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Paul Heywood (photo credit: Nottingham Ambassador Programme)

As the world’s attention turns this month towards U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron’s Anti-Corruption Summit in London, the British government has launched an ambitious project to understand what works and doesn’t work when it comes to reducing corruption in developing countries. The multi-year, $5.2 million effort is part of an Anti-Corruption Evidence partnership between the British Academy and the U.K. government’s Department for International Development (DFID). It is led by Paul Heywood, a professor of European politics at the University of Nottingham. Heywood is the author of 18 books, a member of the board of trustees of Transparency International and an anti-corruption practitioner with experience in Europe, Hong Kong and China. He spoke recently with Frank Brown, CIPE’s Anti-Corruption/Value Chain team leader.

What is the main aim of the Anti-Corruption Evidence Research Programme and what makes it unique?

The program focuses on evidence gaps in understanding what actually works to reduce corruption in developing countries.  Rather than just providing more academic research on anti-corruption – of which there has been no shortage – one key innovative element is that the program is explicitly designed to ensure a very close relationship between researchers and practitioners.  Too often there is a gap between academic analysis seeking to explain the how and why of corruption and the reality of activists trying to address it on the ground.  We need to recognise not only that corruption is complex and multi-faceted, but also that to have any real impact on it requires sensitivity to the specific contexts in which it takes place, and especially what is politically possible.  That means working closely with colleagues who are faced with actually implementing anti-corruption measures, and so we emphasised engagement when selecting the eight projects that have been funded under the program.  Several members of the advocacy community were involved in assessing the applications, and bidders were required to outline exactly how they would interact with practitioners, most obviously the DFID country officers in the priority countries that are the principal focus of the Programme (Bangladesh, Ghana, Mozambique, Nigeria, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia).

What factors make this a good time to launch the program?

Many political leaders are currently focusing on tackling corruption – in particular, the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, who has made great play of his personal commitment to the cause. He gave keynote speeches on the topic in 2015 during a trade visit to Asia and at the Commonwealth Head of Government meeting in Malta, and of course is also hosting a high-profile anti-corruption summit in London on 12 May 2016.  The issue of corruption has also been brought into sharp relief worldwide by the revelations in the so-called ‘Panama Papers’.  It’s great that the issue is now being given such prominence, but there has been a wealth of research on corruption, as well as various high-level policy initiatives over the last two decades and – disappointingly – they have not really led to any obvious successes.  So, part of what we want to do with this program is understand better why that may be so, and to identify specific interventions that can actually make a difference.

In your recent blog about the Panama Papers, you note that economists and advocates focused on corruption issues often do a poor job of defining what corruption is. In what ways might your program rectify this ambiguity?

One of the problems with work on corruption is a tendency to talk about it in broadly undifferentiated terms. To the extent that there is any kind of differentiation, it is usually just between ‘grand’ and ‘petty’ corruption.  However, if corruption is defined as ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain’, that covers such a vast range of different types of activity that the term is of little operational value and generates confusion in developing anti-corruption strategies.

For example, the systematic theft of state assets by public officials, or the sale of government policy to private interests, is very different in scale and impact to the routine, day-to-day bribery that is typical of how many/most citizens access public services in large parts of the developing world.  The former, crucially, is dependent on external collusion and facilitators; the latter is usually not.  And without minimising the impact of ‘petty’ corruption on daily life, it is the plundering of state assets that really undermines good government and costs citizens – especially the most vulnerable.

Not only do the different types of corruption have different logics, characteristics and motivations, the very nature of some forms of corruption has changed (and continues to change) as a result of broader changes in the international financial architecture and transnational interpenetration (including links between corruption, international crime and terrorist financing) – as has been starkly demonstrated by the Panama Papers.  This fact can hardly be overstressed.

A key step in moving things forward is to disaggregate corruption, asking: what kind of corruption is it, where is it taking place, who is involved, what are their motivations, who/what is needed to allow it to take place, what level does it operate at (international, national, regional, local), what sectors are implicated, what are the key interdependencies, etc.  Without clear answers to these kinds of question, it is impossible to identify what needs to be in place to support specific interventions – and that is exactly what the projects in the BA/DFID ACE program will be trying to do.

The growing number of laws and conventions governing the private sector’s interaction with foreign officials – such as the FCPA, UKBA and OECD Convention on Bribery – treat corruption in ways that impacts economic development and the flow of international capital. What implications do you think this has for the way the global community seeks to define and reduce corruption going forward?

It follows from what I said in my previous answer that we’ve not really developed a sufficiently sophisticated and comprehensive understanding of corruption.  It is certainly the case that some forms of corruption can have a significant impact on the flow of international capital.  But we need a more politically savvy understanding of why different kinds of corruption emerge and prosper in different settings.  Of course we need to tackle how the private sector interacts with foreign officials and do all we can to prevent bribery.  But we also need to focus on the role of ‘facilitators’ – those people, often officials in so-called ‘clean’ countries, who enable corrupt money to be moved around or who allow the use of stolen assets to purchase goods, especially property.  Equally, we need to understand that the reality of corruption – that is, the lived experience of how various forms operate in practice – is very different in different parts of the world.  So, for instance, global conventions and comprehensive legislation will mean little to those who live in situations where corruption is rampant – and that is true, sadly, for many parts of the developing world.  Recent research highlights that whereas most current approaches to understanding corruption see it in terms of being only a ‘problem’, the reality is that for many people in endemically corrupt or fragile states, corruption can in fact offer functionality in social, political and economic transactions where no better mechanisms exist.  This is not to condone corruption, but to recognise that it can be seen, especially by those who live in fragile states, as a form of solution to resource allocation and access issues.  In such circumstances, a focus on developing broad anti-corruption strategies probably misses the point.

One of your projects looks at the efficacy of anti-corruption and governance solutions on the local, subnational level. Keeping in mind that it is early days, what factors might make anti-corruption efforts on the local level more effective than those on the national level?

One of the things we need to do is disaggregate corruption so that we can better deal with how and why it assumes different forms in different settings.  We’ve seen that global efforts – such as the UN Convention Against Corruption or the OECD Convention – have had quite limited impact, and that’s for the reasons already mentioned.  It’s also important to remember that it is not countries that are corrupt, but people – and those people operate in specific, concrete settings.  Just as even in the ‘cleanest’ countries, there are pockets of concern when, for instance, corrupt networks are discovered (think, for instance, of police corruption in the US, UK or Australia – or indeed the Panama Papers), so even in the most corrupt countries, you can get ‘islands of integrity’.  So, if we can understand better what contributes to good or bad practice at the local level, we may be able to develop specific interventions that make a concrete difference.  Increasingly, we recognise that ‘one size fits all’ solutions do not work, and all the projects in the BA/DFID ACE program are very much designed with that in mind.

What is the most interesting aspect of the program’s work for you personally?

What I have especially valued is the opportunity to work closely with a range of different colleagues, and to seek to promote opportunities for genuine engagement across constituencies that have not come together enough in the past.  For instance, on the back of the UK Summit next week, we are hosting a workshop at the British Academy that brings together researchers working on the program with the Thinking and Working Politically Community of Practice, as well as leading figures from the policy community – including representatives from DFID, the World Bank, Oxfam, Transparency International, Afrobarometer, and others.  It’s a really exciting line-up, and one that we hope will stimulate an ongoing discussion about how to align our respective insights and expertise to address the scourge of corruption in all its various forms.