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Does Anti-Corruption Do No Harm?

By Lara Olson, Conflict Sensitivity in Anti-Corruption Initiative, CJL

What if well-intentioned efforts to fight corruption in conflict-affected societies in fact make the conflict worse? Yes, we know that corruption worsens conflict and that ignoring corruption in conflict settings has serious negative effects in the long term—both rich fields of inquiry about which much is written. But what if the ways we try to address corruption, both direct and indirect, also risk exacerbating tensions and violence?

Anti-corruption (AC) efforts are commonly undertaken in fragile and conflict-affected state contexts that experience heightened intergroup tensions, political violence and even war, and where conflict dynamics are often deeply intertwined with abuses of power.

As a peacebuilding researcher and evaluator leading a learning initiative at CJL on this theme—and one of my main focal points is to grasp what the “harms” actually are so that both practitioners and policymakers can avoid or mitigate them—what strikes me is the seeming absence of explicit references to considering “negative impacts on conflict.” This is true both in the literature reviewed (evaluations and reports) but also in what some AC and conflict experts report through a dozen interviews to date. Those conversations also showed little evidence that AC programs engage in the many processes for “conflict sensitivity” (CS) in aid more broadly—for me at least, this disconnect was quite surprising.

"With a conflict sensitive approach, and flexibility and context-responsiveness in 'how' AC programs are implemented, there are always options to do good work while doing no harm."

Understanding patterns of inadvertent negative impacts on conflict has been critical for more effective aid practice in conflict settings and could help anti-corruption efforts too. However, the field lacks basic information about if and how anti-corruption efforts inadvertently exacerbate conflict, even if they are achieving their direct goals. We need to gather experience and to find the patterns. Once we know these patterns, then specific approaches to conflict analysis and program adaptation can make a difference.

Conflict analyses are already done in (some) anti-corruption efforts, and we need to better comprehend whether existing approaches are “fit” for this purpose. Also, many interviewed saw a major gap between the conflict analysis that does get done and the program design in AC efforts. The repeated references to this gap conjured up for me an image of an AC Bermuda Triangle: Conflict analysis goes in, but the same old programs from the anti-corruption toolkit come out. We need to understand what “harms” are happening and what to do about it. Beyond a responsibility to do no harm, the payoffs for more effective AC work in conflict areas could be huge.

What is Conflict Sensitivity and Why Does It Matter for AC

The Conflict Sensitivity in Anti-Corruption learning initiative I lead at CJL set out to identify the concrete ways anti-corruption approaches may unintentionally exacerbate conflict and, since we don’t want to reinvent the wheel, whether the field is already using conflict sensitive aid practices. Many kinds of unintended negative consequences of anti-corruption efforts exist, including fixes that fail and those that backfire, but we are zooming narrowly in on “harms” that relate to making existing or latent conflicts worse.

We aim to develop better thinking and practice so those who fight corruption can still “do the good they aim to do” without inadvertently fueling conflict dynamics as a second- or third-order unintended result. Two decades of evidence and learning around conflict sensitivity have shown that the risk of aid exacerbating conflict applies to all interventions in conflict settings. There is no reason to believe that AC efforts are any different.

The learning about better aid in conflict over the last two decades revolves around two connected concepts:

Do No Harm (DNH) is the imperative for aid to avoid negative impacts (based on the Hippocratic Oath), and also the name of the first analytical framework that gained widespread uptake.

Conflict Sensitivity (CS) is a broader, more ambitious term that includes the goals of both minimizing negative impacts and maximizing positive impacts on conflict.

Both concepts rely on the same basic approach: to analyze the two-way interactions between the conflict context and aid programming to predict “harms” and design programs to avoid or mitigate these. There are many specific conflict sensitivity frameworks and systemic supports: dedicated conflict advisors and units within institutions, policy guidance through OECD DAC and other arenas, and donor-funded CS Hubs in certain countries as a collective resource—a “help desk” function for aid agencies. Conflict sensitivity approaches are now entrenched and widely held to be key to both ethical and effective aid practice in conflict settings.

The Unheeded Call to "Do No Harm"

Almost a decade ago, Michael Johnston and Jesper Johnson stated in their U4 Brief:

“Efforts to control corruption can do harm if they overwhelm a society’s capacity to absorb aid, if they are captured to damage rivals, or if they obstruct the peacebuilding process. Programmes and policies should aim to avoid such outcomes.”

This was a pioneering call for the responsibility for anti-corruption to avoid negative outcomes—and confirmation that negative impacts were happening. Johnston and Johnson’s survey of officials working on anti-corruption in fragile contexts found the majority saw anti-corruption efforts as causing “damaging stress in fragile societies” and as having both stabilizing and destabilizing effects.

What’s notable about what’s happened since this call was issued, at least to an outsider like me, is how little the field appears to have responded.

Experts on anti-corruption and conflict sensitivity who graciously shared their insights and concerns suggest some reasons.

  • On the question of negative impacts on conflict, one said this question is not even contemplated by decision makers—it’s the elephant in the room. A senior governance policy leader actually champions this perspective internally, but needed real world examples of how AC programming has unintended negative impacts on conflict to argue the relevance to skeptical colleagues.

  • Another lamented that sophisticated conflict analysis gets done, but in 20+ years, this policy expert “had never seen an anti-corruption program that has been shaped in significant ways by the analysis.

  • Another pointed to pedestrian reasons: the same boilerplate templates for anti-corruption get applied and people don’t have the time to think about CS. The everyday issues of “spending pressures” and “low staff capacity” mean that “people just copy the design from country A to B.”

  • Another suggested the concept of “do no harm”has often been applied in a self-protective way—as a duty to protect one’s “own funds” from corruption. The rise of zero tolerance policies for corruption is seen as an extension of this self-protective response—that neglects the impacts on the broader society.

In fact, AC tools and approaches appear to be seen as positive in any setting and most AC analysis frameworks reportedly don't distinguish between conflict and non-conflict settings. What these interviews make clear is that despite Johnston and Johnson’s call to “do no harm,” little real debate on this challenge ever took off within the AC field.

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Identifying Ways that AC Programs Inadvertently Do Harm

  1. Uneven distribution of material or political benefits (or penalties) from AC programs to one group or side in conflict reinforces pre-existing divisions in society by appearing to favour some groups over others.

  2. Weaponization or instrumentalization of AC strategies or tactics in the political struggle reinforces pre-existing divisions between groups. (While this happens across settings, in conflict contexts, it becomes a weapon in the conflict itself.)

  3. AC advocacy and programming reinforces divisive messaging that legitimates existing “enemy images” of the other side in the conflict that deepens societal divisions. Messaging that inadvertently demonizes one side of a conflict as “more corrupt” is especially common in contested areas where regular people and political leaders alike survive through illicit economies—this pattern among many identified in an excellent 2006 report by International Alert on corruption and conflict in the South Caucasus.

Do No Harm Does Not Mean Do Nothing!

As Johnston and Johnson noted back in 2014 (and giving conflict sensitivity practice its mantra!), “do no harm” does not mean “do nothing.”

Broadly, it’s about doing a type of analysis that reveals how, specifically, elements of the program interact with the conflict context, and may do harm, and then finding less harmful ways to go about the effort. Reportedly the AC field does conflict analysis, at least at the macro level, through political economy analysis (PEA) frameworks and other frameworks for thinking and working politically (TWP). But senior policy makers interviewed saw these as insufficient and “not at the practical programming level.”

In terms of how to address these issues, there is a need for much deeper thought as concrete suggestions are not easy and are always going to be context specific. Cheng, Goodhand, and Meehan, for example, suggest acknowledging short- and long-term tradeoffs for peace and stability and thinking about how to build a foothold for anti-corruption from an early stage in a peace process, opening space to do something later.

"Like all aid efforts which bring resources into a setting, anti-corruption programs will inevitably interact with the dynamics of the conflict, whether they intend to or not. Given the high stakes of destabilizing a fragile internal political balance, understanding how to “do no harm” is critical for anti-corruption efforts."

Conflict sensitivity approaches in development were iteratively crafted through a critical examination of experience offered by aid agencies themselves. So, we have some work to do as a community.

First, there is in fact not much evidence about the harms; there is some anecdotal evidence, and some concerns voiced among policy makers and practitioners. We need to collect more.

Second, the conflict analysis approaches currently in use in AC related programming do not appear sufficient for conflict sensitivity. These approaches focus on being effective at AC (and may entail understanding how to be effective in a conflict context), but they're not about the impacts on conflict dynamics. We need to figure out approaches that are fit for purpose.

Third, we need to figure out what to do about inadvertent negative impacts on conflict while still fighting corruption—and this is not easy. Here we can benefit from the many insights from CS practice in general that may not be applied yet—and also try to support more linkage between these communities of practice.

Doing these three things will inherently support more effective AC in conflict settings. And, after all, doing nothing is not the answer. With a conflict sensitive approach, and flexibility and context-responsiveness in “how” AC programs are implemented, there are always options to do good work while doing no harm.


Dr. Lara Olson currently leads the Conflict Sensitivity in Anti-Corruption learning initiative at CJL, the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Project. A developmental evaluator of peacebuilding programs since 2014, she has extensive experience in the Caucasus (and in general the former Soviet states) and the Western Balkans. Her research has focused on civil society peacebuilding, peace operations, civil military coordination in peace missions, and complex systems in peace and conflict research and practice -- co-directing a project on mission-wide coordination effectiveness in peace operations using systems approaches. While based in Cambridge, Massachusetts throughout the 1990s, Lara directed the original research phase of the Reflecting on Peace Practice project as well as worked with the Harvard Program on Negotiation, the Consensus Building Institute, and the Conflict Management Group on research and practical interventions to address ethnic conflicts in the post-Soviet states. She recently completed a mid-career doctorate in International Relations at Oxford, has an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and a B.A. in Political Science from UBC in her hometown of Vancouver. She is based in Calgary since 2004 with her family.


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