Hard Truths/Sound Advice: UNDP’s Strategic Programming for Anti-Corruption Agencies

The United Nations Development Programme’s mission is to help poor countries become wealthy. As evidence that corruption is a, if not the, major obstacle blocking the way, the agency has devoted a growing share of its budget to finding ways combat it. Not all its investments have met with success — as its underpaid staff and consultants (compared to other international agencies) would be the first to admit.

One clear success is a little heralded guidance note for anticorruption agencies in Southeast Asia UNDP released in May. The region is beset with corruption problems large and small, and in response governments have established anticorruption agencies.  But TI’s Corruption Perception Index, the World Governance Indicators, and other cross-national measure of corruption have registered little or no improvement in country scores since the agencies came into existence, and disillusionment has taken hold as policymakers and citizens across the region now sharply question the agencies’ worth.  

Strategic Programming for Anti-Corruption Agencies: Regional Guidance Note for ASEAN makes it clear that the problem starts at the top. That agency leaders have let others set the terms for judging their agency’s success. Echoing advice to criminal justice agencies by the closest student of bureaucracy since Weber, the report explains that until anticorruption agencies define success in realistic, measurable, achievable objectives that will make a difference in citizens’ lives, their standing will not improve and continued support will remain at risk.

Along the way the UNDP report doesn’t gloss over the challenges agencies face while offering sound advice on how to overcome them.  Some especially important hard truths and good examples of sound advice –

Hard truths:

“There is a fundamental lack of clarity what it means for an ACAs to be successful. There are very few performance indicators directly linked to the nature of their work apart from the incidence of bribery [and it is measured by surveys of questionable reliability].”

“The core challenge is the difficulty of collecting relevant data that is inherent in the obscure nature of corruption.”

“Relying on data collected by international institutions leaves the ACA in a situation where it can neither ensure the quality nor control the methodology used to appraise its performance.”

“Indicators are not different pieces of a puzzle that can be assembled to provide a single clear picture. Instead, they are overlapping and potentially contradictory in content and substance, or their results can simply not be compared.”

Sound Advice:

“Focus on petty corruption. It is a more predictable phenomenon that allows for a structured approach and easier achievable progress.”

[Speaking of the CPI and misguided efforts to design programs to improve a country’s ranking] “it is vital that the indicators fit the project, not the other way around.”

“M&E is still the weakest part of AC programming. . . . they merit ACAs’ full attention and devotion of resources. As a minimum requirement, ACAs should have dedicated M&E units.”

“Providing databased evidence is the best method of shaping their perceptions – which, in turn, is the only (!) way of improving a country’s performance in perceptions-based indicators, like the CPI.”

My only problem with Strategic Programming is the title. It could limit readership to those in Southeast Asia working for or on anticorruption agency issues. That it would a loss, for It deserves close study by activists, policymakers, and anticorruption practitioners across the globe.

And finally a plea: will UNDP please translate into at least the other four UN languages if not more.   

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