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How 4 shifts in thinking could transform the battle against corruption

Reflections of an anti-corruption fighter — part iii

Phil Mason

In my last piece 5 reasons why aid providers get it all wrong on anti-corruption I suggested that donors have failed to recognise some fundamental fault lines in their approach to fighting corruption, despite nearly two decades of historically unprecedented effort resulting in very little success.

Although the reasons for this seem easy to detect, the required remedies are far from simple. My aim here is to offer some initial thoughts on where we could go from here.

We fail because …

To recap, I proffered these reasons for the current ineffectiveness of donor agencies. Donors look at corruption simply as another development problem to be solved with the same technical methods used for all the others; they seek to do this by expecting to work with the very elements that are at the core of the problem; and find themselves in an insidious ballet of illusion with activities choreographed to avoid challenging the fundamentals. Donors keep tightly to their standard operating procedures that continue to show little traction in the time and with the resources allotted; they do all this largely unconnected with other donors.

These are all failures of imagination. Failure in four dimensions: — concept, purpose, design, and delivery. We must look within these dimensions for the potential answers.

Concept: not every problem can be solved by ‘capacity building’

Conceptualising corruption as a shortcoming capable of solution through the offer of better knowledge, better training, stronger ‘capacity’ suits a donor agency equipped to supply these things. But the legions of technical programmes that have resulted over the decades have left developing countries with manual piled upon manual telling how to ‘do’ every public function imaginable — procurement, civil service recruitment, HR management, public finance, audit, supplies distribution … yet this has signally failed to shift the dial.

For some problems, just knowing how something should be different (and better) is not sufficient to change it. But this is where we seemed to have stopped on corruption, simply because donor agencies are ill-equipped to do much else beyond.

We need a transformation in our conceptualisation of corruption. As many political scientists note, for most of the countries that development assistance donors are ‘helping’, corruption is not an anomaly biting away at the system. It is the system — for everyone. It is the means by which a ruling elite structures its powerbase. It is the coping mechanism for ordinary citizens in their daily lives. Corruption is driven by more than a minor absence of capability.

It follows, therefore, that to conceptualise corruption as a phenomenon that will dissolve with better knowledge or capacity looks deeply misguided.

Leap of imagination 1: Corruption must be appreciated as powerful shaper of political and personal incentives. We need to shift our focus to the political framing, and the incentives to change.

Purpose: who are we really meant to be helping?

The government-to-government structure of donor engagement seals the fate of much anti-corruption effort before it even starts. But there is a huge irony here. Despite maintaining this formalism, actual bilateral practice has shifted significantly in recent years, not least because of corruption.

Those who recall the heady days of the Paris harmonisation agenda of the early 2000s now look across a fairly barren landscape. We’ve effectively stopped working directly through governments for some time now once the budget aid bubble burst with the dawning realisation that financing via corrupt national systems created for donors toxic time bombs just waiting to explode in their domestic settings with the next corruption episode.

Donors have been forced to shift their means of delivery, without necessarily reflecting much on it. Now, rarely does donor money flow through formal national systems. It goes directly to citizens through a range of routes built specifically to bypass the risky state. Yet donors still hold to the formality that it is the state they are aiding.

Leap of imagination 2: Bilateral donors must be willing to be more explicit in their characterisation of aid as being to help citizens in a country rather than maintain the cosy fiction that it is the government that is the direct object of support. Doing so would accentuate the shortcomings of the formal state, which is essential if political incentives are to change. (And this would be enormously strengthened if the multilaterals followed suit. Their docility is the death knell of anti-corruption pressure.)

Design: cookie cutters are only good for cutting cookies

If there is one essential transformation that leaps out to any observer of the donor effort over the last two decades, it is to re-think the design template donor staff have been given. Shoe-horned into the same approach as every other project a donor develops, as the previous article suggested, this creates paralysing constraints and unrealistic expectations.

Designs have to meet the rigidities of ‘LogFrame world’ (a world now far removed from the original intentions behind the logical framework approach which lay more in seeing the whole picture than in cementing down precise actions in advance which is what the modern LogFrame has evolved into). This means: objectives and annual milestones securely fixed in advance; a projected linear upward progression of achievement year-on-year; bold advances after just 3–4 years; and, more recently, a straitjacket mindset to reviewing that threatens to bring the whole show to a close if there is the slightest relapse from that expected pathway.

The space for flexibility, experimentation and the unpredictable which used to characterise some donors seems to have been squeezed out with military rigour in recent years.

There is another irony here. The obsession to lay out the precise roadmap upfront has largely come about because of donors’ anxiety about their public’s disquiet about aid. Credibility, both public and in-house, is now seen to rest not on professional judgment and management during the project, but on showing at the start that everything has been safely planned, predicted, forecast. Donors have unwittingly stripped out of their armoury the flexibility that anti-corruption efforts so often need.

Leap of imagination 3: Donors need to adopt an approach to design much more attuned to the practical vagaries of dealing with corruption, especially its unpredictabilities and its requirements for taking the long-term perspective. This would see the setting of strategic objectives that blend clarity of end vision with flexibility of methods, accepting uncertainty along the journey by developing responsive actions ‘on the go’ to align with opportunities, and committing to programmes lasting at least a decade (and preferably more)

Delivery: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

A multitude of individual donors all doing their own thing, to their own timescales, their own budgets, their own priorities — it’s no wonder the great white sharks of corruption survive largely unscathed. It is in delivery that we need a real shift of thinking.

All experience suggests that it will be unrealistic to look for the solution in that ever-distant dream of ‘better donor co-ordination’. We have rarely managed it at country level in the real world. And, as the previous piece suggested, when we take into account the inherent self-conflicts that each donor agency has in regard to tackling corruption, it feels that we need a serious step-change in approach.

For all the reasons the previous piece set out, donor agencies do not look like the viable vehicle for delivering support to anti-corruption in a country. Nor, for similar reasons, does the other obvious department of state — the foreign ministry — look an effective alternative, as it too suffers from conflicted policy objectives (like keeping up friendly relations). Indeed, any direct agency of a donor government will have the same problem in juggling their objectives.

This calls for really radical thinking. How best to disentangle these internal conflicts? How to not shackle anti-corruption efforts?

Leap of imagination 4: Instead of multiple, disconnected pin-pricks, might donors construct their support entirely differently, drawing on the implications of the preceding three themes — incentives, citizen-orientation and flexibility?

Perhaps they might pool their anti-corruption resources into a purposely-created independent entity established in-country, governed by a coalition of relevant interest groups that extends beyond the government itself (to include, for example, civil society, academia, business/private sector, faith organisations …). With some evidence of the effectiveness of introducing external influences (think of CICIG in Guatemala, MEC in Afghanistan and the international experts’ group in Ukraine amongst the boldest) including an international element could provide a powerful motor for credibility.

Such a body could manage and programme anti-corruption funds from donors, thus separating the donors from daily conflicts with other objectives and giving a chance to create the required pressure points on the governing authority to effect change.

These shifts, especially the last, look highly ambitious and go against the grain of current practice. But no-one need apologise for that. It is the sorry state of current practice that we need to break out of. As to how realistic this all is, I hope to reflect further on that in future articles.

Phil Mason was senior anti-corruption adviser in DFID from 2000 until March 2019. He has formally retired from the UK public service after 35 years, 31 of which were with ODA/DFID. He continues in the anti-corruption field in an independent capacity.

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