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The justice sector is central to the fight against corruption, yet it has received less anti-corruption assistance than other sectors. Between December 2022 and May 2023, we mapped 174 justice sector interventions supported by U4’s eight partners, the development cooperation ministries and agencies of Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. We found that less than half of the interventions in our mapping address corruption, and just 18% address it directly or explicitly. An example of an intervention with a direct anti-corruption approach is the long-running Corruption Hunter Network (2009–present), facilitated by Norad. The initiative supports a global network of dedicated anti-corruption investigators and prosecutors. For over 17 years the network has provided anti-corruption actors with moral support, shared experience, contacts, and cross-border cooperation, enabling practitioners to investigate and prosecute high-profile grand corruption.

A further 22% of interventions in our mapping address corruption indirectly by implementing measures that can potentially prevent, control, or reduce corruption, but without explicitly stating that as an objective. An example is the digitalisation of case management systems to improve institutional efficiency and enhance transparency in justice service delivery. With support from Swedish Development Cooperation Agency, the United Nations Development Programme is implementing a project in Moldova called Supporting the e‑Transformation of Policing Processes Related to Contravention Cases (2022–2026). By working to digitalise police case management of contravention cases, the project aims to diminish human error/interference and opportunities for corruption and to ensure that the investigation of offences is done in due time and with full accountability by the police. Another indirect approach to addressing corruption is the integration of human rights and anti-corruption programming to combat impunity. With support from Global Affairs Canada, Avocats Sans Frontières Canada is implementing Justice, Governance, and Fight Against Impunity in Honduras (2018–2023). The project works to show the human rights impacts of corruption and to define how individuals are victims of corruption and human rights violations, enabling legal redress to combat impunity.

We estimate that around 55% of interventions (95) in our mapping do not include any anti-corruption approach, whether direct or indirect. This result may suggest a low rate of anti-corruption mainstreaming in U4 partners’ justice sector assistance unless there are many interventions indirectly addressing corruption that we were not able to identify. In particular, we found few legal aid interventions that directly address corruption, even though legal aid represents a high proportion of the interventions mapped. Legal aid providers depend on government goodwill to gain entry to justice institutions such as courthouses and prisons, and calling out corruption by public officials could jeopardise this access. Yet legal aid providers who assist marginalised populations are likely to encounter or become aware of corruption in the justice system in the course of their work. Marginalised populations, particularly women, are the most vulnerable to corruption. The integration of anti-corruption perspectives into legal aid assistance is one way to support marginalised populations and mitigate their risks of exposure to corruption. However, any such integration should factor in the risk of a potential backlash from authorities that could jeopardise the ability of legal aid providers to continue assisting vulnerable citizens.

There may be more examples of indirect approaches that we were not able to identify and capture, and the anti-corruption integration rate therefore could be higher than these figures indicate. There is growing evidence that indirect approaches to addressing corruption may be preferred and more effective than direct anti-corruption approaches. Recent U4 research by David Jackson found that countries that ‘have sustainably transitioned to a less-corrupt equilibrium have done so mostly without recourse to specific anti-corruption policies and institutions’. Instead, they have reduced corruption through ‘deeper changes to governance or society that often allow for broad and collective progress’.

Anecdotal evidence and past research suggest that the practice of ‘doing anti-corruption without naming it’, thus avoiding the anti-corruption label, may be common among U4 partners. Such an approach is useful in contexts where the government does not support anti-corruption efforts and where addressing corruption is a sensitive matter that could lead to a backlash. By not labelling an intervention as an anti-corruption measure, development practitioners may be able to address corruption while avoiding government scrutiny. There is also an emerging perspective that indirect approaches aimed at supporting deeper changes to governance or society may be more effective than policies and institutions that specifically target corruption. However, if anti-corruption is not named as a component of a project, even if only for the purpose of internal reporting, it is difficult to determine the extent of anti-corruption integration. It is also difficult to measure the anti-corruption effect if anti-corruption is not part of a project’s results framework.

As a way forward, U4 partners’ reporting on support for the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 16.5, to ‘substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms’, may offer data relevant to an assessment of anti-corruption mainstreaming. We learned after beginning the study that some U4 partners may be reporting on SDG 16.5. In future, we suggest an exercise to collate and compare U4 partners’ SDG 16.5 reporting in order to understand, among other things, the extent of anti-corruption mainstreaming in their projects. Alternatively, U4 partners could introduce internal reporting of anti-corruption mainstreaming or share periodic snapshots of anti-corruption integration in justice sector assistance. Given the centrality of the justice system in the fight against corruption, the integration of anti-corruption approaches in justice sector assistance warrants further attention. Particular attention should be given to understanding the nature, scope, and effectiveness of indirect approaches, since they remain more common than direct approaches in the interventions covered by our study.