Why we need to understand better how and why corruption occurs, and what we can do to address it

by Paul Heywood

24 Feb 2017

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A week may be a long time in politics, as Harold Wilson supposedly observed in the build-up to his 1964 election victory, but the last nine months have seen political shifts on an almost geological scale. When David Cameron hosted the landmark Anti-Corruption Summit in London on 12 May 2016, few attendees can have imagined the political perturbations that were to follow. Confident declarations about the renewed international commitment to tackle the scourge of corruption, reflected in a host of pledges and new initiatives, were widely welcomed and suggested a genuine step forward. The Summit represented a significant achievement for a host of dedicated civil society organisations, some more enlightened businesses, and government departments involved in its organisation – notably the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).

And yet, within a matter of weeks, the focus on anti-corruption was almost completely lost amidst the political cataclysm of the Brexit referendum. Cameron was gone, and his successor as Prime Minister, Theresa May, had a very different agenda. Summit pledges have slipped, such as the UK’s Anti-Corruption Strategy that had been promised by the end of the year; meanwhile, although the new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, confirmed her commitment to tackling corruption, she has repeatedly made clear that her primary focus is on using the DFID budget to promote UK trade interests (see here and here) – an approach questioned by the Financial Times.

Following Brexit, the march to the White House of Donald Trump has left many anti-corruption experts and activists aghast at the implications of his victory (see here and here).  For all his promises to ‘drain the swamp’, there are concerns not just about some of his early initiatives, such as ordering a review of the Dodd-Frank Act and the repeal of its Cardin-Lugar regulations, but also a more insidious worry about the corruption of the very operation of public discourse and the democratic process. In a world of ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’, populism finds a fertile breeding ground, reflected in what Amnesty International’s 2016/17 international report describes as a ‘global pushback against human rights’.

In this worryingly divided and dangerous world, we need more than ever, to understand better how and why corruption occurs and what we can realistically do to address it. But if we are going to be brutally honest with ourselves, we also need to recognise that the rhetoric around corruption has probably contributed to the very concerns we now confront. Whilst the UK Anti-Corruption Summit presented itself as a new initiative, what it actually represented was just the latest in a series of initiatives stretching back over a quarter of a century, including most obviously the 1997 OECD Anti-Bribery Convention  and the 2004 United Nations Convention Against Corruption

Although global leaders and international organisations have talked for decades about the need to combat corruption, the stark truth is that citizens across the world simply don’t believe that such initiatives have had any effect.  Indeed, the evidence suggests that people think there is ever more corruption in the world. The real danger is that corruption becomes seen as a norm within any political process, a catch-all term that encapsulates a host of other perceived failures, and public anger turns against anything that represents the status quo – whether that is a liberal elite out of touch with citizens, international organisations that are seen as self-serving, repressive regimes that ignore basic human rights. In short, to hold power is seen as itself corrupt.

We need to move beyond the simple messages and simplistic solutions – which too much of our past focus on corruption have delivered. Instead, we need to explore in depth the actual operation of corruption in practice, and the specific measures that can make a difference in concrete cases. Too often, we have spoken of corruption as if it is self-evident what we mean. But, in practice, corruption is hugely complex, changes over time, manifests in myriad different ways, does not respect national borders, and even – in some circumstances – offers a survival mechanism to desperate people. 

To make a real difference, therefore, we need to refocus our efforts to understand better when and why specific anti-corruption measures are feasible, how the nature of political settlements impact on the range of available options, and how we can learn from and scale-up success. The British Academy is working with DFID to do just that, and is uniquely well-placed to do so – bringing together research experts from a host of different disciplines represented by the Academy across the humanities and social sciences, but also working closely with practitioners, DFID country officers, and other anti-corruption activists and policy-makers.

The challenges are huge, the answers will not be simple nor short-term, but the enterprise is essential if we are to provide grounds for hope rather than despair.

The blog was written by Professor Paul Heywood, Sir Francis Hill Professor of European Politics, Faculty of Social Sciences at The University of Nottingham. In 2015 he was appointed leader of the £3.6m British Academy/DFID Anti-Corruption Evidence programme, designed to identify new initiatives that can help developing countries tackle the scourge of corruption and the negative impact it has on millions of people's lives.

The views expressed by our authors on the British Academy blog are not necessarily endorsed by Academy, but are commended as contributing to public debate.

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