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Reinvigorating the Fight against Corruption

Paolo Mefalopulos's picture

The 9th of December the UN celebrates the anti-corruption day. It is clear that this is a global issue and a cross-cutting one. It concerns virtually all countries, even if in different degrees, and it can be found in all sectors of the development arena; e.g. health, rural development, agriculture, sanitation and many more. Corruption is not an issue that concerns only the rich; on the contrary, the poor are those who suffer the most from corrupt practices, in a number of ways. First of all, corruption subtracts money from the tax revenues which are the main source of social programmes and services. Secondly, the money the rich pay to corrupt officials are usually passed back as increased costs to consumers, and the poorest ones are the ones that will pay the higher price. Finally, corruption affects not only multimillion deals but spread throughout the social realm like a cancer and I know of bribes asked (and paid) to obtain jobs with a salary of forty dollars a month.

I doubt the situation described above would have come as a surprise to readers. The novelty would be if an effective strategy to defeat corruption could be designed and successfully implemented. To be successful, such strategy would require some crucial elements mentioned hereafter. The first is the presence of a genuine political will to fight corruption. Without a political enabling environment measures to confront corruption and address its root-causes will have limited effectiveness both in terms of results and in terms of sustainability. In such cases, it would be best to adopt a two-pronged communication strategy to create or enhance the demand for political backing for the fight against corruption. One part of the strategy will be mostly advocacy communication directed to policy-makers, key influential players and media at national and international levels. The other part will be directed at the broader public, or better at different and specific segments of the public, in order to create or raise awareness of the “evil” of corruption and ask citizens to put pressure on legislators to pass/strengthen anti-corruption legislation and provide the means to enforce it.

The second element that needs to be considered is the existing socio-cultural context within which corruption occurs. Is corruption widely accepted, if not endorsed, as part of life by many individuals? What are the attitudes of different groups of people towards this issue? This information is needed in order to develop and position the communication strategy. In countries where corruption is rampant and deeply rooted, there is the need to address social and cultural norms first, gradually planting the seeds that will make corruption something wrong, undesirable and shameful. Only once such seeds start to grow, approaches addressing individual behaviour change can be introduced at a broader scale. The idea of a public sphere, introduced by CommGAP, can be seen as an approach to affect the socio-cultural context. By providing a forum and facilitating the interaction of key stakeholders on a public and safe arena, communication/dialogue acts as a force for change. Talking about sensitive issues, such as corruption, in a safe space provides those seeds needed to initiate and nurture the idea that change is possible. That is the first step towards action in the realm of social norms.

The third element of an anti-corruption communication strategy would be the familiar behaviour change approach needed to eliminate, or at least significantly reduce, corruption. How can we make individuals stop the practice of asking and/or receiving bribes? Doubtless, corruption is intrinsically linked with power. Bribes are a way of buying a favour, an advantage, or often even a right by somebody who has the power over whatever it is wanted or needed. Thus, behaviour change strategies would be of little effectiveness if they don’t take into account this factor. In many cases, eliminating corruption would imply disempowering a number of individuals, and this is not only about money and reduced income for some. It is also, and maybe most of all, about decreasing the amount of power that ‘corrupt’ individuals have and this is not likely to occur without some degree of conflict and a systematic and concerted effort by many players.

Finally, the last element is one which I usually do not put as a top priority when developing a communication strategy, but, in this context, I would consider to be of utmost importance: information. In many of my writings I stated how information is not enough to achieve change. However, this time I would state quite the opposite, information is the key element that could make the difference in anti-corruption practices, especially in the public sector. Having full and transparent disclosure about how funds are being allocated, disbursed and spent, will make it much harder for corruption to take place.

I think of the case of Uganda, where corruption in the education sector was so high that most public schools in rural areas where receiving as low as 10% of the money originally allocated to them from the central government. The situation changed when a bill was passed requiring all districts offices to disclose to the public the money expected to be received by each school and then required each school to post in a public and easily accessible space (parents, students and civil society) how the money received were being spent. This very easy action (making transparent how funds were allocated and spent) drastically reduced corruption by almost 80% in a period of twelve months.

But if information could be so effective in reducing corruption, why is information not made public, easy to understand and transparent by all governments? This is a question I am still struggling with. Maybe the answer is that there are still too many interests at stake and too many individuals benefitting from corruption, in terms of money and power. But maybe if political forces, genuinely interested in eliminating corruption, and civil society organizations become fully aware that information can be a relatively simple and effective way to tackle corruption, change may occur sooner than expected.

Photo Credit: Arne Hoel / World Bank 

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I agree with ;ost of your analysis, especially on the importance of genuine political will as the determining ingredient in any fight against corruption. Am of the strong position that if the fight against corruption is separated from the fight for democracy and the rule of law, then, nothing can be achieved. Secondly, when the political will to defeat corruption has been expressed by the highest executive authority of each state, this will, should be transformed into law by the legislative instances of the state. If this is not the case, the fight against corruption will be reduced to propaganda. To add to this, any vital anticorruption legislation must also consider incorporating the right to freedom of information and of course, the protection and even compensation of whistleblowers. It is only in the light of the above that communication awareness campaigns can yield fruit.

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