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Zero Tolerance for “Zero Tolerance”

By Michael Johnston, Colgate University (Emeritus)

One of the few constants in the rapidly changing world of corruption control is that political leaders searching for attention-getting issues, under pressure in the wake of scandals or pressed into service as keynoters for anti-corruption conferences, will gravely call for “zero-tolerance” policies regarding corruption. In September, the Sultanate of Oman announced zero tolerance for corruption. In October, Indian Prime Minister Modi declared, you guessed it, zero tolerance for corruption. Go back a few years and you’ll see these zero tolerance pronouncements from leaders in China, Uganda, Bangladesh, and the Maldives. And it’s not just the politicians: similar calls to “tackle” or “stamp out” corruption in the public or private sectors, via zero-tolerance initiatives, come from corporations and the commentariat.

Experienced reformers, scholars, and program officers rarely indulge in such fantasies, nor do they take it very seriously when others do. Precedent suggests that zero-tolerance statements are made mostly for their public-relations value—there is, after all, little to gain by announcing that henceforth a government will tolerate “just a little” corruption. These statements can be useful distractions from officials’ other troubles, or cover for malign intentions including persecution of political opponents. Perhaps most often, zero-tolerance stances tell us that a speaker has given corruption and reform little careful thought.

Thomas Nast, "Who Stole the People's Money," Harper's Weekly

But zero tolerance proclamations are far from harmless. They can divert critical political support and other resources from lower-profile efforts that have more promise. They raise expectations that cannot be met, fostering—when they fail—a sense that corruption is inevitable and cannot be checked; or they encourage us to look for quick-fix remedies. Worst of all, they portray corruption control primarily as a problem of summoning sufficient political will—such was Modi’s view—encouraging us to look for ever-more-willful leaders or justifying strong-arm tactics already in place. That one-man-show approach to reform ignores complex questions having to do with incentives, constraints, expectations, and may only add to political dysfunction.

From a reform standpoint there are still more problems. Much corruption, particularly in developing societies, originates elsewhere, in broader regions, or in processes global in scale. There may be little clear indication of which types or occurrences are most important, or as to what and where to attack first. As precise measurement of something that is clandestine and ill-defined is difficult (to say the least), how can we assess the effects of any control? Or whether there are any effects at all?

What Zero-Tolerance Policies Ignore

There is another family of questions and problems that zero tolerance arguments do not recognize, much less address.

First: particularly in struggling societies corruption control imposes significant systemic stress. A major anti-corruption push can compete for attention and resources with other urgent problems such as internal violence, severe poverty, famine, or the current pandemic. That corruption may be exacerbated by those crises, and that less of it might aid progress on those fronts, may well be true, but as a practical matter too many claims upon scarce resources and weak institutions may only worsen matters. The stress involved in producing sustained reductions in corruption must be factored into any projected scenario for change. At the same time, however, stress cannot become a justification for deferring reform confrontations indefinitely, or for strategies and tactics that primarily protect reform organizations themselves.

Second: let us assume that an anti-corruption push, assessed by one yardstick or another, does make significant initial progress. Even then we haven’t “fixed” the problem, for hot spots will remain and new ones will emerge. A 2018 survey of three hundred respondents in the Europe-Caucasus-Asia region, for example, suggests that even in Estonia and Georgia—widely regarded as mounting two of the most effective reform efforts over the past generation—municipal and local functions, state-owned enterprises, and (in Georgia) national governmental institutions, law enforcement, courts, and prosecution services still exhibit at least moderate corruption.

Too much should not be made of one survey with a limited sample size, but it seems likely that corruption control in both countries remains a work in progress. Meanwhile, corrupt figures will likely find new sources of profit and better ways to cover their tracks. Alternatively, better controls, more transparency, and greater public trust may only elicit more reports and more evidence, possibly contributing to a mistaken impression of a rising tide of official misconduct. It can be hard to say whether an apparent trend represents changes in corruption, or just changes in how much of it comes to light. Even the most earnest zero-tolerance pledges will still require reformers to adapt as the problem moves into new phases.

Valuing the “Halfway,” or What We Should Do

Proclaimed commitments to reform seem likely to be most credible if they are backed up with results. Specific, demonstrable improvements in the quality of government can engage citizens’ own interests in a better quality of life.

Thus, rather than launching a broadside against all forms of corruption at all levels, we should focus selectively on government functions and services citizens receive. Corruption in health services, policing, education, taxation, or public utilities matters to people and families, and demonstrable improvements in those areas (assessed using what some have termed de facto indicators) can show the effects (or lack of them) of anti-corruption activities and earn credibility for anti-corruption efforts. Compiling and benchmarking indicators of government performance—and then, publishing results on a regular basis—can be essential, and (despite the fact that agency heads will often resist such ideas at the outset) need not be disruptive or expensive. Indeed, evidence of sustained improvements in performance can be used to give recognition and other positive incentives to successful program managers and political leaders.

That will all be aided considerably if we recognize the value of “halfway” situations— those in which significant corruption and other problems may well remain, but demonstrable progress is also being made. “Halfway” results—in a way, the opposite of zero tolerance—do not mean we have won the battle, but they are evidence that corruption is being taken seriously. Such situations can also lead to political settlements, “useful stalemates,” and good-enough reforms that embody improvements in government acceptable to a wide range of interests.

“Rather than launching a broadside against all forms of corruption at all levels, we should focus selectively on government functions and services citizens receive.”

How can we know that such improvements flow from corruption controls, not other changes? In some respects that may not greatly matter: government that is doing a better job of responding to the needs of its citizens in sustained ways is a good thing in itself, and is essential if we are to build broad support for reform. Moreover, improved performance may well signal progress against corruption itself: an agency that had been paying inflated prices for concrete and petrol but reduces those prices toward more sensible levels, or a government that has cut the time and number of steps necessary to get a typical license or building permit, is likely reducing the scope for corruption in such routine processes.

And from the standpoint of building political and donor support for continued reform, demonstrating the sources of progress can be essential. Valid and reliable indicators of progress, together with strong, detailed, clearly-articulated theories of change—showing not only that reforms have been effective, but also why they have been effective, and why we have reason to think that reforms and resources will pay benefits in the future—will be far preferable to proclaimed intentions to fight all corruption problems at once by sheer declarations of will.

These scenarios of reform do not offer the drama of campaigns for national redemption, but depend rather upon more modest improvements produced, and supported, from the ground up. In this vision, international aid and reform groups work to produce better government with rather than for the populations of struggling societies, and they do so with substantial input from citizens about their problems and needs—followed by clear-cut responses to such ideas—not as points from high-level “action plans.” To the extent that they can be managed, expectations will be critical: they should be positive in sustained ways but, at the same time, be moderated by honest, candid leadership.

“For reform to be sustained and to have a chance to succeed, citizens, activists, leaders, and international partners must resist the temptation to seek immediate once-and-for-all solutions, and instead will all have to prepare for a lengthy struggle—one that may involve major reverses and aim at results for which it may be difficult to claim credit."

In the end, the biggest problem with zero tolerance is that it is impossible. We know of no society that has ever been totally corruption-free, even in the short run. Indeed, we do not even have a settled definition of corruption, and thus no clear conception of what it is we refuse to tolerate. Corruption is largely clandestine, occurring in rapidly-changing forms and often evolving faster than our ability to spot the problem—much less, to eradicate it. Most important of all, it is not a singular discrete problem that can be isolated and “fixed,” however determined we may be: instead, it is embedded in social structures, the economy, the political system, systems of belief and expectations and, at times, within the very institutions that supposedly will help us stamp it out.

For reform to be sustained and to have a chance to succeed, citizens, activists, leaders, and international partners must resist the temptation to seek immediate once-and-for-all solutions, and instead will all have to prepare for a lengthy struggle—one that may involve major reverses and aim at results for which it may be difficult to claim credit. That approach, however, may be the best way to link corruption control to citizens’ lasting interests in justice and a better quality of life.


Michael Johnston (Ph. D. Yale University, 1977) is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Colgate University. From January 2017 through May 2019, he was a Distinguished Professor at the International Anti-Corruption Academy in Laxenburg, Austria. His most recent book, The Conundrum of Corruption: Reform for Social Justice (co-author Scott A. Fritzen), was published by Routledge in December, 2020. Transitions to Good Governance (Edward Elgar; co-edited with Alina Mungiu-Pippidi) appeared in 2017. Syndromes of Corruption: Wealth, Power, and Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 2005) won the 2009 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order, presented by the University of Louisville. He has served as a consultant to numerous international organizations, and between 2009 and 2014 was involved in long-term reform efforts in the Philippines. In recent years he has prepared a review of issues in measuring corruption and governance for the World Bank, developed an analysis of connections between corruption and political instability for a US Government agency, and presented a lecture and chaired a panel discussion at the OECD in Paris. In 2016 he was a member of a team organized by the University of Southern California that conducted a mid-term evaluation of the Open Government Partnership. Current projects include helping develop typologies of corruption risks for the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency of the World Bank. He lives in suburban Austin, Texas, with his wife, Betsy, who will likely re-introduce cats to the household within the coming year. How long they will let us continue to live in their house remains to be seen.


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