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July 1, 2015

The C Word: How should the aid business think and act about Corruption?

July 1, 2015
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Went to a seminar on corruption and development on Monday – notable in itself as corruption is something of a taboo topic in aid circles. Aid supporters often cite framing – George Lakoff’s ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant’ or Richard Nixon’s ‘I am not a crook’ (below)- as justification for avoiding the topic; even if you raise it to dismiss it, the connection between aid and corruption will be established in the public mind.

Unfortunately ignoring it/leaving it to the Daily Mail hasn’t worked too well – David Hudson’s research (still unpublished, but previewed here) shows that the % of the UK public agreeing with the decidedly clunky (DFID-drafted) statement ‘corruption in poor country governments makes it pointless donating money to help reduce poverty’ has risen rapidly from 44% to 61% since 2008. He also found that talking to members of the public about how aid is trying to tackle corruption can undo the damage of raising the issue in the first place (and help immunise people against the barrage of press reports).

The seminar heard from David, and the findings of a DFID evidence review by Alina Rocha Menocal and Nils Taxell anti-corruption(among others). Some impressions:

The word itself doesn’t help. According to Nils Taxell, ‘The papers we looked at do not define what they mean by corruption – it’s a blanket term.’ Overall, the word feels externally imposed – I’m not at all sure people in developing countries would use the same term to describe embezzling a billion dollars that means a road is never built and an underpaid official asking for a sweetener. See this research from Papua New Guinea for how citizens themselves see the issue.

It’s amazing how little we know about almost anything in development. A 100 page review of the evidence finds confusion, contradiction and very little certainty about the effects of corruption, or what to do about it. We can’t even properly answer basic questions like ‘is country X more/less corrupt than it was 5 years ago?’ Is that the inevitable result of the complexity of political and social systems or the inbuilt bias of researchers to default to NMR (Needs more Research)? Probably both.

Indirect is best. In his book Obliquity, John Kay argues that many goals in life are best achieved by approaching them indirectly. This appears to apply here. It’s almost never the interventions directly targeted at corruption that work. Often the fight against it is characterized as the end, but the goal should be about promoting some aspect of development, with tackling corruption as simply one of the means to that end.

In similar vein, combination effects matter. Delivering isolated interventions eg on police reform, judiciary or setting up on anti-Corruption body, often fail. A huge effort at police reform, but no action on sorting out the judiciary simply means ‘you just bribe the judge instead’.

india corruption protestsThere’s only one thing worse than being ignored by donor politicians, and that’s not being ignored by them….. Corruption is top of ministers’ agendas, but like all politicians, they want simple clear messages they can sell to the public, not the ’50 shades of grey’ beloved of researchers. ‘In 15 years at DFID, I have never been asked DFID is concerned about corruption, and hence why DFID is working on it. Ministers have to defend a simple, stark message – no Minister will stand up in Parliament and say ‘well, some corruption is worse than others’.’

In such a climate, if you argue that some corruption is actually not that important, is a symptom of a particular stage of development, is really just an informal tax, or may even be helpful (for example in achieving political stability after a civil war, by buying off opponents) you will rapidly be denounced as an apologist for corruption and cast into the political outer darkness. A problem as all of those views are more or less correct, in some places, some of the time.

That political profile also means ministers demand big splashy anti-corruption projects, even if they don’t work, rather than obliquity-style attempts to tackle corruption as part of something else. ‘Our taxpayers won’t let it disappear from the agenda.’

A further problem for bilateral donors is that anti-corruption work is very different to traditional partnerships on health, education or infrastructure. Health or transport ministers are more or less interested in the latter, but on corruption, politicians are often the de facto enemy. So tech fixes and public service capacity building won’t work (they don’t work that well in normal circumstances, let alone in this!). What you get instead is an ‘act of complicit theatre between donors and governments – lots of technical assistance progs, while business carries on as normal. Tackling the fundamentals is far harder.’ Somalia is apparently setting up an anti-corruption body. Enough said.

Mushtaq Khan, for decades one of the clearest thinkers on corruption, was in the audience and made some great Corruptionpoints. He reckons that short-term aid programmes have little chance of success in promoting systemic change – the way that over several decades, interactions between police, judiciary, private sector and politicians become less corrupt as a country develops and institutionalises.

Instead, he argues for a more acupuncture approach, identifying small, specific problems like customs corruption in the garments sector, and then following a PDIA-type process of getting broad agreement on the problem, and convening the right individuals and institutions to sort it out.

If we do that, and add some historical positive deviance approaches, where instead of thinking about our interventions (hammers, nails), we identify and analyse real world cases where corruption has fallen, we might have the beginnings of a more intelligent approach. But you’d have to sell that to donor politicians first.


  1. Brilliant posting Duncan, with many sound bites that should be chewed on for awhile. Is the quotation about ‘complicit theatre between donors and governments’ from the Obliquity book?

    I know it’s not the point of the blog, but it strikes me that a lot of what you’re saying also applies to the T-word: often, the fight against Tewwowism is characterized as the end, but the goal should really be about promoting some aspect of development…

  2. And, of course, there’s the issues of what corruption is for and who benefits at what level. I’ve just finished a study on coordination in birth registration in Ghana (with B. Guy Peters). One finding is that there is an clear relationship between poor vertical and horizontal coordination going up the hierarchy and petty rent seeking at the lowest levels–the point at which people wanting to register a birth experience corruption. This not just the result of “poor management”–systematic petty rent-seeking is a way to make the system work–whilst undermining it at the same time. A classic coordination problem. What is the solution? Arguably it is not to try and combat petty-rent seeking, but to improve the policy incentives to register births across the board. Peru is an example of a country that has made birth registration central (as a passport to an identity card, which is needed to access virtually any service) to citizenship, while also creating a motivated and visionary institution to make it happen–one which has very explicitly taken on the mandate of social inclusion. What does this mean for corruption? Sure it still exists, but despite the high demand for birth registration/ID cards it is nowhere near as endemic (at the point of contact with the public, at least) as in Ghana. Of course, there are other problems with Peru’s approach–but that is another story…

  3. Great post as always, Duncan. Did the panel talk about accountability as opposed to corruption at all? It seems to us at the Accountability Lab that corruption is a symptom not a cause- and the real root of the problem is a lack of accountability between people in power and citizens. This, then, requires a different approach which is not about compliance and enforcement, but about values and ethics. Time and again in the countries we work we’ve seen rules and organizations fail to work because they do not correspond to behaviors and incentives…it’s the same with the private sector. All the biggest corporate corruption scandals in the past few decades have involved companies with well organized compliance programs- the issue is the values within the businesses themselves. One idea is to make sure we work with youth in creative ways to support a shared shift towards thinking around integrity, so they can collectively stand up and argue that they want people in power (and themselves when they are in power) to be more responsible. One way to do this- and navigate the politics- is “naming and faming” not “naming and shaming”- we can work with the reformers and celebrate their successes, rather than always pointing at those that break the rules and shouting about corruption.

  4. This is what I call corruption.

    Millennium Declaration:
    “We…resolve…by the year 2015…
    dollar a day…
    to have reduced maternal mortality by three quarters, and
    under-five child mortality by two thirds, of their current rates”

    “Targets (from the Millennium Declaration)…
    Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people whose income is less than one dollar a day…
    Halve, between 1990 and 2015, the proportion of people who suffer from hunger…
    Reduce by two-thirds, between 1990 and 2015, the under-five mortality rate…
    Reduce by three quarters, between 1990 and 2015, the maternal mortality ratio…”
    “targets come from the Millennium Declaration”

    Official list of Millennium Development Goals 2003
    and current list effective from 2008

    Similarly, on 7 June 2015 the FAO gave China an award for meeting the World Food Summit pledge of 1996 to halve the number of hungry people from its “present level”. Although it has figures for 1996, the FAO uses 1991 as a baseline.

    Matt Berkley

  5. +1 to Nils Taxell’s point about the blanket term getting in the way of our analysis. I think there’s a potentially fascinating study to be done that articulates how people in a given country understand and describe that broad range of activities that the development sector views as “corruption”, and how outside frameworks influence that. Or maybe some anthropologist has already done it? The PNG study linked above still seems defined by outside frameworks. I could imagine a sort-of randomized political/linguistic analysis that maps people’s understanding of power and payments in their society: researchers would follow tight scripts that avoid the term “corruption” in the control villages (unless introduced by the participants), while explicitly encouraging that framework in treatment.

    1. There’s a big literature on this already. Read Ivan Krastev in particular. One key thing to remember is that it’s only other people who are corrupt, I myself only help my friends coz I’m a good guy.

  6. I think this is exactly right: “identifying small, specific problems like customs corruption in the garments sector, and then following a PDIA-type process of getting broad agreement on the problem, and convening the right individuals and institutions to sort it out.” But its wrong to assume that kind of program can’t have a systemic impact, its just that they have an impact on the smaller, specific sector of – in this case – garment manufacturing. Fixing the political economy of small systems is a worthy and achievable goal, because changing those can bring tangible development benefits (Duncan’s point about anti-corruption as a means not an end), and the accumulation of changes in many small systems is what leads to sustainable reforms in the bigger one.

  7. An excellent blog. To “a symptom of a particular stage of development, is really just an informal tax,” you could add “a form of privatization”: hospital doctors sell health care, passport agencies sell passports, the traffic police generates its own income.

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