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Doing anti-corruption work more effectively: How learning and adaptation matter

Johannes Tonn

Over the past two decades, anti-corruption advocates have made great strides in dealing with corruption in a variety of ways, successfully raising awareness about corruption around the globe, advocating for international norms, experimenting with social accountability mechanisms, and securing national-level anti-corruption legislation.

However, corruption is a complex, systemic, and difficult problem. There is considerable uncertainty as to which anti-corruption interventions actually work and for what reasons. It’s increasingly clear that, as a field, we have not yet cracked how to successfully fight corruption in all its different manifestations, across contexts and over time.

To make additional progress, we, the field of anti-corruption practitioners, must ask ourselves:

  • What needs to change if we want to accelerate our efforts to meaningfully curb corruption?
  • How might we get better at generating the insights we need to achieve the impact we aim for?
  • How can we become more effective at doing our work?

There are no easy answers to these questions. But if we’re to get better at making progress toward finding answers, we must get better at learning from the work we’re already doing, treating our ongoing work as a true opportunity to “learn while we are doing.”

This means seizing the chance to reflect on our work, consciously adapting our strategies and tactics, and iterating in order to become more effective over time. Fully integrating a systematic and continuous learning approach into the programmes we design and implement will help us figure out, as we go, how to make progress more quickly.

In addition, we should be unafraid to communicate that there is much to learn. Pretending that we have all the answers reduces the extent to which we can learn and hinders our efforts to become more effective. We should be upfront about the fact that many aspects of our work are based on educated guesses, that we continuously try and test new approaches, and that we often can’t know whether a particular effort will achieve impact in the future.

To be clear, it is important that we continue to take action even though we do not have all the answers: we must empower victims of corruption; we must build coalitions; we must improve the implementation of law; and we must do our best to fight corruption. But, as we take action, we should strive to document and analyse our efforts in real time, to help ourselves and the field-at-large learn how to get better at adopting effective strategies.

The idea of continuous, applied learning has received a good deal of attention in the wider field of governance and development practice. Anti-corruption practitioners can learn from existing practice elsewhere.

Here is what it means to integrate learning into design and implementation of a program:

  • Identify and agree on a problem definition. Unpack the assumptions about the problem and the context in which it exists.
  • Craft a theory of change that makes a link between problem, programme activities, and assumptions about the context.
  • Collect useful information about whether programme activities affect the problem and about whether initial assumptions about problem and context are accurate.
  • Make time to reflect, in regular intervals, on what can be learned. Don’t feel discouraged if the problem definition or assumptions prove to be incorrect.
  • Document findings, agree on a revised course of action and implement adaptations. Ensure you are tracking whether the adaptations lead to greater effectiveness.
  • Repeat the cycle and share your thinking with funders, beneficiaries, and stakeholders as openly as possible (acknowledging there may be limitations).

Integrating learning intentionally into programme design and implementation is not easy. Doing so successfully requires a supportive environment in which the team is unafraid to try and test ideas. In addition — and this is certainly no afterthought — systematic learning and adaptation require donor support and resources.

There are many anti-corruption programmes that would benefit from this sort of approach. And while there are a few large-scale donor-funded anti-corruption programmes implementing adaptation-focused approaches (STAAC, SUGAR, MoDAC), there are thousands of programmes, especially at country level, where a conscientious approach to “learning while doing” would be immensely helpful.

Interestingly, some existing programmes already follow an organic, in-built logic of adaptation and iteration. This includes Transparency International’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres (ALACs), which provide free and confidential legal advice to witnesses and victims of corruption. ALACs across various countries incrementally adapt their practice to respond to citizen needs in context-specific ways and based on the resources they have. When asked, ALAC staff readily report that they have gradually increased their effectiveness over time.

The next step in accelerating and truly harnessing the potential of ALACs and many other anti-corruption programmes around the world is for practitioners to be much more intentional about systematically learning about and adapting their programmes. By way of example, a recent guidebook — partly based on insights gleaned from ALACs — explores the principles that support successful citizen engagement in anti-corruption initiatives.

Structuring and pursuing learning efforts along these lines will help the field to uncover and flesh out the ideas that underpin successful programming across contexts, and contribute to catalysing the true potential of anti-corruption work in the years to come.

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