Guest Post: The 2017 World Development Report’s Embrace of Anticorruption Incrementalism

GAB is pleased to welcome back Finn Heinrich, from Transparency International’s research team, who contributes the following guest post:

In January, the World Bank published its latest World Development Report (WDR)– this time focused on “Governance and the Law” and their role in effective development policies. The annual World Development Reports typically receive significant attention from the wider development community, and indeed there have already been a number of events (see here, here, and here) and reviews (see here and here) dedicated to the 2017 WDR. The reviewers generally agree that the report’s key points—that governance matters a lot for many development outcomes, that what matters are governance functions rather than specific institutional forms, and that effective governance often depends more on underlying power dynamics than on institutional forms or capacities—are important insofar as the World Bank’s explicit acknowledgement of them represents a big step for the bank, but otherwise nothing new. After all, initiatives such as Thinking and Working Politically and Doing Development Differently have propagated these insights for a while.

None of the existing reviews, however, engages with the question of the 2017 WDR’s implications for the anticorruption community specifically. Yet the report repeatedly emphasizes three dysfunctionalities of a governance system—exclusion, capture, and clientelism—all of which are “negative manifestations of power asymmetries,” and all of which can be thought of as forms of corruption. While these terms (especially “capture,” which ends up being the one the WDR uses most frequently) is still conceptually underdeveloped, the term helpfully focuses on systemic forms of corruption in public institutions (broadly defined), rather than on corruption as an individual exchange between two actors (such as bribery). Thus, the WDR emphasizes that combatting the corruption of policies and governance processes (i.e. corruption in its political, grand, and systemic forms, rather than a focus on street-level bribery) is at the heart of making development policies work. That the World Bank is taking this position in its flagship publication is no small accomplishment, especially given that 25 years ago the Bank shied away from even using the word corruption.

Where the WDR falls short, however, is to put forward operationally relevant insights on how to address the problem of capture of public institutions by private interests. It starts off well with acknowledging the importance of expanding participation in governance (“contestability”) and of changing the relevant actors’ incentives and belief systems. Yet the WDR’s real-life examples of anti-capture interventions, scattered throughout the report, largely refer to cases where minor nudges or other incremental adjustments slightly shifted preferences and therefore behavior. To be clear, many of these examples of anticorruption interventions are not widely known to the anticorruption community, making the WDR a treasure trove of empirical nuggets on accountability, transparency, and participation interventions. Nonetheless, the report is frustratingly silent on the question of how to proceed when fundamental dysfunctional power asymmetries need to be changed.

Perhaps, though, that aspect of the report is a feature rather than a bug: Maybe it is a reflection of a new humility on the part of the World Bank and other external development actors in terms of what role they can be expected to play in governance and anticorruption. Mushtaq Khan, for example, embraced the WDR as “the incrementalist’s manifesto,” arguing that external development agencies should focus on fixing those problems where the interests of reformers and powerful actors within the society align (see also here). Could it be that this incremental approach to anticorruption will yield more results over time than the many grand and ambitious initiatives which unfortunately have often fallen short of their marks?

5 thoughts on “Guest Post: The 2017 World Development Report’s Embrace of Anticorruption Incrementalism

  1. Thank you for your post Mr. Heinrich. I am left wondering what your answer would be to the final question you posed. If you are in favor of incrementalism, is that the best approach only for an organization like the world bank or for all anticorruption advocates?

    • Well, i think it depends on what is possible in the specific context, but I would definitely support more realistic and politically aware approaches to anti-corruption, particularly from external actors. In many cases, such approaches might end up being “incremental” and small in scope, in others they might be more ambitious from the outset. And even incremental changes to the corruption syndrome of a country could well, over time, amount to a more fundamental shift in power imbalances. So, overall, I think, yes, the Bank and other organisations shouldn’t rule out supporting anti-corruption interventions just because they seem to small or unambitious.

      • Thanks for your reply – I’m just curious here, but what are the “other organizations” in addition to the World Bank?

  2. How, if it all, has corruption been discussed in past years’ WDRs? It makes sense that this year’s report, being about governance, would focus on systemic corruption, but I wonder if examples of individual corruption are a normal feature. If the World Bank really has come around to the idea that fighting corruption is fundamental to sustainable development, I would think that they would take every opportunity to highlight the many different forms of corruption and how they impact community life. Furthermore, it seems to me that there should be coherence between discussions of both individual cases of corruption and systemic corruption, such that proposed structural reforms actually take account of and are calculated to deter detrimental behavior at the individual level.

    I guess ultimately I’m curious whether the World Bank seems to have developed a view of and approach to addressing corruption that is consistent over time and across contexts.

  3. Pingback: Guest Post: The 2017 World Development Report’s Embrace of Anticorruption Incrementalism | Matthews' Blog

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