Anti-corruption in fragile states: A need for better theory and practice.

earthquakeJesper Johnsøn examines the role of organisational factors in the success of anti-corruption strategies.

Fragile states are often caught in a vicious circle of conflict, poverty and poor politics. These countries are not only poor, but are often left with deep societal scars, dysfunctional institutions, political rivalry, and low levels of trust after periods of conflict and violence. Hard-earned progress can easily be reversed if fighting breaks out again. Aid agencies, particularly the multilateral ones, have taken a lead role in support efforts to fragile states, but always as part of a broader international community including military and peacekeeping forces. This international community has often followed a “state-building first, anti-corruption second” logic, kicking the anti-corruption can down the road. Many military actors side-lined the issue altogether.

Today, the poor record of international engagement has led to a general rethink of the way in which international actors engage in fragile states.

2011 was a pivotal year, with the creating of the New Deal for Engagement in Fragile States and the publication of the World Development Report 2011 on conflict, security and development. The message was clear: both theory and practice had to be changed when working in fragile states, business-as-usual was not an option. Today, all aid agencies acknowledge at the strategy level that corruption is detrimental to the future stability and progress of fragile states. The UN’s new Sustainable Development Goal number 16 on “Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions” builds on the same logic, seeking to reduce both violence and corruption in society by building inclusive and just institutions. However, a closer look beyond the formal declarations quickly reveals that agencies have weak strategies for how to curb corruption in these contexts, and that, even where a roadmap is provided, it is often not followed in practice at the country level.

Strategies for how to curb corruption in fragile states have to go beyond slogans such as “zero tolerance for corruption” and truly approach the corruption problem differently in fragile states. The traditional anti-corruption strategies for developing countries were oriented towards promoting economic development and good governance. In fragile states, the primary aim is first to reduce external and internal factor that can cause a relapse back into conflict and build legitimate and resilient institutions. This means that the traditional policy frameworks, such as the United Nations Convention Against Corruption, cannot be uncritically copied from one context to another.

Aid agencies recognise that corruption corrodes stability, as it undermines the social contract, prevents effective delivery of basic services, and feeds violence, and they know they have to change the way they work in fragile contexts. However, what qualifies as a stabilising anti-corruption reform? Aid agencies have recognised that corruption matters for fragility, but have not formulated whether or how anti-corruption matters for stability.

My review of the anti-corruption strategies of the World Bank, European Commission and the UNDP shows that two critical factors are currently overlooked that matter for the prioritisation and sequencing of reforms: timing of interventions and the capability required to implement. The majority of aid funded anti-corruption interventions continue to target petty corruption, mainly bribery and fraud, or rely on funding civil society actors to mobilise pressure for political reforms. Rather than taking a differentiated strategic approach to anti-corruption in fragile states, the aid agencies have promoted the same good governance reforms as elsewhere.

In addition, the destabilising effects of large volumes of aid should be recognised.
Aid should not do harm.

Proving concrete examples of tools is always dangerous, as every context is different, but the promotion of national anti-corruption authorities in fragile states is a classic case of institution building that often fail in fragile states; at best these authorities only drain the anti-corruption agenda of resources and energy but at worst they contribute to political instability when this state organ is used to target the opposition. Asset declaration could be another example. If the regime is risk-based, targeting the most senior members of the executive and legislative branches of power then is can be useful (provided that law enforcement can bring cases to trial), but in too many cases this is not possible and the target becomes lower level public servants, which ends up overburdening the system and producing no results but a low of work.

In short, the three multilateral aid agencies analysed did not differentiate between interventions for fragile and non-fragile situations in their anti-corruption strategies. Remedying these theory gaps, and improving strategies for anti-corruption in fragile states, will take some time, and will need better inputs from the academic community as well. Anti-corruption policy has mainly been influenced by economics literature focusing on principal-agent relations and transaction cost analysis, which distorts the focus towards petty corruption. However, aid agencies can immediately improve practice by better implementing their own strategies. When studying how headquarter policies cascaded down to regional priorities, country strategies, programme designs and ultimately activities implemented, it was clear that all aid agencies operated like “organised anarchies”, a term introduced by Cohen, March and Olsen in 1972 to describe a type of organisation that has problematic preferences (disconnects between the state-building and anti-corruption goals), unclear technology (lack of operational guidance), and fluid participation (no strong drive from the centre). All three aid agencies shared the following characteristics: (a) anti-corruption policy units were minimally staffed and there were few full-time advisors at the country level, (b) anti-corruption and state-building/fragility units were uncoordinated, (c) structures were decentralised with considerable idiosyncratic decision-making, and (d) inadequate human and financial resources, disbursement pressures, rigid procedures and risk aversion hindered effective implementation.

When aid agencies follow their own strategies and resources are adequate they do achieve results. In Afghanistan, areas of the public financial management system were strengthened considerably, the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Committee played an important role in investigating high-profile corruption cases such as the Kabul Bank scandal, and Integrity Watch Afghanistan is a role model for other NGOs in fragile states. The World Bank has also come quite far in mainstreaming corruption concerns and anti-corruption measures into country-level strategies, which was an early strategic goal, and the Governance Partnership Facility serves as an example of the importance of having finances for country-level governance and anti-corruption advisors.

Aid agencies need better organisational strategies that prompt a change in actual practices, and break with business-as-usual in implementation. Curbing corruption in fragile states is a complex problem and much work is ahead, not just for the aid agencies. The first step must be for the aid agencies to formulate clear strategies for their anti-corruption work in fragile states. The second will be to ensure that strategies translate into implementable programmes.


Anti-Corruption Strategies in Fragile States: Theory and Practice in Aid Agencies by Jesper Johnsøn is available now.

Read Chapter 1: What is a stabilising anti-corruption reform? Understanding corruption, anti-corruption and fragility free on Elgaronline.



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