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An Editor’s Three Provocations for the Anti-Corruption Field

By Alex Ralph, Editor, Corruption in Fragile States Blog

At the end of October, I will step down as blog editor. While I’d like to dish some dirt about the nefarious workplace that is CJL as the reason for my departure, alas, there’s no salacious spin to offer. CJL has been a wonderful outfit to work for, and it’s populated by thoughtful and committed people who also happen to have excellent senses of humor.

In light of this baton-changing, CJL co-founder Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church pitched me on writing this post as my “swan song,” which makes me feel closer to death than I think warranted. While I have learned a good deal in my two and a half years as editor of this blog, unlike many of you readers, I’m neither an expert nor practitioner in anti-corruption. But as a professional writer and editor, I’ll embrace my “swan song” if not my mortality and offer three observations about what I perceive as the anti-corruption field’s communication problem. These observations are not peer-reviewed or based on robust survey data. They’re my own and certainly not road tested but the points are connected and maybe, I hope, occasionally interesting.

The anti-corruption field has a communication problem

You all, our specialized audience of anti-corruption practitioners and researchers, well know how endemic corruption can fundamentally stymy or weaken almost any attempted development or reform, be it improving clean water access or the maternal mortality rate.

The story I think the anti-corruption field tells itself—and even if it’s a self-serving story that doesn’t make it an inaccurate one—is that combating corruption is essential to almost any broad-based improvements we’d hope to see in the world. In other words, tackling corruption is not something to be done as an afterthought; rather, tackling corruption must be baked in to any and all development work.

And yet this story you know to be true isn’t, by and large, known by those in other sectors of the international community. Fine, you might say. That’s not a problem since your primary audience isn’t the general public but insiders (e.g., policymakers, donors, NGO leaders) already in the know. But some forty edited blog posts later, I’m also not always convinced that you’re effectively communicating why your work matters to your fellow insiders.

So if this point isn’t wacko, then what might you do? Two suggestions.

1. Success stories shouldn’t be MIA

EPTrilhas, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To tackle corruption anywhere, let alone in fragile states, is an unbelievably challenging endeavor. You all know this far more intimately than I do. There are so many variables and structures and histories and human behaviors to address. In baseball, you’re a savant if you manage to get a hit three out of ten times. That percentage would be enviable for anti-corruption efforts. So, yes, your work faces daunting odds.

But as blog editor, it’s striking how few people pitch success stories to me or include them in their posts. Yes, our authors have written about any number of promising approaches—from smarter social norms programming to how better anti-corruption messaging leads to better public receptivity. To be clear: this is valuable work that advances the field.

As an outsider, though, what I often miss is a greater portrait of the whole. Instead of the report on the individual pilot program, I hanker for the macro. I want not the starter but the entrée. Maybe this is asking too much. Maybe it’s unrealistic. Or maybe the desire is intellectually retrograde—don’t we all by now know the danger of grand unified theories.

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But if someone outside the field, like my father, for instance, were to ask me “What’s the anti-corruption field’s big success story?”, I don’t have a satisfying answer. Ditto for “What’s worked and what’s replicable?” Sure, I can reference the anti-corruption success stories of Singapore and Hong Kong, but these city states were never fragile states or places of endemic corruption. Thus, I'm left to mention an interesting intervention that happened in one part of the world. And yet the scale can feel small.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting you embrace grandiosity. Nor am I suggesting you employ the vernacular of public relations. I am instead suggesting that you perhaps reframe your success stories. They’re not, after all, just about diminishing corruption. The successes are also about how your anti-corruption intervention helped enable a development or peace objective that could tangibly improve people’s futures.

2. Name the models, individuate the faces

Any field runs the chance of becoming an industry. With scale, practices need to change. And so we get codes, standards, regulations. We get the endless hunt for funding and the accounting needed to justify the funding.

I don’t think I’m being cynical to believe that the anti-corruption field has become an industry. Or, as Michael Johnston wrote in our most recent post: "[W]hat was once a critical, change-oriented anti-corruption movement has hardened into a large, well-resourced, morally entrenched and often-hegemonic anti-corruption industry."

"As blog editor, it’s striking how few people pitch success stories to me or include them in their posts."

But if anti-corruption work in endemically corrupt contexts has shifted from a movement to an industry, what are the industry models that work? What approaches are replicable? These exist of course—at the risk of organizational self-promotion, see CJL’s social norms work. And industries need their own vernaculars. It’s inefficient and silly to always contextualize for those outside the building. The goal of this blog you're reading, for instance, is to provide a forum for insiders to exchange and debate in-house ideas. Some insularity is thus inevitable and necessary.

sOER Frank, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

And yet industrialization seeks to sanitize. It wants to present the product while hiding the conditions in which it was produced. Now why does this matter to the anti-corruption industry? Or to your work in fragile states? Possibly because any industry runs the risk of losing contact with its original vision. The signals grow dimmer. The work becomes professionalized. Acronyms get coined. The specialized language obscures the labor and the laborer.

And indeed to an outsider like me, much of your labor can seem to exist behind a screen. It can feel anonymous. And it gets abstract pretty quick.

I wonder if you feel this as well. Yes, you’re working on systems. But systems are made and navigated by people. So what are the stories of courage and fortitude and venality of those involved in anti-corruption work in endemically corrupt contexts? I still haven’t heard enough, or really anything, about your stories or those you work with. But I’d very much like to. And I imagine that maybe you would too.

If Michael Johnston’s critique is correct, one way to return to the energy of a movement is to inspire. Not cheaply or with lazy thinking or shoddy ethics. No, maybe inspiration comes from telling hard and honest stories from the field. By calling out the failures great and small. But also by finding the right frequencies to let your multiple audiences know of the crucial, essential work being done. So maybe a way forward is to be more punk rock. To nurture disgust with the elders’ sacrosanct hypocrisies. While cultivating the passionate, idealistic commitment of youth so that it remains vital even in middle age.


Alex Ralph began serving as the Corruption in Fragile States Blog editor in June 2021. In addition, he is a lecturer at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, where he teaches expository writing and courses on storytelling through public policy. When not editing or teaching, he is at work on a novel set in 1970s Detroit. His reporting on mental health and addiction service providers has appeared in the Cincinnati Enquirer and other outlets. He received his MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan and currently lives in Cincinnati, Ohio.


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