Spent a day earlier this
week in a posh, but anonymous (Chatham House Rule) Central London location, discussing the state of the global anti-corruption movement with some of its leaders. The meeting took place in a posh, very high ceilinged room, under the stern gaze of giant portraits of assorted kings, aristos and philosophers. I wondered what they would have made of the assembled academics and aid practitioners being subjected to goldfish bowl methodologies and other participatory tricks of the trade. Actually, I came away convinced that goldfish bowls are great for such ‘expert groups’ (as usual, everyone seemed to know what they were talking about except me), combining a real conversation between a small group of people with the assurance that everyone who wants to will get a chance to speak, and a non-confrontational way of getting rid of people that drone on with a simple tap on the shoulder (if only it was always that easy).
The starting point for the meeting was pretty gloomy – 25 years or so of anti-corruption work have produced many recipes, but not much in the way of a square meal. Not only that, but some places we thought were clean have now slipped into reverse. As usual when faced with a ‘why change doesn’t happen’ problem, I reached for the 3is: ideas, interests and institutions.
Banging on about corruption may appease the Daily Mail, but otherwise the framing is pretty disastrous. It is easily couched in highly moral terms that allow advocates to ignore issues of power and politics, because they think they have found an absolute right/wrong issue. It’s ridiculously broad, covering everything from using a connection to get your kid an internship, to the pillaging of entire nations by kleptocrats, so not surprisingly, it doesn’t translate well, with a fair amount of disagreement at the margins (does lobbying = corruption? Or sending your kid to private school? Or paying a bribe so your business can actually function, employ people etc?). Then there are the endless medical metaphors, such as corruption = cancer, which encourage politicians and aid bosses to demand single, universal ‘cures’.
I was reminded of Chris Cramer’s great book ‘Civil War is not a Stupid Thing’. Corruption is not necessarily an evil thing. For example it can act as a political stabiliser in weak governance systems, eg buying off the warring parties to ensure the success of a peace agreement.
But even when it is an evil thing, the aid business is poorly placed to tackle it, because so much official aid goes through governments, which often include precisely those who profit personally from corruption and/or whose political survival depends on corrupt proceeds to meet expectations of political patronage (tin roofs, school fees, a contribution to a celebration etc). Turkeys; Christmas.
Aid institutions seem terribly unsuited to work on anti-corruption. As mentioned, they are over-reliant on national governments as partners of choice. They are outsiders, easy to denounce as enemies of the nation if they do start to threaten corrupt interests. Their short time scales are a serious obstacle when many successful transitions take decades rather than years. And the results agenda is problematic when many successes are actually side effects – historically most countries that have reduced corruption have done so as an unintended consequence of making other things work better.
Some in the room challenged the negative starting point, pointing to progress in areas such as the arms trade or extractives. Other factors may be contributing to the negativity – the gloomy cloud hanging over US and UK liberals makes them see the whole world in darker terms, and perhaps the greater levels of reported corruption are a sign of better reporting rather than more corruption. Lots of ex-presidents in Latin America are currently being prosecuted for corruption – does that mean things are getting worse or better?
But overall I came away from the day feeling that the anti-corruption movement is a bit stuck and really does need to rethink. One
option would be to stop using the ‘C’ word altogether because it’s such a terrible starting point. Another, perhaps more realistic, approach would be to piggy back on the progress made in the related areas of governance and institutional reform – it feels like the anti-corruption movement is in dire need of a greater injection of ideas from the ‘Doing Development Differently’ and ‘Thinking and Working Politically’ coalitions, e.g. on ‘working with the grain’ or ‘politically smart; locally led’ programming. I had thought this discussion was already well advanced, but am now not so sure.
My own suggestions would be:
- Get more serious about a bottom up approach. There are better ways to understand what corruption means to poor people than the occasional public opinion survey. What could we learn from governance diaries about how poor communities experience and deal with corruption? How could we combine that with the more analytical approach that captures the higher levels of corruption that damage entire economies and polities, but that may not always make it onto poor communities’ radar?
- Positive deviance: identify any bits of the state (ministries, provinces, city administrations) that appear as positive outliers with low corruption/good governance. What can be learned from them and spread to other areas? (see the Islands of Integrity project)
- Think much harder about anti-corruption work in fragile states. Is it even worth pursuing? If so, it probably needs a different approach, with broader coalitions of players filling in the holes where the state should be, such as faith organizations, traditional leaders and CSOs.
- Let’s see corruption specialists working with those trying to crack real world problems – like bad roads, or poor quality health and education services – rather than sitting with other anti-corruption experts talking about corruption and so risking being pulled into generic and abstract debates about indicators. Corruption is a part of many big problems in development, but it is rarely the only part.
- But overall, I have to say my conclusion was that the sooner aid gets out of the anti-corruption business, and local politics takes over, the better.