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Preventing “Development in Reverse”: Building a Systemic Anticorruption Approach

As the world focuses on the climate change crisis, emerging security issues, and the long-dragging COVID-19 pandemic, another international challenge is getting global attention: Corruption, along with the way it undermines democracy and human rights, deepens inequality, and corrodes natural resources.

Academia, international organizations, the media and the nonprofit sector have all quite publicly turned their attention to corruption. Much of this renewed energy has come as a result of the June 2021 National Security Study Memorandum (NSSM) where the Biden-Harris administration established confronting corruption as a key national security interest. The NSSM is clear that corruption can cut across and undermine all development efforts.

Other leaders in the Biden administration agree; USAID Administrator Samantha Power recently said, “Corruption is basically development in reverse. It harms long-term economic development, scares away private sector investment, deepens inequality, and even harms the environment.... It also disproportionately harms the most marginalized in a society.”

The NSSM directs development and security policymakers and practitioners to focus on anticorruption best practices and improve enforcement measures.With those marching orders, and reflecting on the current wealth of discussions, as well as my years of anticorruption work around the world, here are seven best practices I believe should form part of a systematic approach to combatting corruption:

1. Unbundle and understand what corruption means locally

The standard definition of corruption from Transparency International—one used by many organizations—is “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” However, this phrase fails to provide insight into what is happening in a given place and how to understand what is “corrupt”.

There are many tools and approaches that might have an impact on corruption, but the right approach will be context specific. Unbundling the definition of corruption and understanding its context in a given place can give practitioners deeper insight into why corruption occurs, why it may be so persistent, and then, of course, what to do about it.

2. Integrate new insights around the importance of social norms

Understanding how social norms drive behaviors that cause corruption (or undermine the effectiveness of anticorruption efforts) can also give practitioners and policy makers deeper insight into the nature of problems and why corruption in some contexts is so persistent.

Corruption is often a “collective action problem” and a social phenomenon underpinned by complex relationships. Approaching corruption from this perspective can shift interventions away from traditional “principal-agent” approaches. RTI is investing in research this year to identify such social norms and also design new interventions that directly address these issues.

3. Approach corruption as a system dependent on the local political context

Singular approaches rarely work in countries with endemic corruption, since suppressing an opportunity for corruption in one area may just push it up in others, and many governments can hide behind the appearance of reform without actually implementing changes that have an effect in practice.

Understanding how the whole system operates (including political, economic, and social factors) and which combination of investments and reforms—including awareness raising, prevention, detection, and enforcement/sanctioning—will be effective needs to be the starting point for thinking through solutions.

But then…

4. Design anticorruption programs that target specific problems

Unless anticorruption projects target a specific corruption problem (e.g., how a behavior or process leads to corruption that negates or reduces development outcomes) then it will be difficult to determine whether they have had an anticorruption impact.

Systemic changes may be necessary to root out corruption writ large. But in many countries, targeted approaches focused on specific problems will be more effective and successful.

Anticorruption practitioners should find (or help to create and support) champions or change agents with the political influence to drive reform, and partner with them to carry out initiatives that are both high-impact and feasible.

5. Leverage new approaches to big data

The role that technology can play in both understanding corruption and bringing new anticorruption approaches to bear is expanding as practitioners and researchers perform groundbreaking work using big data: Exposing corruption risks through public procurement data, identifying Russian politicians’ illicit gains by analyzing their financial disclosures, and pinpointing how optimal spend approaches for governments in developing countries can improve governance and the rule of law to combat corruption.

When equipped with data, civil society organizations can be more effective in advocating for transparency and accountability. Of course, many of these approaches need to be built on good governance reforms supported by champions, and development practitioners can look for opportunities to further strengthen bottom-up approaches.

Because we’ll need to ensure that the data exist in the first place, that it is open, timely, and in a format civil society and researchers can use, many of these methods will have to be implemented hand in hand with more traditional institution-building approaches focusing on transparency and accountability.

6. Consider how the international system facilitates national or local corruption

The ease with which many corrupt officials can move illicit gains around the world continues to be a significant concern. Important legislation in the U.S. and other jurisdictions is moving to close some of these loopholes, but reforming anti-money laundering legislation and strengthening financial intelligence units within all countries will continue to be necessary.

It is critical to ensure that those efforts integrate a strong anticorruption approach—particularly  where the risks of high-level corruption or state capture are high.

7. Coordinate across sectors

Robust in-country dialogue with partner governments needs to be paired with cross-sectoral discussion about the systemic and political nature of corruption to avoid so-called “orphan sectors”: sectors that might not receive much support for good governance, particularly anticorruption reforms. If ignored, these sectors can provide significant resources to corrupt actors and undermine good governance reforms elsewhere.

For instance, the vast illicit gains from the renewable natural resource management (NRM) sector have been under-scrutinized for a long time, and investments in integrating anticorruption approaches in NRM institutions have lagged compared to many other sectors. From carbon markets to climate finance, the opportunities for shielding vested interests in conventional energy sources and upending the climate agenda are vast.

By coordinating across sectors, anticorruption practitioners can better partner with local champions to learn, develop tools and guidance, and gather evidence that can be shared and amplified.

As development practitioners, we must work with anticorruption champions in government, civil society, and within communities to inform a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what corruption means in a given context and how all of us can most effectively root it out for good.

Richard Nash is a Senior Anticorruption Specialist at RTI with 18 years of experience working on anticorruption, rule of law, and good governance projects around the world.

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Disclaimer: This piece was written by Richard Nash (Senior Anti-Corruption and Accountability Specialist) to share perspectives on a topic of interest. Expression of opinions within are those of the author or authors.