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Spoilt for Choice: Best of 2023

By Catherine Garson, Blog Editor, CJL Program


I proudly took over the reins as the Corruption in Fragile States blog editor in October 2023. While I bring over 20 years’ experience as an editorial consultant in the development space, this is my first formal role as a blog editor. The period of orientation was an interface with excellence: the people, the organization, and my professional raison d’être—content.

 

During my orientation, I surveyed the impressive catalogue of 135 blogs! My criteria for the best five of 2023 are somewhat selfish: they taught me something about the field, they span CJL’s focus areas, and they include a mix of CJL and guest authors.

 

Each blog is refreshingly different, reflecting the individual thinking and voice of the author. Apart from the broad theme of anti-corruption, they share an important common feature: in each, there is at least one challenging idea for the AC practitioner and lay reader alike. And each is an example of clear and coherent writing—the gold standard, in my opinion.

 


1. Eight assumptions that should never appear in a FCAS logframe

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

 

On the face of it, this blog appeals to a niche audience and is technical in nature – ‘logframe’ being the giveaway. But the eight assumptions could be interesting to a much wider audience. Assumption 3 (‘Everyone understands corruption in the same way’) and Assumption 8 (‘Violence doesn’t impact people’s decision-making process related to corrupt acts’) certainly challenged my thinking. And the explanatory text for each assumption is so clear, that I came away feeling that I had learned a lot. Only after reading this blog and including it in the list, did I learn that it received the highest number of hits of all blogs in 2023. So that’s an extra reason to include it.

 

The authors offers a direct and very practical conclusion:

‘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.’


 

2. Tired language and ineffective reforms

By Michael Johnston, Colgate University (Emeritus)


Any piece with language as a focus is going to get my attention. And we are bombarded with tired language wherever we look. Its effects at best are numbing, but as this blog argues, they can be more insidious. After asking why we would focus on words when there is such a high-stakes battle to fight, the author (implicating himself as well) says that:

 

‘One answer has to do with the ways stale language—notably, our tendency to use words frequently because they are frequently used—can reflect stagnant concepts and thinking.But if our thinking is not evolving, and if we are not out to disrupt the governance status quo (rather than to redeem it while remaining embedded within it), in what ways do we imagine we are fighting corruption?’

 

The author chooses eight terms and invites us to really think about what we mean when we use them. ‘Stakeholders’ and ‘Level Playing Field' are two examples.

 

Stale usage reflects stale thinking, which may equal ineffective reforms. Aside from this warning to practitioners and researchers in the AC field, we should all be mindful of the relationship between language and thought.


"Stale language—notably, our tendency to use words frequently because they are frequently used—can reflect stagnant concepts and thinking."

3. Hot states and empathy gaps: how anti-corruption programs can target our irrational sides

By Claudia Baez-Camargo, Head of Public Governance, Basel Institute


This blog appealed because it talks about human behavior, so much of which is really deeply irrational. A key concept is what behavioral scientists refer to as the ‘empathy gap’:

‘The mismatch between how we rationally think we will behave when confronted with a particular situation (or challenge) and how we actually behave when that situation (or challenge) actually comes about.’

 

The author suggests that while we may have a clear conceptual understanding of what constitutes corrupt behavior, when we are confronted with a ‘hot state’ situation, the outcome may be very different. These ideas are further illustrated through the author’s research (‘Lessons from a Tanzanian hospital’). The case study is vivid and reads like a story, which humans are wired to enjoy.

 

Summarizing the research, Claudia says: ‘The key is to understand how people involved in acts of corruption are affected by their social environment and, on the basis of that, develop effective approaches to communicate and engage with them.’


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4. In plain sight: questioning assumptions in anti-corruption programming for law enforcement

By Riccardo D’Emidio, Sussex Center for the Study of Corruption, University of Sussex


In my 20-year career as an editor, some of the content I have worked with has alluded to corruption and its social and economic costs, yet I had never dealt with it head-on as a theme. Coming from South Africa, and witnessing the country experiencing the fallout from its ‘state capture’ chapter, I thought I knew a whole lot. But after speaking to Cheyanne, and reading the blogs and CJL publications, I realized I was making many assumptions. My understanding was actually superficial and quite moralistic. Reading CJL’s social norms guide was an eye opener and immediately helped to refine my perspective.


I was drawn to this blog because it has an African focus (the Ghana Police Service) and because law enforcement has been a charged and contentious issue in South Africa.

 

Riccardo focuses particularly on ‘the injunctive norm of “predatory authority,” namely the notion that if you are in a position of authority you are entitled to accumulate resources (public or private) [which] emerged as one of the norms holding the strongest normative influence.’


"Apart from the broad theme of anti-corruption, the five blogs share an important common feature: in each, there is at least one challenging idea for the AC practitioner and lay reader alike."

5.  Polygamous relationships: how conflict and peacebuilding fuel corruption

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


This blog offers a wealth of ideas. It has a ‘just when you thought …’ element. Indeed, just when I thought I was coming to grips with how ‘[c]onflict empowers the pursuit of illicit wealth and power’, the second part of the blog really made me think. 

 

‘Yet a significant amount of the academic literature focuses on how the international response to the conflict may make corruption worse. Let that sink in for a minute… peacebuilding interventions are an important part of the conflict-corruption system.’

 

The authors’ list of five ways that peacebuilding assistance can promulgate illicit wealth and power is a sobering one. The first two are powerful teasers for the rest:

 

1.     'Pursuit of “liberal peace” exacerbates incentives and opportunities for obtaining illicit wealth and power.

2.     International actors involved in peacebuilding and peacekeeping act as perpetrators.'

 

The idea did have to sink in, because it is so counterintuitive.

 

This element of ‘shaking one up’ a bit is a feature of all these selected blogs. Nothing tired or stale about them! 



 


Catherine Garson is an editorial consultant, advanced writing mentor, and communication coach. In all the services she offers, she helps people express themselves and their ideas with clarity and precision. She works with individuals and groups from organizations in the public and private sectors, and academia. Her list of top-notch clients includes international development organizations, think tanks, research institutes, and universities. In a career spanning over thirty years, she has acquired her high-level skills as a communication and language specialist through teaching and tutoring, writing and editing, and translating. Based in Madrid, she speaks Spanish and French. She also spends time in South Africa, her home country.

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