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Eight assumptions that should never appear in a FCAS logframe

By Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church, Co-Director, CJL and Diana Chigas, Co-Director, CJL

Over the past decade what started as rumblings of discontent within the anti-corruption community has progressed into calls for a rethink of anti-corruption work. Not only have theorists attacked the core model underpinning much anti-corruption programming, but evidence summaries have unearthed more nulls than shining stars.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in fragile and conflict affected states. We need look no further than the international community’s engagement or lack thereof when it comes to corruption in Afghanistan to see that those tackling corruption need to do things differently. While there are several contributing variables, one fundamental issue is that the majority of programs, in our opinion, are grounded in contextual assumptions inappropriate for FCAS.

Why do assumptions matter?

When it comes to tackling corruption, fragile and conflict-affected contexts are fundamentally different from stable developmental or Western democratic environments. However most anti-corruption programming is based on assumptions about governance and the functioning of the state from stable or Western democratic environments, despite being implemented in FCAS.

A general example of a logframe, source: Barreto (2010)
A general example of a logframe, source: Barreto (2010)

The problem is that agencies rarely take the time to surface their assumptions, let alone gain the deep contextual understanding needed to test their appropriateness. As a result, program designers tend to engage with the issue of assumptions only when faced with the dreaded final column of the logical framework where they identify the conditions necessary for the project’s success (and that are largely beyond the project’s control). The result, usually put together hastily, often reflects implicit beliefs appropriate for stable Western democratic institutional structures but which are largely ignorant of the characteristics of fragile and conflict states.

And as projects are funded by donors who typically possess the same worldview, these assumptions go unchallenged. If we want to avoid repeating the familiar story of anti-corruption programs not effecting the change we desire, we need to talk about assumptions long before we fill in the logframe.

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What’s in an assumption?

From my (Cheyanne) time as Director of Evaluation at Search for Common Ground or the 15 years I spent teaching program design, including monitoring and evaluation in FCAS, at the Fletcher School, I have found it useful to distinguish between two types of assumptions.

Causal assumptions explain our beliefs–sometimes based on evidence–about what will catalyze a change.

Contextual assumptions are the conditions in the environment that need to exist for our theory of change to be plausible.

Think of contextual assumptions as the foundations of a house; when the foundation is unsound, the entire building’s integrity is harmed. The inappropriate contextual assumptions used in much anti-corruption work in FCAS produce the equivalent of an unsound foundation.

While we would love to provide a definitive list of the contextual assumptions that apply across all FCAS, this would be foolhardy. Each place makes the accuracy of the assumption different, rendering such a list inappropriate in its own way. What we can offer, though, is a list of assumptions that should never be used in FCAS.

Eight ‘Never to be used in FCAS’ Assumptions

1. The existence of anti-corruption laws or institutions signifies political will to reform.

Development partners commonly advocate for new laws (e.g., anti-bribery), participation in international agreements (e.g., ratifying UNCAC, participating in EITI) or the standing up of new institutions (e.g., anti-corruption commissions). When governments adopt these formal policies or institutional reforms, it is often hailed as a commitment to or signal of the political will to fight corruption. This ignores, however, the crucial distinction between acts and implementation. Adopting ‘best practice’ institutional reforms may have little to no bearing on the intention to implement, something Pritchett calls “isomorphic mimicry.” These should not be seen as proxies for political will.

2. All actors—domestic or international—share a common goal.

Priorities differ among multilateral agencies, donors, diplomats, the military, businesses, and NGOs, as well as between those focused on peacekeeping, peacebuilding, human rights, corruption, economic recovery, security, etc. The same holds true for domestic actors where religious groups, local business, civil society, influencers and the varying levels of government can have differing agendas. Assuming that the international community is aligned in their agenda or have a common view of the impact of corruption on that agenda sets one up for potential failure. Equally, we should be wary of assuming that national actors are all on the same page or that they share the same vision of success as the international community.

3. Everyone understands corruption in the same way.

There are clear acts of corruption, but there are equally as many acts that exist in the gray area. What is considered an abuse of entrusted power for private gain can differ between an international donor, a national government agency, the police and citizens. And in places of conflict and high fragility—where norms change quickly—it can also depend on who benefits from the actions with interpretations significantly influenced if it is ‘my’ side or ‘theirs’ abusing the power. Finally, cultural interpretations can influence what gets labelled corrupt. For instance, our work has found that while sextortion is viewed as wrong in the DRC, in Uganda it isn't seen as a corrupt act.

4. Decisions are taken by formal actors based on formal rules and processes.

Governance in FCAS regularly combines formal and informal elements. Traditional processes, informal social, economic, and political networks, to say nothing of informal influences such as social norms, can render how decisions are made and by whom opaque to those outside the system. These informal elements tend to operate in parallel, and sometimes in contradiction, to official rules and policies. In FCAS, the importance of informal expectations, especially social norms, is heightened due to the need for security and protection, as well as greater in-group cohesion and policing.

Further diluting the primacy of the official rules and processes is that political governance in FCAS is often transactional, which gives undue power to informal actors. Governance is not based on formal institutional mandates or responsibilities but on relationships and deals between powerful elites. Many of these elites, moreover, don’t hold official positions and prefer to operate in the shadows where they can mobilize their constituents to violence based on patronage or group loyalty to achieve their political ends.

5. State institutions or civil society are benevolent.

In FCAS, benevolence should not be assumed. Government entities, civic institutions (e.g., religious groups) and even civil society regularly operate against the public interest, advancing their own personal or group interests—whether financial, political, or ideological. Anti-corruption, for instance, can be instrumentalized to the benefit of one’s own side—think of false accusations of corruption made against political opponents. It is also common for informal, often illicit, parallel economic activities to emerge in conflict, as parties seek to control resources to sustain or enhance their power. These illicit activities become embedded in the economy and continue to flourish in the post-conflict environment. Due to the power and influence of those running illicit activities, state structures can develop a “symbiotic relationship with criminal structures” as Belloni & Strazzari have found in their research on Bosnia and Kosovo.

Add conflict to the mix and we can no longer assume that any governmental or nongovernmental entity is inherently neutral or committed to looking out for the whole of society, as even the idea of what is good for the whole of society remains contested when a social contract has not yet been forged. Divisions caused by conflict tend to harden between identity groups—whether political, ethnic, religious, ideological, or clan-based. These divisions can influence how corruption and anti-corruption (as well as peacebuilding and recovery) are understood, prioritized and engaged with. Corruption and anti-corruption become politicized, both fuelling grievances as well as providing a weapon in the struggle for power.

"Working in FCAS requires those tackling corruption to identify and unpack their contextual assumptions to ensure that the foundation of their policies and programs are fit to purpose."
6. Institutional weakness is due to lack of capacity.

A hallmark of FCAS are state structures that are unable to carry out core governance functions. These weak institutions struggle to provide security as well as basic services to their citizens, including health, education, administration of justice and rule of law. While insufficient technical capacity may contribute to this phenomenon, it can also be a purposeful elite strategy to maintain control and serve their interests.

7. Outside assistance is separate from the context.

When an international actor enters into a fragile or conflict affected state, especially with resources, they become an actor in that context which has intended and unintended ramifications on the system. International actors also have their own views and self-serving agendas that they pursue locally. Local actors respond, trying also to shape international agendas and actions. Moreover, many operational aspects of international assistance can have unintentional impacts on conflict divisions, such as when it inadvertently channels more resources to one side of the conflict thus fuelling grievances. International assistance becomes part of the context shaping the agendas of the actors and the dynamics of conflict and fragility. When unpacking the conflict, we cannot remove ourselves and the impact we have from the equation.

Drawing of trauma and stress response systems in the brain

8. Violence doesn’t impact people’s decision-making process related to corrupt acts.

Violence tends to be concentrated in fragile contexts, creating widespread insecurity for citizens, even if a peace agreement has been concluded. For those living in these contexts, trauma and violence is the norm, not the exception. And trauma has neurological impacts that can change brain function including decision-making, to say nothing of the powerful influence of fear generated by living with real and perceived threats. Anti-corruption programming must account for these realities rather than rely on a rational actor cost-benefits model.

Working in FCAS requires those tackling corruption to identify and unpack their contextual assumptions to ensure that the foundation of their policies and programs are fit to purpose. If we want our work to be effective, we can’t assume away the realities of where we work. Instead, we need to directly address these assumptions in our programming or find an explicit strategy to work around them.


Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church is a scholar-practitioner with a lifelong interest in governance processes that have run amuck. She has significant experience working on peacebuilding, governance, accountability and learning across the Balkans and West and East Africa. For fifteen years, Cheyanne taught program design, monitoring and evaluation in fragile contexts at the Fletcher School. Prior to that she was the Director of Evaluation for Search for Common Ground and Director of Policy at INCORE. She has had the privilege of working in an advisory capacity with a range of organizations such as ABA/ROLI, CDA, ICRC, IDRC, UN Peacebuilding Fund and the US State Department. She currently serves as the Executive Director of Besa Global, CJL’s host institution. She can be commonly found in the Canadian Rockies with her fierce daughters and gem of a husband.


Diana is a Co-Director at The Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Program. She is the Senior International Officer and Associate Provost at Tufts University and a Professor of the Practice of International Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She has worked with governmental and non-governmental organizations on systemic conflict analysis, and strategic planning, reflection and evaluation to improve the impact of peace programming.

Diana has over 25 years of experience as a facilitator and consultant in negotiation and conflict resolution, as well as an advisor and evaluator of social change programming in conflict-affected countries, including in the Balkans, East Africa, South Africa, El Salvador, and Cyprus, as well as with organizations such as the OSCE and the United Nations. Diana has received her JD from Harvard Law School and MALD from the Fletcher School at Tufts University.


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