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How change happens in anti-corruption: a map of policy perspectives

Donors and governments need to better understand how transitions to integrity actually happen. A new U4 Issue carries out a review of five emerging policy perspectives. This blog provides a summary of new thinking on what might be more effective pathways out of widespread corruption.
23 September 2020
Sign post for 'this way' and 'that way'

Anti-corruption policy over the past two decades has been influenced by a ‘state modernisation’ approach. This approach is based on direct treatment to state institutions: strengthening rules, transparency, and enforcement. Examples of interventions include developing specific anti-corruption laws, supporting enforcement organisations, and improving skills for monitoring. Yet, this approach has frequently — but not always — been unable to achieve sustainable pathways out of widespread corruption.

This points to the need for a better understanding of how anti-corruption change actually happens. It also requires shifts in how anti-corruption is designed and practised.

Effective pathways

Some recent thinking about the most effective pathways out of widespread corruption has challenged the tenets of the conventional approach. Yet much of this thinking remains somewhat fragmented. A new U4 Issue, therefore, attempts to clarify the various strands. It presents the key outlines of anti-corruption policy thought that focuses on questions of agency, that is, who and what is most likely to bring about sustainable reductions in corruption. Five perspectives to emerge — indirect, localisation, nurturing norms, big bang, and transnational (state to state) — are based on alternative theories of change to conventional anti-corruption approaches. Taken together, they suggest additional directions in anti-corruption policy for practitioners.

Indirect anti-corruption

The indirect perspective questions the notion that direct anti-corruption reforms spur moves towards integrity. Instead they argue it is deeper changes to governance and society that allow for sustained progress.

Social and political reforms may bring about control of corruption as a by-product

Research on indirect approaches, looking at case studies of past transitions, has sought to identify feasible social and political reforms that may bring about control of corruption as a by-product. Among the possibilities are:

  • universal social welfare policies;
  • a free and universal education system;
  • a trusted tax system in the public sector;
  • economic reforms leading to growth; and
  • increased gender parity in the public sector.

Localisation perspective

The localisation perspective pushes back against both the universalistic conceptions of anti-corruption implied by the state modernisation paradigm. Localisation, however, signifies much more than ‘tailoring to context’ or ‘local ownership’; it means that the choice of anti-corruption targets should be determined by local conditions and not by preconceived templates of what anti-corruption should look like or by donor preferences.

In particular, localisation can mean targeting anti-corruption efforts to specific, discrete, and manageable spaces where sustainable transitions to impartial governance are realistically achievable and will have a high local impact. This is in contrast to state modernisation approaches that often seek ‘systemic anti-corruption’, across-the-board approaches embodied in national strategies or integrity systems that are implemented without much consideration for local fit.

Under the localisation approach, donors become enablers rather than active agents of change.

Nurturing norms

The nurturing norms perspective suggests that the impetus in successful transitions comes not from the development of formal institutions, like anti-corruption commissions, but rather through informal institutions, such as social norms and networks that uphold corrupt behaviour as socially unacceptable and deserving of punishment. In other words, anti-corruption becomes a widely held social norm.

The impetus in successful transitions may come from informal institutions that uphold anti-corruption as a social norm

Proponents of this perspective argue that state modernisation approaches, based on introducing formal institutions, are at risk of being subverted by prevailing social norms that may condone and even encourage corruption. Citizens may find themselves in the role of ‘clients’ who cannot hold political actors to account. Private firms, meanwhile, may relate to the state through established rules of cronyism. Such negative dynamics can easily undermine the potential for constructive collective action and agency oriented towards integrity.

Transitions therefore require steps to proactively nurture normative constraints on corruption. Such interventions need to go beyond conventional approaches based on civil society — such as funding awareness campaigns. An example might be helping to organise new coalitions that combine collective interests to put pressure on government agencies or working to encourage pro-integrity norms within public agencies.

Big bang

The big bang perspective critiques the incremental approach to anti-corruption. Instead, it calls for rapid, comprehensive reforms to transform societies that are stuck in a high-corruption equilibrium. Reforms must be not only rapid, but also sufficiently extensive, resulting in behavioural change across the public sector.

This approach implies a return to top-down policies driven by the executive organs of the state. It also requires taking advantage of windows of opportunity — economic crises, revolution, and so on. These are times when an anti-corruption agenda can be implemented with least resistance.

The big bang approach requires taking advantage of economic crises, revolution, and so on

Georgia gives an example of reform according to the big bang principle. Changing how people perceived the state was an explicit aim. The mayor of Tbilisi said that the country had to ‘attack the symbols of corruption’. This included making high-profile arrests of corrupt actors.

However, there is some debate whether a big bang is preferable to an incremental approach or if, in certain contexts, it could be counterproductive.

State-to-state perspective

The transnational (state-to-state) perspective emphasises that the policy response to corruption in one state must be linked to policies in other states. This is because national economies are integrated through trade, capital flows, and foreign direct investment. Corruption thrives within this nexus, such that corruption within a given state cannot be resolved only though anti-corruption efforts located in that state. At the same time, donor countries themselves have weak points within their domestic legal, accountancy, and banking systems that can facilitate money laundering, fraud, and other forms corruption in developing countries.

Donor countries themselves have weak points within their systems that can facilitate corruption

The transnational perspective emphasises a policy agenda to address these sources of corruption. A second aspect of transnational approaches involves a more conscious use of power and politics in which aid-giving states create disincentives for national elites in aid-receiving states to engage in corruption. Examples include decisions on granting or withholding visas to visit the donor country; exclusion orders; financial vetting checks on government representatives (‘know your partner’ checks); and restricting engagement when corrupt practice is suspected.

Sustainable pathways to change

The central insight of these five critiques is not that state modernisation interventions are faulty per se. However, by putting questions around limited agency front and centre, these emerging perspectives have prompted new policy thinking. This thinking investigates how anti-corruption interventions can overcome fundamental implementation challenges and lead to more sustainable change.

    About the author

    David Jackson

    Dr. David Jackson leads U4’s thematic work on informal contexts of corruption. His research explores how an understanding of social norms, patron-client politics, and nonstate actors can lead to anti-corruption interventions that are better suited to context. He is the author of various book chapters and journal articles on governance issues and holds degrees from Oxford University, the Hertie School of Governance, and the Freie Universität Berlin.


    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)