Guest Post: Making the Most of “Windows of Opportunity” for Anticorruption Reform

Today’s guest post is from Florencia Guerzovich, María Soledad Gattoni, and Dave Algoso, a team of independent consultants who jointly authored the Open Society Foundation report on Seeing New Opportunities: How Global Actors Can Better Support Anti-Corruption Reformers.

Ukraine after the Maidan Revolution. Malaysia after the 1MDB Scandal. Brazil after Lava Jato.

In each of these countries—and in many other examples—something triggered a shift in the possibilities for anticorruption reform. Pick your favorite metaphor: the stars align, the winds shift, there’s a fork in the road. We use the term “window of opportunity”: a period when heightened attention to an issue like corruption makes anticorruption reforms more likely. When those windows open, reformers both inside and outside of government try to seize the opportunity to make progress, while contending with forces that aim to maintain the status quo or advance an authoritarian or populist response.

Reformers’ approaches shift in these moments, as do their needs. Though success is not guaranteed, the possibility of reform can increase when global support organizations—including foundations, multilaterals, and NGOs—are better able to meet those needs (while also doing no harm). What do reformers most need during these windows of opportunity? And what can global support organizations do to help meet those needs? With the Open Society Foundations (OSF), we undertook research into those questions, with a primary focus on three case studies:

  • In Guatemala, the “Guatemalan spring” that opened following the announcement of corruption investigations into President Otto Pérez Molina and others in 2015, and the subsequent election of Jimmy Morales;
  • In Slovakia, the mobilizations under the “For a Decent Slovakia” banner and reform efforts that followed the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in 2018;
  • In South Africa, the fight against state capture, which ended Jacob Zuma’s presidency and led to the administration of Cyril Ramaphosa in 2018.

Our findings, presented in a recent OSF report entitled Seeing New Opportunities: How Global Actors Can Better Support Anti-Corruption Reformers, were not always what we’d expected when we started the research. Collectively, our analysis of these case studies and other examples suggests some rethinking in terms of how to best support anticorruption reformers so that they can take maximum advantage of windows of opportunity when they arise.

With respect to what reformers need from outside supporters during these crucial periods, discussions often center on funding and technical assistance. While that’s not incorrect, we found that the nature of the support needed in these areas differs somewhat from what’s typically emphasized. With respect to funding, for example, though one might expect reformers to need a large surge of funding to mobilize new capacity during an open window, it seems that funding consistency (from the pre-window-of-opportunity status quo through until the opening) and flexibility were more critical than funding amounts. As for technical assistance related to anticorruption tools, reformers saw no lack of guidance, though these were certainly more plentiful in a few issue areas favored by donors and external suppliers. The technical gap reformers faced was in practical support to navigate the prolific guidance available and translate it to their political contexts and policy processes.

Our research also highlighted other needs and challenges that reformers face during windows of opportunity, beyond material support and technical advice on substantive policy. For one thing, reformers dealing with highly charged, fluid situations need to figure out how to develop and shift their political strategies appropriately, and to effectively set priorities and manage change. Of particular importance, reformers need to figure out how to craft effective narratives and develop effective anticorruption messaging strategies, often in the face of disinformation attacks. And then there are pressing organizational and ecosystem needs, including the creation of spaces for collaboration and trust-building among reformers from different organizations and backgrounds, and the development of leadership pipelines that ensure reformers across civil society, political parties, and the bureaucracy are ready to step up to the demands presented by windows of opportunity.

These findings suggested a range of possible recommendations that would help support organizations better assist anticorruption reformers in taking advantage of windows of opportunity. Our full report has 15 recommendations; here we highlight just a few of our principal themes.

  • First, we recommend efforts to help build networks of reformers, both within and across countries. In-country networks are critical for building shared understanding and mutual trust among reformers. While networks are best built prior to the opening of a window of opportunity, convening reformers and incorporating collaborative spaces can be equally important after a triggering event happens. Cross-country networks, meanwhile, have proven crucial for helping reformers access and navigate technical knowledge, as well as receive (often informal) coaching from peers. Indeed, it might be advisable to create standing teams of “knowledge translators”—principally reformers from the Global South who have experience in taking advantage of windows of opportunity—who could be ready to help reformers elsewhere navigate and adapt existing technical guidance to their country contexts.
  • Second, we recommend stepping up support in two related areas: (1) messaging and branding; and (2) dealing with disinformation (beyond fact-checking). In an era where the anticorruption agenda risks being manipulated for populist or authoritarian ends, civil society organizations are struggling to shape the narrative and aren’t sure where to turn for support. A more robust ecosystem of consultants, nonprofits, and academics needs to be ready to advise anticorruption reformers in these areas.
  • Third, reformers need more support in navigating the “inside game” of legislative and regulatory processes. This is especially important because reformers from civil society who successfully lead demonstrations and other forms of mass activism often struggle when the reform process shifts into the government arena. These reformers may therefore benefit from expertise navigating legislative and bureaucratic processes. Donors can support this by ensuring reformers have funding to hire lobbyists or former insiders who know how the system works.
  • Fourth, donors and other outside organizations seeking to support anticorruption reformers during windows of opportunity need to strike a balance with respect to coordination. Too little coordination can lead to missed opportunities or conflicting approaches. But striving for too much coordination can create undue process burdens. Balanced approaches like parallel or matching funding encourage shared analysis and strategy while allowing flexibility.

While each of the report’s recommendations can be implemented individually, we see a potential for a more holistic re-imagining of the support infrastructure: delivering support through a new set of hubs and networks, leveraging the experience of reform veterans. While the design of such an approach is beyond the scope of our report, we hope these ideas advance the dialogue in that direction.

1 thought on “Guest Post: Making the Most of “Windows of Opportunity” for Anticorruption Reform

  1. Here are some contradictions or dilemmas I have observed in anti-corruption reforms:
    1. Slow, tardy, long-term educative, preventive, systemic reform vs. quick, short-term, visible punitive/curative approach
    2. Picking low hanging fruits (low risk, low return) vs. frying big fish or big bang approach (high risk, high return)
    3. Relying on external, clear, donor driven approach vs. internal, messy, gerrymandering approach.
    4. Integrating anti-corruption into other reform programs vs. stand alone, silo approach to anti-corruption.

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