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Fast Forwarding to Systems Maps of Corruption: Getting to Usable Analysis More Quickly

By Peter Woodrow, Senior Advisor, CJL

artistic banner graphic of systems mapping

Several years ago, I conducted a workshop among local participants in a program aimed to combat corruption in the criminal justice system of Lubumbashi, Democratic Republic of the Congo. The first task of the group was to understand corruption better—as a system. Although it took three intense days, the local group came up with a comprehensive systems map, and then used it to identify places where they could intervene to create change.

Six months later I went back to engage the group in updating the map and to identify any changes that had occurred based on their anti-corruption efforts. While this experience was both eye-opening and satisfying, it required much time and effort on the part of local participants and two international trips by me. And, moreover, people found the systems mapping work difficult.

The Problem with Systems Mapping

In addition to direct work with local people, as in the DRC case, we have tried different approaches to developing systems maps, including intensive qualitative research processes, participatory mapping, and documents-based data gathering to build initial draft maps. We then typically seek validation and refinement from local colleagues.

Although many practitioners whom we train find systems thinking tools useful and even perspective-changing, they also often find these tools difficult and not always intuitive. Recent experiences applying systems tools in South Africa and the Philippines underlined this issue, as local partners and colleagues could not devote the time to do systems mapping and essentially turned to us to do it for them. These experiences pointed to a need to get to the benefits of a systems map more quickly.

"Corruption is clearly a systemic problem. You can change the people involved, even punish selected individuals, but the incentive structures, money flows and abuses of power and influence continue, often reinforced by social norms. Superficial solutions like training/awareness programs, changes in salaries, or passage of stricter laws usually have little effect—largely because they fail to address the underlying drivers of corrupt behaviors."

An Experiment in “Fast Forwarding”

Drawing upon our near-decade work on corruption, we recently decided to try an experiment: we would present “common patterns” of corruption as tentative models to adapt and add to—rather than try to teach people to do systems mapping from scratch. In this teaching experiment, each common pattern would function as a kind of “scaffolding” or framework that participants can build on to generate a cogent systems map as the basis for identifying possible points of intervention and subsequent program planning.

To start with, we identified four common patterns: bribery; diversion of public resources; patronage and inequality; and corruption in procurement. We derived models from previous examples in our work, simplified the maps to remove context-specific details (see the figure below for an example), and wrote generic narrative descriptions/explanations.

Common Pattern of Bribery

One of Peter Woodrow's CJL Common Patterns Systems Maps

Why Systems Thinking—Why Take All This Trouble?

For many years, CJL has experimented with systems thinking tools as a way to analyze corruption as a system. Our aim has been to address an analysis deficit in the anti-corruption field as a whole. As noted in this blog, anti-corruption practitioners tend to rely on well-worn solutions or apply approaches from a funding toolbox, many of which have proven ineffective. CJL instead advocates generating a deeper understanding of corruption dynamics and behaviors to support more effective approaches to change grounded in plausible theories of change. We have found that systems thinking—mainly causal loop mapping—is the best analytical approach to understanding corruption dynamics.

Corruption is clearly a systemic problem. You can change the people involved, even punish selected individuals, but the incentive structures, money flows and abuses of power and influence continue, often reinforced by social norms. Superficial solutions like training/awareness programs, changes in salaries, or passage of stricter laws usually have little effect—largely because they fail to address the underlying drivers of corrupt behaviors. CJL has used systems tools, primarily causal loop mapping, to develop more nuanced and profound understanding of the complex dynamics involved.

Using and Testing the Common Patterns

Since early 2022, two of us in CJL have been teaching an online anti-corruption course through the International Anti-Corruption Academy (IACA) with participants from all over the world. Noting that the issues with systems mapping have appeared in many other settings, we set out to conduct an experiment within the IACA course.

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Of course, in that course, we have emphasized analysis as a first step, including a focus on systems mapping. This has been challenging! Concepts that are difficult in person are even tougher online. During the first cohort (2022), participants were asked to generate their own maps, based on our lessons. The quality of their maps and resulting program ideas varied. While puzzling over how to increase the accessibility of systems concepts and tools to get to higher quality analyses more quickly, we came to recognize that we’re not aiming for students to become expert systems mappers. Instead, we’re aiming for them to use systems tools to analyze corruption in their situation—and as a first step towards promoting behavior change.

Therefore, for the 2023 IACA course, we presented the four common patterns in a paper and a PowerPoint lecture. Participants were asked to choose the one (or two) patterns that fit their situation—and then adapt it to their context, by changing the language of factors, adding factors or additional loops, etc. They could also combine loops in creative ways. Knowing that these four patterns do not cover all the possible manifestations of corruption, we provided individual coaching for those who did not immediately see a pattern that worked for their situation.

Most course participants found that one or more of the common patterns were relevant to their situation—and were able to adapt it easily. A few found it challenging, usually because they came at it with a preconceived notion of what the right “fix” was going to be. One student built his own map with a bit of coaching.

Based on this experience, I find that the common patterns do “fast forward” the systems mapping process. They provide a “scaffold” or framework to build on and adapt. I think of this process as similar to crafts work like papier mâché where you start with a wire frame and build on it. This seems to work—at least so far. We continue to wonder if students and other kinds of participants will lose something if they don’t create maps from scratch.

What’s Next?

The point of systems mapping of corruption is to provide a robust analytical base for effective programming. It’s too early to draw any conclusions from this initial experiment with our online students—and we will have to see if we can use this approach in other settings. Yes, the IACA participants have proved able to develop good maps—and we are interested to see if they will move from there to identify points of intervention (possible places on the “map” to promote behavior change), strong project objectives/goals, and plausible theories of change. A later blog will explore this as we learn more.


headshot of Peter Woodrow

Peter Woodrow is theoretically retired and serves as a Senior Advisor to the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy Program at Besa Global. He has been a leading thinker in the application of systems thinking concepts and tools to context analysis and program design in peacebuilding and anti-corruption. Woodrow was the Executive Director of CDA Collaborative Learning Projects from 2013 to 2017 and the Co-Director of CDA’s Reflecting on Peace Practice Program (RPP) from 2003 to 2013. He continues to provide consulting services in the peacebuilding arena. In 2018, with co-author Diana Chigas, Peter published Adding Up to Peace, the result of ten years of RPP research on how peacebuilding efforts create momentum towards peace. Prior to joining CDA, Peter was a Partner at the mediation organization CDR Associates in Boulder, Colorado. He is an experienced mediator, facilitator, and conflict resolution trainer. He holds a Masters in Public Administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, and a BA from Oberlin College.


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