Seizing a window of opportunity: lessons from research on anti-corruption reform

February 9, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by Florencia Guerzovich, Soledad Gattoni, and Dave Algoso

Anyone working for change knows that timing matters. You can see your efforts stall and spin for years, before finally you break through. What made that possible? Sometimes it’s your persistence, wearing down opposition like water carving a canyon. But sometimes it’s a change that came from outside your work—a tidal wave in the political context that you’re ready to ride.

In recent research, we framed these changes in context as “windows of opportunity” (readers of this blog may also know them as “critical junctures”). In particular, we looked at anticorruption windows created by national scandals and/or incoming presidential administrations committed to reform. We profiled major windows in Guatemala, Slovakia, and South Africa that all occurred within the past five years, talking to in-country reformers (both in government and in civil society) as well as global and regional organizations that support them.

Windows are moments when everything seems to be in flux. And yet, despite the uncertainty, we identified patterns and phases that can help strategize action. Our resulting framework (see diagram) maps windows against a status quo period, followed by a triggering phase, and leading to the open window itself: a period of heightened possibility for change. However, windows by their nature are only temporary: eventually they taper and close.

Windows over time

Though this model has its roots in anticorruption, it can frame windows beyond that field. For starters, anticorruption today is not a purely technical practice of preventing and punishing corruption, but rather is tightly connected to questions of state capacity, democratic reform, civic space, anti-authoritarianism, and anti-kleptocracy. Every window we studied, while centered on anticorruption, had these other dimensions to it.

Going further, triggering events can lead to windows in a range of fields: An oil spill or natural disaster that leads to environmental protections. A sexual harassment scandal that puts gender relations in the public discourse. Or a pandemic that highlights gaps in health care systems and social safety nets. Across any area of complex change, the “window” framing can help to emphasize how the possibilities for progress are highly contingent on timing and shifts in context, as well as what changemakers do with the space created.

So what are the implications for those who want to make the most of an opportunity? Our research includes a set of recommendations specific to the anticorruption field. Acknowledging that we’re extending beyond our findings, we think there are ways to generalize the insights behind those recommendations for other fields as well.

First: Think about a status quo phase as a period to prepare for a window.

If you’re not currently in a window or see one opening, then by default you’re in the status quo. Recognize that a window could be coming, and that preparing for that window can reduce the scrambling you do once it starts to open.

One of the best ways to prepare involves building networks that can be accessed for rapid learning and support, helping you “think on your feet” and take rapid collective action when the opportunity comes. Things move quickly during a window, so relationships built in advance—both within your country and across countries—are key to helping reformers make sense of the opportunity and identify “micro-windows” where they can advance their agenda. Continuing to convene and build networks remains critical once the window is open, but it is often difficult to start building trust with possible partners from scratch in the wake of a trigger. (The COVID-19 window has offered an extreme example of this challenge, as building new relationships under conditions of “social distancing” is especially difficult.)

Another way to prepare is by identifying potential bottlenecks to reform in your issue area and having solutions ready when the opportunity comes. That might mean having legislation drafted for quick action, or relevant research already published for easy reference by the media and others. It could also mean ensuring there are emerging leaders ready to step up: the flurry of activity in windows often provides opportunities for individuals to start new initiatives, run for office, or move into government. The United States provides a current example of this, as activists, researchers, and others join the new Biden administration.

Second: Look for how your role may need to change.

The approach that got you to the window might not be the one needed once it’s opened.

In many cases, while triggering periods may involve a lot of “outside” action—breaking news and demonstrations in the street—the fully open window involves “insiders” scrambling to respond with new laws, regulations, or even prosecutions. Civil society activists who continue to see themselves as “outside” the system may refrain from engaging these inside processes, but would miss a chance to influence the final outcomes.

Or they may want to engage, but not know how to navigate the legislative or bureaucratic processes. They can build the capacity to do so by hiring former insiders or lobbyists, or partnering with organizations that understand these processes (similar to what Duncan calls the “ubergeeks”). In other cases, the most strategic opportunity lies in a civil society activist running for office or taking a job in government.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also prompted shifting roles among civil society actors. As described in a recent report by the Carnegie Endowment, some are stepping up to provide direct relief while others watch-dog government relief efforts, and still others navigate the tensions of doing both.

Navigating these role changes and strategic shifts can be hard. Our research suggests that finding coaches and mentors (even informal ones) who can provide trusted advice can help you find where you fit, learn a new role, or take a backseat to allies who are better suited in that role. Donors can also be an important sounding board.

Third: Throughout all phases, center those who will be at the center of the window.

In a period of rapid action, those who are embedded in a political context are best equipped to move quickly and seize the moment. Even if outsiders bring technical knowledge or resources, it’s hard for them to get up to speed and ensure they’re influencing things in the right direction after a window opens. So efforts to prepare (in the status quo phase) and respond (in the trigger and open window phases) should center those in-country reformers and activists who can best respond.

That means outsiders like funders and international NGOs should respect in-country leaders and supply resources and expertise to support them, while leaving behind preconceptions about what in-country reformers may need.

Fourth: Take care of each other.

Windows are high-intensity moments. The risks that activists face normally—burnout and mental health harms as well as threats to their physical safety or digital security from state actors or others—are heightened during windows. Support from external actors can be critical in preparing for and mitigating these risks. Networks with other reformers, both in-country and beyond, can help provide self-/mutual-care.

And finally: Nothing lasts forever.

Windows are, by their nature, temporary. While our research wasn’t able to look at the tapering phase, we saw the political possibilities come back to normal levels at a certain point in each case study. Sometimes it was after gains were made, other times when they were derailed and cynicism set in.

Ideally you’re able to navigate toward a better status quo than what you faced before, institutionalizing gains to be able to defend them and advance further when the next window comes. Otherwise, you may instead be facing reversals from the powers-that-be. This is especially important because, as the trigger’s excitement dwindles, changemakers will be fewer and, too many times, on their own.

For more on our research on anticorruption windows, please check out our full report: Seeing New Opportunities: How Global Actors Can Better Support Anticorruption Reformers. We’d be curious to hear from others: What windows have you seen in your work? How have you navigated them, and what can others learn from that?

February 9, 2021
Duncan Green