s), and to identify and develop possible solutions.
  • Employing facilitation techniques to engage with and learn from stakeholders, ensure meaningful participation and buy-in to elicit deep insights
  • Emphasis on discovering, understanding and addressing systemic factors, including by being explicit about involved stakeholders’ theories of change
  • Generating and testing alternative hypotheses.

The above referenced work by Chigas, Scharbatke-Church, Woodrow and Barnard-Webster is a great example of how systems-oriented anti-corruption research (here and here) can be enriched, complemented and made even more useful by eventually combining practitioner and researchers’ perspectives. Practitioners and researchers have yet much to learn — from and with each other — to implement anti-corruption solutions that work in complex settings.

Johannes Tonn is Director, Integrity & Anti-Corruption at Global Integrity

* indicates paywall