Development cooperation and fighting corruption: thinking differently

24th June 2015

Everyone associates Brazil with football and the World Cup. Brazilians pouring out onto the street last summer to protest the competition being hosted in their country was last thing many of us expected to see.

In over one hundred cities, over one million people rallied by social media came together to tell the world about the high cost of soon-to-be superfluous stadiums, police brutality and corruption in all its forms that the competition had spawned. Fans held signs high that said ‘FIFA go home’ and ‘The World Cup of Corruption’.

'Brazilians made it clear they had had enough and were not going to be placated. Even by football.'

Around US$15 billion was spent on Brazil’s World Cup, but only 10% of what was promised for schools and healthcare seems to have reached its destination. It was a dispiriting business, particularly for the development community which had been working for years to battle corruption in Brazil with – apparently – little to show for it.

Here in the UK, the Department for International Development (DFID) has commissioned not one, but two evidence papers in the last three years on corruption and anti-corruption, the most recent published earlier this year. Both have told a very similar story: with a few notable exceptions, there is little evidence that anti-corruption approaches work. The clear message to come out of the research is  we need to think about and do anti-corruption programming differently. But we don't really know what this means yet.

Yet although we can look around and see lots of examples where we seem to be losing the fight against corruption, I’d argue that there are also plenty of reasons to be optimistic (see clip below). Let’s go back to Brazil, where people went onto the streets to make it clear that they had had enough and were not going to be placated. Even by football.

This in itself was, as the football pundits might put it, a result.

Even twenty years ago such protests would have been unthinkable, but decades of anti-corruption reforms do seem to be bearing fruit at last. Transparency International notes some of these: better anti-corruption and transparency legislation; increasing evidence of judicial independence, meaning the corrupt are no longer ‘guaranteed’ impunity; an increased number of investigations and arrests for corruption; an impressively free media; and an increasingly active civil society. Though there is still clearly much to be done, these are impressive achievements that are leading to transformational change.

So what does this tell us? I'd like to pull out two take-away messages.

The ways we try to measure anti-corruption success or failure are deeply flawed: All of these different reforms – and many others – are responsible for the changing landscape in Brazil. It would be impossible to trace this back to one single project, one single anti-corruption programme, one single donor. Any results are likely to come out of a patchwork of reforms, some of which may take years to bear fruit, or may only erupt as the result of a particular scandal, an election, or another such ‘critical juncture’. This is why the results-based agenda in development cooperation is so problematic for fighting corruption. Simply put, even the most ambitious anti-corruption programmes are likely to have only incremental impacts at best, over long periods of time. We need to design anti-corruption programmes differently taking this into account, and we need to find alternative ways to think about measuring ’success’. 

Indirect approaches to fighting corruption may be more effective than direct ones: Brazil has not one anti-corruption agency but several different agencies that are responsible for different aspects of corrupt behaviour. There have been a huge number of reforms and initiatives, few of which were designed explicitly to be anti-corruption, all feeding into changing norms and behaviours. Perfect it may not yet be, but things are undeniably changing for the better.  The problem is that 'corruption' is an emotive word that sums up a huge range of activities and behaviours that work to undermine the public good. But we try to tackle them under one umbrella  anti-corruption. We could aim to improve fiscal transparency, make money laundering much more difficult, improve investigative journalism, improve women's political participation, improve service providers' wages (and make sure they get paid on time), reduce police brutality... The list could go on. But we don't have to call it anti-corruption. It may be harder to communicate simple messages to our publics about what we're doing to fight corruption, but added together, we are likely to see better results over time. And, at the very least, it's likely to be easier to measure discrete activities than the giant mass of things that equal ‘corruption’.

To sum up, we know that most direct anti-corruption activities – on their own – are not effective, or at least we don’t have enough evidence of their effectiveness. We know there are no 'magic bullets'. 

But we also know that, despite this, our governments (and perhaps our publics) expect development cooperation to provide technical support for fighting corruption, and they expect it to work even in some of the most difficult environments. And so an ineffective cycle continues.

We need to take this lack of evidence more seriously and think instead about ways to think and work differently, including thinking and working more politically. We need to find ways to push back against approaches to development programming that undermine the likelihood of success. We need to stop asking civil society to deliver quick results against the odds, when many members of civil society literally put their lives on the line to fight corruption. We need to do this to ensure that the next corruption evidence paper DFID commissions – hopefully not in the near future! – has a better story to tell.

Join policymakers, practitioners and researchers to discuss 'Corruption and development' in London on Monday 29 June.


See a one-minute clip from Heather at EU Development Days, where she spoke on 4 June at a session on corruption and good governance: "Overall I'm optimistic... we're seeing a lot of movement in terms of civic engagement..."

Image: World Cup protest, Brazil (Photo: Felipe Canova)

Video: EU Development Days. (Heather Marquette's job title is Director of the Developmental Leadership Program / Academic Director of the GSDRC, International Development Department, University of Birmingham.)

Heather Marquette is a member of ANTICORRP.


Leave a comment

The views expressed in Opinions posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of DLP, the Australian Government or DLP's partner organisations.



Heather Marquette

Heather Marquette

DLP's Director, Dr Heather Marquette, is Reader in Development Politics in the International Development Department, University of Birmingham. She is also Academic Director of the GSDRC. A political scientist by training, she has extensive international experience in research, policy advice, consultancy and training on the politics of development, governance, corruption, political analysis, and aid policy.

Read more

Related items

Opinion by Caryn Peiffer5th February 2015
Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal26th April 2016

Political analysis as the practical art of the possible

Bringing politics back into PEA - a new paper with Adrian Leftwich

Opinion by David Hudson24th July 2014

Adding gender and power to the TWP agenda

Why bring gender into Thinking and Working Politically?

Opinion by Sally Moyle6th August 2015

Identifying rebels with a cause (and effect)

'Power, politics and positive deviance' is the theme of DLP's 2016 annual conference.

Opinion by Chris Roche1st December 2015

Gender analysis, and thinking and working politically – bridging the gap

Guest post on Devpolicy  introducing panels at this week's Australasian Aid Conference

Opinion by Chris Roche14th February 2017

Neither 'good guys' nor 'bad guys': Positive engagement with armed groups

Final post in a series on 'Power, politics and positive deviance', theme of DLP's 2016 Annual Conference.

Opinion by Suda Perera5th February 2016

Security and justice – the mismatch between policy and practice

What hinders more politically nuanced security and justice programming?

Opinion by Shivit Bakrania21st July 2014

Politics, risk and development: three takeaways

Reflections from two conferences

Opinion by Chris Roche19th February 2016

Corruption: do we target the servant or the paymaster?

Guest post for The Guardian on UK aid watchdog report

Opinion by Heather Marquette5th November 2014
Opinion by Dan Hymowitz3rd February 2017

International donors - aiding or abetting?

The 'donor's dilemma' is discussed in a new DLP paper.

Opinion by Niheer Dasandi10th September 2015

Masculinity and sexual violence in India

Will the shocking Nirbaya case shift attitudes?

Opinion by Martin Rew16th September 2015

Corruption: is the right message getting through?

The unintended consequences of raising awareness of corruption

Opinion by Caryn Peiffer12th August 2015
Opinion by Heather Marquette10th November 2014

Do donors have realistic expectations of their staff when it comes to 'thinking and working politically'?

Is learning to ‘think politically’ like learning a new language? 

Opinion by Heather Marquette9th June 2014
Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal29th March 2016

‘Crows who come in search of dollars’: NGO legitimacy in conflict zones

Do political dynamics affect NGO legitimacy more than performance?

Opinion by Oliver Walton19th August 2014

Does talking about corruption make it seem worse?

Guest post for The Guardian's Global Development Professionals Network

Opinion by Alina Rocha Menocal24th November 2014
Opinion by Heather Marquette13th October 2015

Cancer and the links between medicine and development

Guest post for From Poverty to Power

Opinion by Chris Roche15th April 2015

Innovation: transactional or transformative?

Given the fascination with 'innovation' in the field of development, it's time to discuss what the word might mean.

Opinion by Chris Roche23rd March 2015
Opinion by Susy Ndaruhutse11th September 2014

Is education a magic bullet for addressing corruption? Insights from Papua New Guinea

This post for Devpolicy unpacks the findings of a new Development Policy Centre / DLP paper 

Opinion by Grant Walton17th June 2015

Developmental leaders, 'dirty hands', and the dark side of collaboration

The ambiguities of supporting 'developmental leadership'

Opinion by Niheer Dasandi11th December 2013
Opinion by Heather Marquette9th March 2015

What do we do on Monday? Political settlements in theory and practice

The value of the political settlements framework

Opinion by Edward Laws15th July 2015