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#10 from 2013: Citizens Against Corruption: What Works? Findings from 200 Projects in 53 Countries

Duncan Green's picture

In the next few weeks, we will be running our Top Ten Blog Posts by readership in 2013

Originally published on May 22, 2013

I attended a panel + booklaunch on the theme of ‘Citizens Against Corruption’ at the ODI last week. After all the recent agonizing and self-doubt of the results debate (‘really, do we know anything about the impact of our work? How can we be sure?’), it was refreshing to be carried away on a wave of conviction and passion. The author of the book, Pierre Landell-Mills is in no doubt – citizen action can have a massive impact in countering corruption and improving the lives of poor people, almost irrespective of the political context.

The book captures the experience of the Partnership for Transparency Fund, set up by Pierre in 2000. It summarizes experiences from 200 case studies in 53 countries. This has included everything from using boy scouts to stop the ‘disappearance’ of textbooks in the Philippines to introducing a new code of ethics for Mongolia’s judiciary. The PTF’s model of change is really interesting. In terms of the project itself:

  • Entirely demand led: it waits for civil society organizations (CSOs) to come up with proposals, and funds about one in five
  • $25k + an expert: the typical project consists of a small grant, and a volunteer expert, usually a retiree from aid agencies or governments, North and South. According to Pierre ‘the clue to PTF’s success has been marrying high quality expertise with the energy and guts of young activists’. (I’ve now added ‘Grey Wonks’ to my ‘Grey Panthers’ rant on why the aid world is so bad at making the most of older people).
  • The PTF is tapping into a zeitgeist of shifting global norms on corruption, epitomised by the UN Convention Against Corruption (2003). The idea that ‘they work for us’ seems to be gaining ground.
  • The PTF prefers cooperation to conflict – better to work with champions within the state (and there nearly always are some, if you can find them), than just to lob rocks from the sidelines (although some rock-lobbing may also be required).
  • It also prefers action and avoids funding ‘awareness-raising’, ‘capacity building’ and other ‘conference-building measures.’

So what works? On the basis of the case studies (chapters on India, Mongolia, Uganda and the Philippines), and his vast experience of governance and corruption work, Pierre sets out a ‘stylized programme’ for the kinds of CSO-led initiatives that deliver the goods:

  • Nail down the problem: use surveys, focus groups, right to information laws where they exist
  • Come up with (and implement) an action plan: get people involved with community report cards, community radio, public hearings and other approaches
  • Propose ideas for ways to reform the system or reduce the opportunities for corruption, drawing on the results of (1) and (2)
  • Discuss the ideas with stakeholders and amend
  • Campaign to persuade officials and politicians to adopt the ideas
  • Once you’ve won (bit of a leap, that – see cartoon) monitor the implementation of any measures introduced to reduce corruption.

This may look like a bit of a blueprint, but actually it isn’t – the PTF fits the model of how to work in complex systems pretty well. It acknowledges that outsiders can’t possibly understand the labyrinths of formal and informal power, or identify potential allies and windows of opportunity. Those have to come from within. By breaking funding down into small grants, and using only volunteer experts, it tries to keep power away from the consultancy/donor complex, and stay true to being country-driven. At the ODI, Pierre described the underlying theory of change as ‘the aggregation of millions of actions to reach a tipping point.’

He also expanded on the problem of aid institutions. Anti-corruption campaigning is often long-term, over 25-50 year time horizons. That means aid donors can support particular phases, but if they don’t have the staying power to see the work through, they need to avoid trying to control it. Unfortunately, ‘politicians and officials who think they can make their mark are the biggest menace for this work’.

Despite this critique, the book is a pitch for funding from the aid agencies, although Pierre believes that in the long term CSO anti-corruption work will have to find alternatives sources.

Which all sounds great, but the results debate is obviously getting to me, because I did have some sympathy with DFID’s Mark Robinson, who said at the ODI that although the UK Government (which has been a core funder of PTF) ‘is increasingly persuaded about the value of citizens’ transparency and accountability initiatives’, we really can’t be expected to judge PTF entirely on the uplifting case studies and stats collected by, errrm, the PTF.

I raised another issue: the rhythm of civil society action is almost always episodic – long periods of tranquillity (people getting on with their lives), punctuated by episodic spikes of protest. Attempts to turn this dynamic into some kind of permanent state of mobilization are probably destined for frustration and failure. Between spikes, the long term work of renewing or changing social capital, social norms and values etc takes place in the more permanent ‘grains’ of civil society – trades unions, neighbourhood associations, religious communities – that endure between spikes. It wasn’t clear that PTF understands and works with this – it seems to have permanent mobilization as its underlying model of how civil society works.

PTF seems to belong to a family of ‘post supply side’ approaches to governance, which also includes the International Budget Partnership, the research of Matt Andrews or the Africa Power and Politics Programme, as well as Oxfam’s own work on governance and accountability.

What they have in common is the need to move from ‘best practice’ to ‘best fit’, to identify and support locally driven initiatives, and to support coalitions between champions within the system and those outside. Where they seem to differ is on the prominence of civil society in these discussions – at one end of the spectrum is PTF’s perhaps excessive glorification of its role; at the other the APPP’s rather contemptuous dismissal of civil society as irrelevant to the ‘real’ Paul Kagame world of big men and decent chaps sorting out political settlements (’citizen pressure is at best a weak factor and at worst a distraction from dealing with the main drivers of bad governance.’) I would love to see APPP’s David Booth and Pierre Landell-Mills go head to head on this.

To be continued, I suspect (not least because Matt Andrews is in London this week).

This post first appeard on From Poverty to Power
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