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When Your Project’s Success Gets a “So What?” in Response

By Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church

Understanding success isn’t easy at the best of times in complex environments. But when change is achieved but not acknowledged as such according to traditional sectoral standards, what does that mean? For several years I was involved in supporting an anti-corruption project in the criminal justice system (CJS) in Lubumbashi, DRC that used a “collective action” strategy to galvanize people working in or with the justice system — judges, court clerks, lawyers etc. — to fight corruption in the CJS. The project wrapped up at the end of 2017, at which time we commissioned an external review and documented our lessons learned.

The take-away of the review, which supported our monitoring evidence, was: the effort diminished the amount of corruption perpetrated by actors involved in the project. The effects were predominately related to fiscal transactions, e.g. extortion, but also included resisting political interference. The review found that towards the end of the project, people outside the project were identifying with its purpose, suggesting that momentum was building to move beyond individual occurrences of resistance to a collective shift.

This was a successful project — or was it?

Several weeks after wrapping up the project I had a conversation about these results with a rule-of-law/criminal justice donor. After listening to a description of the project’s strategy and results, they effectively said, “so what?” So what that some court clerks no longer ask for bribes to move a file forward? So what that the verdict in a criminal case cannot be bought? They wanted to know if there were more convictions or more arrests as a result of the project.

This individual works in an agency that is committed to changing criminal justice outcomes, so their orientation toward criminal justice metrics (e.g. conviction rates) is understandable. Putting aside that these suggested measures did not align with our program’s purpose — we could have eradicated corruption and seen no movement on convictions due to the inherent weaknesses in the CJS in DRC — the conversation did force me to reflect on what constitutes success, and on the divide between anti-corruption and sectoral thinking.

What is success?

If sectoral outcomes — such as those in justice, health, and peacebuilding — are not improved, is diminishing corruption within the sector sufficient to be deemed a success and thus worthy of programming and investment?

For an implementer/donor committed to justice outcomes, anti-corruption results might not fit in the typical box of sectoral outcomes. This could be because other agencies or government departments have anti-corruption outcomes in their framework, and anti-corruption is thus thought of as someone else’s territory. But what if corruption, if left unaddressed, will prevent the more direct sectoral work from being effective? This would mean that an agency can’t achieve their desired sectoral outcomes without tackling corruption. For instance, without dealing with favoritism (cronyism and nepotism) in hiring, it can be difficult to raise the standard of practice through capacity building efforts.

Another individual present in the conversation, who works on the CJS in the DRC, had a slightly different interpretation of the value of our work. He argued that the work we were doing with justice sector actors was very important for other CJS reform efforts, such as promoting community policing and creating an electronic database for criminal files. The utility of the database becomes exponentially greater if there are duty-bearers (e.g. court clerks, prosecutors) who operate according to the law and follow internal standard operating procedures. This individual was suggesting that professionals with integrity act as amplifiers and enablers for other, more “direct” criminal justice reform work.

Looking at this from the citizen perspective is also important. We know that systemic corruption – the kind present at every interaction between Lubumbashi citizens and the criminal justice sector – erodes citizens’ trust in these institutions and feeds the sense that justice is only available for the rich or well-connected. This sense in turn gives rise to mob justice and increased criminality, as there is no fear of sanction and thus no rule of law deterrent. (This is not unique to DRC; see the corruption systems analysis of Central African Republic and Uganda.)

The question becomes, if corruption has been uprooted but justice remains unserved, has anything been accomplished? I would argue that it has. Such a change would mean that the system is not rigged against parts of society, with some buying favorable outcomes while others cannot. It would mean that government services are not a commodity to be sold to enrich government officials. It would mean that no one is forced into sexual acts in order to save loved ones from pretrial detention, gain access to food or health care while in a correction facility, or change a judge’s mind regarding evidence at trial. The results would touch the myriad of citizens in contact with the justice sector but also the perception of the justice sector for a far larger audience.

The omission of corruption from sectoral thinking

The international community is organized predominately around sectors such as rule of law, health or justice. Each sector orients itself to a particular set of systems, institutions, practitioner skillsets, and needs within a society. But corruption is different. It exists within sectors, as there is no corruption risk without a service or power to be abused. Yet the work that is done in response — anti-corruption – has become a sector in itself.

Separating anti-corruption from sectoral engagements as though corruption is a stand-alone phenomenon grossly oversimplifies the problem and detaches it from its context, which in turn undermines programming effectiveness both for anti-corruption and the sector. Understanding the difference between a cash and a no cash bail – a common form of extortion in Northern Uganda — is not typically covered in a country-wide ”say no to corruption” campaign.

Over the years of developing a systems-based corruption analysis methodology, we experienced this divide time and time again in terms of physical locations of offices, responsible institutions, and conceptual frameworks for understanding problems. This story from CAR exemplifies the issue:

In the summer of 2017 I interviewed a senior UN official who had been working on justice and corrections reform for a number of years. He opened the conversation by stating that he was puzzled by why we wanted to speak to him. He explained that he was in charge of justice and corrections reform and therefore was not knowledgeable about corruption. I replied that we were seeking to understand the system of corruption within the courts and corrections. To which he replied that I should go speak to an anti-corruption advisor, and he thought that UNDP might have one.

We experienced the essence of this exchange in other field contexts as well as with donors in Kampala, Washington D.C., and London.

To me the question to ask now is not how these conceptual silos came about, but rather how are they maintained in the face of the systemic and pervasive corruption we see in fragile states?

Redefining success

In thinking back to the discussion about our results and the “so what?” response it solicited (with the benefit of time and writing this blog), I wish I had said a number of things. I wish I had argued more decisively that we need to see anti-corruption related results as an important sectoral outcome. Diminished bribes required to move court files through the justice system should be seen as a key justice outcome, even if not a final one. This outcome would be, not one that satisfies us, but rather one that we acknowledge is vital to achieving more direct justice-related outcomes.


About the Article

Silo image adapted from


About the Author

Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church is Principal at Besa: Catalyzing Strategic Change, a social enterprise committed to catalysing significant change on strategic issues in places experiencing conflict and structural or overt physical violence. She has significant experience working on anti-corruption and state legitimacy in the DRC and Uganda. As a Professor of Practice, she teaches and consults on program design, monitoring, evaluation and learning. Cheyanne is also the Corruption in Fragile States blog series editor.


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