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What Can We Learn About Corruption in Fragile States?

This post discusses why “what can we learn about corruption in fragile states?” is a central question for The Central Africa Accountable Service Delivery Initiative, and first steps taken to investigate it.

The Central Africa Accountable Service Delivery Initiative (CAASDI) was initiated due to concerns that anti-corruption efforts by foreign assistance actors were not achieving their desired effects. Funded by the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau (INL) of the US State Department, CDA Collaborative Learning Projects and Besa began work on CAASDI in September 2012, with the aim of developing a diagnostic process to understand corruption dynamics in the criminal justice sector (police, courts, corrections) that will help generate more effective programming in conflict and fragile affected states.

A diagnostic process to understanding corruption dynamics

In order to analyse corruption dynamics differently, the first step was to develop a pilot diagnostic process. Initially designed in early 2014, it drew on a variety of disciplines including political economy analysis, human systems dynamics, social norms research, negotiation theory, collective action best practice and traditional anti-corruption work namely principal-agent approaches. The theory being that we needed to look beyond traditional areas in order to gain new insights.

The analysis stage of the diagnostic process drew on adaptive systems research to help develop a way of understanding the realities of corruption. The logic behind this approach is that: any system, for example your digestive system, involves a cycle of cause and effect which catalyses action and reaction.

When analyzing how to change any system, particularly a complex one like corruption, focusing on ‘fixing’ specific parts/outcomes in the system will not work. Understanding the relationships and interconnectedness of the entire system was integral to the diagnostic process because it feeds useful thinking about why the system works.

The diagnostic process made the system of corruption more explicit, aiding project design by highlighting gaps and possible ‘entry points’ into the corruption system that served as a starting point for effective program design.

The diagnostic process was initially used to guide research in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). As of the end of the initial research in early 2015, several key lessons were identified that have continued to remain relevant.

1. Usefulness of available documentation

Though significant documentation on corruption and/or conflict may be available, CAASDI discovered that this rarely offers useful information for a systems-centric corruption analysis either in focus, coverage or depth. Thus, key questions for the diagnostic process included:

  • Given the quantity of things one could learn about corruption in the criminal justice sector, where are the boundaries between must know, good to know and just interesting in order to develop more effective programming?

  • How does one balance the level of detail and nuance (particularly when it comes to power analysis) needed to understand how corruption embeds within a service delivery mechanism with the amount of resources ($, skills, time) agencies generally have to conduct analysis?

2. Changing the key focus

The coalition building literature suggests a successful coalition must be built upon existing momentum in a society; we coined this outrage. However, we quickly learned that the way the word ‘outrage’ translated into Congolese French was not immediately accessible to people in the cities of Kinshasa or Lubumbashi. More importantly, even with appropriate translations and variations of the term/concept the team was not able to find the equivalent of ‘outrage’ with respect to corruption in the criminal justice sector. Eventually concluding that outrage against corruption did not exist, thus making the idea of mobilizing existing energy in some form of collective action defunct.

As a result, a key focus of our initial diagnostic process has been thrown out and has since been re-formulated in the second edition of the diagnostic process in our sister project in Uganda (details forthcoming in a future post!).

3. The role of donor behavior

Though not a new lesson, the role of donor behavior in a corruption system was reinforced. Despite explicit statements about the primacy of fighting corruption with foreign aid, in many instances an anti-corruption agenda is not in the international donor community’s interest. Thus, analysis of the dynamics of corruption in fragile states does not often benefit from a sufficient level of nuance and reflection. This is exemplified through the repetition of obviously flawed programming that in theory is meant to advance an anti-corruption agenda. This knowledge prompts us to ask:

In order to create an effective program that seeks to impede corruption, do the actions of the supporting donor or all international donors in relation to complacency on corruption need to be taken into account? If so, how?

By Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church and Kiely Barnard-Webster


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