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Fighting Corruption with a Double-Edged Sword

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

Fighting against crime and corruption means to fight battles on all kinds of fronts. Institutional reform is one of them: you need to establish accountability institutions outside the executive government to reduce the abuse of executive power. But - rule by law is not rule of law. Institutional reform is only one front. It is unlikely that reforms succeed if they are not embedded in the broader culture of a country. Reforms must, in order to be successful, change institutional routines as well as social norms. Social norms are about what's considered normal or appropriate in a given situation, they're about what most people think and do, or what they think that most people think and do. Norms drive behavior, and that is why reforms need to initiate a change of norms to be successful in the long-term.

Petty corruption is a case in point: As long as people are afraid of public officials and are used to bribe them whenever they need something, no reform will prevent petty corruption going on. Corruption on a grand scale may be more vulnerable to an exclusively institutional approach to reform, but a change of law will not always change the behavior of people. Years ago, seat belts in cars were mostly ignored, even though the police fined drivers that didn't use them. Seat belts only became a matter of course when large public education campaigns aimed at changing the culture of driving.

A vivid example for reform through changing norms comes from the Culture of Lawfulness Project. The program's Executive Director, Jeffrey Berman, gave a fascinating talk at the World Bank last week. He spoke about his work on changing the culture of a country to deeply embed institutional change in society. He presented a striking short film on Sicily's fight against organized crime in the 1980s and 1990s. The report showed citizens forming human chains against the regime of fear imposed by the Mafia, eventually breaking the mob's rule in Palermo. While Palermo was a hopeless case in the early 1980s, shunned by tourists and business, it is today one of Europe's most popular vacation spots, a thriving city with a vibrant cultural life.

The Culture of Lawfulness Project identifies four critical strategic sectors: schools, the mass media, centers of moral authority, and the police. The organization works with them to spread education about the rule of law: what this popular catchphrase actually means and why it's important to uphold the law. The program is active in Colombia, Peru, El Salvador, Mexico, Lebanon, and Georgia, and has some impressive successes to show. For instance, Berman and his colleagues developed a curriculum on the rule of law that is now taught to millions of 7th graders in 20 states of Mexico - education is a sure way of forming a national culture.

The mass media, as the Culture of Lawfulness Project and CommGAP realize, are key players in social change. They are powerful agents in transmitting knowledge and attitudes, they spotlight heroes and moral authorities to serve as examples, and they give voice to the frustration of the people. They also influence what is perceived as moral and appropriate by the majority of a population. Imagine you've always paid a small bribe to your local official when you needed some official permission. Imagine you thought that everyone did this, and that was just the way things were. The media is powerful because it can show the people that paying bribes is by no means a given, that people actually don't like paying bribes at all, and that if you stop paying, you're actually doing what the people think is right!

Palermo's former mayor, Leoluca Orlando, a leading figure in the fight against the Mafia in Western Sicily, writes in his book Fighting the Mafia and Renewing Sicilian Culture: "The law court is only one front in the campaign against violence and lawlessness. The other is culture." The Cosa Nostra has by no means been defeated in Palermo. But while in the mid 1980s, 240 to 250 people were murdered annually in Palermo, and often enough in broad daylight, the city counted eight victims of homicide in 2000 - none of them killed by the Mafia. Back in the 80s and 90s it was members of the community, the church, and the local media that started taking back their city. Today, the Mafia is not only up against courageous citizens, it is also up against new media: Palermo business owners have started a web site where they list the names of the shops that refuse paying protection money to the Mafia (the so called pizzo). With a public campaign using stickers and the slogan "A people who pays the pizzo is a people without dignity," the grassroots organization Addiopizzo managed to attach shame to paying the Mafia for protection. They changed the norms - and now consumers are boycotting businesses that do not declare their defiance against organized crime. Just pointing to laws criminalizing the pizzo would never have had the same effect. The people must want change, and they must believe that change is right.

Photo credit: Flickr users Alan Cordova and Sicilia Today

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