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Confront corruption? Here’s how

Written by Marta Foresti

​Football has brought corruption back onto the international agenda. The FIFA scandal has inspired much debate, and in the development world, football metaphors abound. Could this be the trigger for the international community to get real about corruption?

David Cameron certainly thinks so: he added corruption to the already-packed G7 agenda at the weekend, and has announced an international summit in the UK next year. In the Huffington Post on Sunday he stated that ‘corruption is the cancer at the heart of so many of the problems we face around the world today,’ from migration to growth and poverty reduction.

Is there a cure? There may well be, but it requires radically different treatment: a good dose of realism, a dash of honesty, breaking down a few silos – and plenty of work in our own back garden.

Get real

Addressing corruption must begin with the recognition that it takes different forms. Bundling together FIFA’s alleged high level corruption with people paying informal fees or bribes to a local official or doctor is unhelpful.

The different forms of corruption require different responses, and donors and other actors need to recognise which they can tackle and which they can't. And corruption isn't always the most important factor constraining development, so making it a priority is not always a good idea.

Be honest

The second step is to be honest about the limited role that external actors have in sanctioning corruption at the national level.

Corruption is a symptom of existing problems, not a cause of poverty or slow development. Typically these underlying issues are political in nature and require domestic action. Donors can support them, but a recent DFID evidence review (pdf) found that isolated anti-corruption interventions, including transparency measures, only go so far. Integrated approaches into a broader package of reforms are more effective.

This leaves DFID and other donors with some important decisions to make. They may be better off focusing their limited resources, capacity and political clout on the international stage – the FIFA scandal has demonstrated that corruption is as much a problem within international agencies as it is within national governments. FIFA is not likely to be the only case of global corruption, so let’s start from where the UK and other western economies have real influence.

Break out of the governance silo

Corruption is typically considered as a governance issue and donors tend to address it through standalone governance programmes, from supporting anti-corruption agencies and legislation to social accountability and public financial management.

Yet governance is not always the most useful entry point for institutional reform. Starting with corruption, rather than its underlying causes, may well lead up blind alleys.

A more effective approach would combine ‘governance’ expertise and resources with infrastructure, health and other development programmes to solve specific problems, such as the procurement procedures to supply essential medicines, or the regulatory frameworks governing licences and prices of energy providers.

In Ethiopia, for example, researchers found that it is not corruption as such that limits rural water supply at the local level, but the privileged position of state-owned drilling enterprises in borehole construction and the licensing procedures for private drilling companies. Specific problems like these are better entry points for programming  and have a better chance of leading to technically sound and politically feasible solutions.

Start in your own backyard

Finally, the international community urgently needs to correct the narrative around corruption.

The grandstanding tone of much of the rhetoric suggests that corruption is confined to the developing world. Yet corruption is common in developed countries too. Political connections in Italy can buy entrepreneurs a lower credit rate. The recent expenses scandal in the UK reminded us that even Westminster is not immune.

The UK has done better than most in putting tax havens, bank secrecy and illicit financial flows on the agenda. While it has made some good progress on open data and transparency, it must now go further on the more contested areas of illicit flows and financial regulations. This is the only way to ensure that the fight against corruption becomes more than a hollow commitment and stands a chance of delivering results for the world’s poor.