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Reflections of an anti-corruption fighter — part II

Phil Mason

Five reasons why aid providers get it all wrong on anti-corruption

It’s not that we don’t know

Aid donor agencies like the one I served for over 30 years well know the damage that corruption does as a brake on their ambitions for sustainable development.

They know that poor people suffer disproportionately from corruption, spending a larger portion of their income than anyone else to pay bribes just to get by in their daily lives. They know that high levels of corruption deter the inward investment flows crucial for development. They know that corruption corrodes the fabric of society and its institutions, and often lies at the root of conflict and instability.

They know that corruption is bad for poor people, bad for business, bad for development.

Yet the record of our agencies in coming up with effective ways to tackle the scourge has been woeful. We are nowhere near any clear recipe for affecting change. We have, one critic once pointed out to me, “admired the problem” at length but all our analysis and diagnosis hasn’t helped devise practical responses that seem to work.


Experience suggests that aid donor agencies are profoundly ill-placed to be part of this battle, still less the leading actor, as many often find themselves. Almost always, they have found themselves to be in the lead simply by default. Other parts of government — such as foreign affairs or trade — judge the problem too awkward and, moreover, getting in the way of their main objectives, preserving good relations or pursuing business opportunities.

So donor agencies have been largely alone in the endeavour. But they are deeply conflicted too, and their way of resolving their inner conflicts has not been fruitful. The sum of the experience leads me to the view that, if anything, agencies should probably be more concerned about the old Hippocratic injunction of “First, do no harm”.

Years with my agency gave me some troubling insights into how the way we did our business gave us little chance of genuinely affecting corruption in the places we were claiming to help. I fear we may have had the contrary effect. I worry that our most likely contribution has been to create a theatre of delusion, with donor and host complicit in a mutually convenient pretence.

At the heart of the problem are five characteristics that, I suggest, inevitablyemerge when a donor agency is the vanguard for action. Together they have had the effect of neutering meaningful impact. It’s why most countries where corruption still rules probably look little different today than they did 10, 20 or more years ago, despite the fulsome “assistance” donors have ploughed in.

1. “We have our hammer …”

First and foremost, donor agencies have tended to frame corruption as just another technical problem, capable of a technical solution, and to be handled through the same operating methods as all the other technical problems holding back development. “Capacity building”, “technical assistance” and training are the agents of change and will rarely be absent from any donor programme. Donor agencies do this because that is what donors of aid are set up to provide. It’s famously said that if you only have a hammer, you see every problem as a nail. Corruption is conveniently seen as just another nail to be hammered in the quest for development.

2. “We want to believe you’re with us on this …”

Worse, and as a consequence of the first, the foundation for action with the host authorities is cast, heart-warmingly, as a partnership, a joint endeavour in the development effort. I often marvelled (despaired?) at how clearly very clever people could design and manage their anti-corruption programmes seemingly oblivious to the political realities surrounding them that everyone else could see. Challenging governments in a meaningful way was rare. And if a corruption episode did erupt necessitating a temporary halt to proceedings, the collective donor response seemed to be driven mostly by an anxiety to restore business-as-usual as soon as possible.

3. “This won’t hurt a bit …”

Thirdly, it follows from this that the chosen actions have always tended to be benign, focused on measurable activities (so something passing for “results” can be generated) and, crucially, unthreatening to any vested interests. The approach deliberately avoids confronting the politics under the surface, skirting any issues that would jeopardise the overall relationship.

It’s a perfect arrangement of mutual convenience — the donor points to evident busyness and disburses its funds (never forget that spending is a critical criterion for success in agency-world); the host points to busyness too, showing it is doing its best to respond to corruption. Meanwhile the real business of local life can carry on unhampered. Both sides profess happiness that the problem is being dealt with.

If all of that is already debilitating to the chances of success, two further hindrances get built in.

4. “Terms and conditions apply …”

The fourth factor perhaps bites hardest, and is the least justifiable (since the remedy lies entirely in the donor’s hands). The chosen activities get shoe-horned into the shape dictated by the strictures of programming processes, not the other way round. For corruption this is particularly devastating because these strictures all tend to be antithetical to what we know about the phenomenon.

Donor ways of working usually involve some or all of the following: an implausibly short time horizon to achieve results (where prolonged effort is known to be needed, more often than not donor projects expire after three to five years); a requirement for prediction of results in advance by producing a convincing LogFrame (and high risk of early termination if the milestones for these predictions start to look off target); an assumption that progress will be linear, with improvements demonstrated year-on-year (whereas experience with corruption usually shows volatility in pace and often backward steps); a preference towards spending money and on quantifiable outcomes (rather than on the less tangible, like efforts to influence the public mood or social trends).

None of these ways of working has ever turned out to be aligned with how corruption really manifests itself. They are all entirely set for the convenience of the supplier of the assistance. And they all simply mirror how the agencies do any other development programme.

5. “Three’s a crowd …”

Finally, each donor prefers by inclination to operate on its own. There may be legions of “anti-corruption donor co-ordination groups” across the globe, but the usual experience (with one or two rare exceptions I’ve come across) has been that they are simply part of the theatre of delusion.

Lack of genuine donor coherence has been one of the most noticeable and intractable dilemmas of past efforts. There are a variety of reasons, mostly stemming back to internal planning imperatives and timelines. The effect though is draining on the collective donor impact. If ever the potential for influence has been systematically squandered it has been in our collective inability to come together on corruption.

It’s the politics, stupid

So while donors appear to have confined their energies to activities that conveniently mask some untidy realities on both sides, citizens in developing countries who are the ones mostly suffering the real consequences are likely to feel themselves short-changed. Short-changed by the very actors they have often looked to to exercise some influence on their government since they themselves have none.

Getting to grips with the politics of corruption has been elusive for every donor. It is likely to remain so. There are few incentives to do this, and lots of downsides.

I remain convinced there are solutions, but they involve a radical re-think of the orthodoxy: basing anti-corruption approaches much more explicitly on the politics involved (you don’t solve corruption simply by being trained in the knowledge of how to combat it); not seeing this as principally a development assistance issue or giving the lead to donor agencies; basing efforts on more common sense than accepting a corrupt host’s avowals of cooperation and partnership; and revisiting the potential of citizen efforts and pressures as the centre of gravity for the effort.

I hope to elaborate further in future contributions.

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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