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Using the case of Albania as an illustration, this paper presents a framework to help practitioners plan more effective anti-corruption interventions in developing and transition countries.

Aid-funded anti-corruption initiatives are typically grounded in a ‘systemic’ approach that seeks to reduce corruption across the board by means of centralised anti-corruption safeguards. Yet, in most developing countries, a systemic reduction in corruption may be practically difficult until a threshold level of economic development has been achieved, and a number of deep-seated economic and political constraints cleared. Indeed, with a few notable exceptions (e.g., the case of Georgia), donor-led anti-corruption efforts have largely failed to achieve their stated aim of contributing to a significant reduction in the level of corruption in aid-receiving countries.

This U4 Issue argues that systemic anti-corruption strategies should be complemented by more targetedinterventions that do not rely on a country’s ability in the short run to enforce a set of overarching anti-corruption institutions – an ability that partially depends in turn on the achievement of a threshold level of per capita income. The targeted interventions proposed here are confined to a specific space, such as an economic sector or a governance realm, and should be both feasible and high-impact given the specific context of the target country.

Thus, for practitioners, the challenge is to identify interventions that will face the least political or social resistance and are also likely to have the most impact on economic and human development. How can practitioners identify a ‘smart space’ (or ‘sector’) for anti-corruption interventions? And second, within that space, how can they identify the right set of policies and interventions? This U4 Issue provides a stepwise framework to help practitioners answer both questions.

Practitioners should first produce a map of corruption and anti-corruption trends in the target country. To identify a ‘smart space’ for anti-corruption, practitioners should then estimate the relative impact and feasibility of targeting anti-corruption efforts to alternative sectors. By charting a society’s political power structure (or ‘political settlement’), practitioners can identify the sectors in which corruption is less central to the interests of elites and powerful groups. In these sectors, anti-corruption interventions are likely to be less politically constrained and to face a lower risk of implementation failure. At the same time, some forms of corruption are likely to be more damaging for economic development than others. Thus, to maximise the developmental effectiveness of anti-corruption aid, it makes sense to attack the most damagingforms of corruption first, feasibility permitting.

An ideal, first-best intervention would be both feasible and high-impact. Yet it may not always be feasible to implement the most impactful interventions; similarly, the most feasible interventions may sometimes only have a marginal impact on development. When programming anti-corruption interventions, therefore, donors are often called to make second-best choices. To evaluate the trade-off between impact and feasibility, donors should cross-tabulate these two dimensions and identify the sectors with the best combination of impact and feasibility.

Next, practitioners should repeat the same exercise within the corruption sector judged to be the most promising, identifying different corrupt practices, and classifying them, again, in terms of impact – the extent to which they disrupt development outcomes in that sector – and amenability to external interventions. Practitioners should also record and assess any anti-corruption efforts launched to date in the sector(s) of interest, as well as any policies or reforms that may have, or have had, an indirect effect on the form and prevalence of corruption in the target sector(s), before developing a comprehensive sectoral action plan based on (context-specific) empirical evidence.

Based on a multi-method approach that combines primary and secondary data analysis, unstructured interviews with practitioners in Albania, and desk research, we argue that in Albania, higher education appears to be the sector with the most favourable combination of potential impact and feasibility at the present time. For this reason, donors should seriously consider channelling anti-corruption resources into this sector. Specifically, we suggest that donors target two corrupt practices: the undeserved awarding of grades by university lecturers to bribe-paying students, and the unmeritocratic promotion of university lecturers based on nepotism and favouritism. To attack these corrupt practices, practitioners are invited to consider a range of tools and interventions, including a pay-for-performance system for lecturers and researchers, a reform of the way public and private research funds are allocated, a tightening of academic promotion standards, and an increased reliance on international academic monitors when awarding research grants or making accreditation decisions.

This U4 Issue concludes by suggesting that anti-corruption practitioners should avoid the dominant tendency to rely exclusively or mainly on international ‘best-practice’ templates, instead complementing these widely recognised approaches with more targeted strategies that are better tailored to the specifics of the local context. Insofar as it stops short of creating systemic anti-corruption safeguards that aim to reduce corruption across the board, a targeted, sectoral strategy may be considered ‘second-best.’ Yet in the short run, it is likely to make better use of scarce aid resources, improving aid effectiveness. Substantially reducing corruption in one sector, however, may also relieve constraints on implementation in other sectors, creating opportunities for sequential interventions across different sectors. Over time, as more and more ‘islands of integrity’ emerge and consolidate, the entire institutional structure of a country could be changed, laying the groundwork for the establishment and successful operation of more traditional (systemic) anti-corruption safeguards.