Openings for effective and sustained anti-corruption reform can emerge quickly and unexpectedly: an egregious scandal in a hospital that inspires local communities to demand change; an electoral upset that ushers in a new generation of parliamentarians; or a sudden popular revolution that sweeps away decades of authoritarian rule. Momentum widens the scope of policy possibilities, overwhelms opposition, and legitimises agendas.
Yet, recent history tells us these moments of potential change are often more transient than they sometimes appear. This is true of southern and eastern Europe, where anti-corruption practitioners have witnessed sunlit periods that are often fleeting, unable to secure a genuine turning point in issues of political fairness and integrity. From North Macedonia and Armenia to Georgia and Ukraine, openings for decisive reform can quickly become bogged down by a lack of direction, distracted by needs of day-to-day governance or thwarted by vengeful political opponents.
Sustained momentum is the key to successful reform
In fact, one central lesson has emerged from the region: without sustained political momentum, practitioners risk squandering these precious opportunities. Amid all the necessary technical reforms – to enact legal changes, build capacity in institutions, and set new administrative processes – the need to sustain support for reforms can be neglected.
But what are the key principles for sustaining momentum and keeping practical action on track? In the context of an Anti-Corruption Partnership pilot in Moldova – which U4 is leading with Sida and USAID – we put this question to two regional experts: Eka Tkeshelashvili and Tanya Khavanska. Both have been deeply involved in anti-corruption for the past two decades. Eka Tkeshelashvili is currently Head of Anti-Corruption for Management Systems International in Ukraine and a prominent anti-corruption reformer in her home country of Georgia. Tanya Khavanska is a legal analyst within the Anti-Corruption Network for Eastern Europe and Central Asia (ACN), OECD, where she has tracked reform dynamics across the region.
Our discussion generated seven key lessons that can help guide practitioners to keep momentum going.
1. Secure alliances – not just technical expertise
At some point, reforms will face resistance. Elites, whose position is threatened by reform, will strike back, often using their influence to destabilise or mobilise against efforts. Cultivating alliances and networks with politicians, public thinkers, figures in the media, diplomats and representatives from international organisations can make anti-corruption less vulnerable to pushback. The international community can be a particularly important source of resilience.
In Ukraine, for example, judicial reforms have been made more resilient because the international community have, when necessary, acted with rare speed and decisiveness to squash pushback. Ukraine overcame similar opposition – both institutional and legislative – to its Anti-Corruption Framework.The capacity of leaders and reformers to nurture these relationships and build trust is as important as ensuring technically sound reforms are in place. For this reason, technical reforms should be accompanied by considered plans around how to build these kinds of alliances.
2. Seek quick wins
Short-term successes in anti-corruption are needed to help construct the foundation of long-term, sustainable change: public trust. In Georgia, rapid improvements in the issuance of passports and identification cards sent strong signals about the intent of reform. Ambiguities or delays can be seized upon by opponents. ‘Going hard and fast’ can generate public confidence and political capital, so each strategic plan should have a portion dedicated to short-term wins that show the seriousness and effectiveness of reform.
3. Take existing human resources and managerial expertise seriously
Anti-corruption reforms require expertise and capacity. Flooding countries with anti-corruption solutions or trainings that are too labour intensive or ill-matched to capacity can lead to a sharp diminishing of returns to investments. Experience demonstrates that it is essential that interventions are designed around existing capacity. Consider how reforms can be tailored to the level of managerial know-how and anti-corruption expertise. Where gaps exist, make conscious efforts to bridge these, rather than simply ‘wishing away’ constraints.
In Georgia, a focus on raising human capital – prioritising integrity, education, training and experience among the public sector workforce – pervaded the cross-government strategy. Improvements in capacity relied on recruiting people from outside, especially people with private sector experience, Western qualifications, or both.
4. See the whole system, build coherence
Anti-corruption is a chain which is only as strong as its weakest link. Dividing anti-corruption into silos without seeing the interconnectedness of different kinds of reforms leads to cracks that hobble reform. In Ukraine, reforms to the National Anti-corruption Bureau (NABU) were initially constrained without parallel progress in the judicial sector. Assessing how one aspect of reform relies on others is key to good planning and maintaining momentum. This also requires coordination among practitioners and systems of mutual accountability.
5. Allow domestic champions to take the lead
Sustainable reform is not something that can be externally driven. Windows of opportunity can thrust domestic anti-corruption actors to the fore of policy debates at surprising speed. These policy constellations – civil society, politicians, journalists and business leaders – are engines for the anti-corruption agenda, the robustness of which can determine the likelihood of success.
In Ukraine, civil society initiatives, such as data-driven transparency, kept the agenda going just as political will began to stall. Practitioners should think about how these policy networks and constellations be supported. Individual support of key anti-corruption champions may be necessary.
6. Promote open discourse and debate based in facts
Anti-corruption cannot progress in a claustrophobic space where citizens feel restraint is the best strategy or where they self-censor. Political change may not bring about an inevitable shift in openness. Supporting an inclusive and free media space, and supporting investigative journalists and civil society to do their work, can give reforms a source of ‘oxygen’.
The DW Akademie in Ukraine, for example, has supported the improvement of journalistic qualifications and training programmes. Investing in research can help present accurate facts about corruption, raising the quality of discussion and insulating policy debates from political manipulation.
7. Tell stories … actively communicate … demonstrate
Continued popular legitimation and support fortify anti-corruption but are often elusive. Citizens need to be convinced that change will have a direct impact on their lives. Practitioners can often get caught up in the technical details of reforms, losing sight of the people that should ultimately benefit from them. Do not expect the impact of reforms just to ‘sink in’ among the population; rather, active communication, linking the technical to improvements in day-to-day lives can have a dramatic effect in maintaining momentum.
For example, it is important to demonstrate how changes in procurement laws will affect children’s education and how transparency will raise the prospects of more and better employment. In Georgia, contentious reforms to root out rampant corruption in university entrance exams were abetted by an aggressive information campaign, using community meetings, television advertisements, animated commercials, and radio programming.
All views in this text are the author(s)’, and may differ from the U4 partner agencies’ policies.
This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)