The Role of Anticorruption Communications in Sustaining Integrity Reforms

Today’s Guest Post is by Corina Rebegea, governance and anti-corruption advisor with the National Democratic Institute (NDI). Corina oversees programming on transparency, anticorruption and countering kleptocracy and has previously worked on rule of law and justice reform, democratic governance and foreign policy issues, and foreign malign influence.

Moments of democratic opening can be a critical time for anticorruption reforms. In many instances, corruption triggered regime change. In a just released paper for the National Democratic Institute, I examine how to shape a reform message when a sudden shift to democracy opens a window of opportunity.

The paper confirms the important and obvious but often overlooked point that how we talk about corruption plays an important role in democratic transitions. An anticorruption communication campaign can thus inform policy priorities, help mobilize and sustain public opinion, and manage expectations. All are crucial for creating the conditions that make systemic change possible – and durable.

During times of political change, dedicating time to communications, as well as having the right expertise and tools, can be a daunting task. Especially as competing priorities must be addressed in a short period of time. Campaigns can also backfire, as the research summarized in the paper. The campaign can focus too much on the problem, leading to resignation, apathy or even nudging citizens to engage in corruption. Understanding how to effectively communicate anticorruption priorities, reforms and timelines is essential, particularly as there is a risk that forces opposing the democratic opening will retain enough power to derail integrity reforms and cause the window to close.

While more experimentation, research and analysis are needed, the lessons the paper offers are meant to inform the design of campaigns to build public support for integrity reforms, trust, and durable anticorruption outcomes. 

The Assad Family’s (Anti)Corruption Playbook: Patronage and Pruning

The Syrian civil war is an unfathomable and ongoing tragedy. In addition to the direct destruction and loss of life, the war has plunged Syria’s already troubled economy into an even  deeper crisis. A shocking 90% of the Syrian population lives in extreme poverty, and roughly 60% of the country does not have adequate food. Since 2010, the economy has contracted by 60%, while inflation has increased by over 300% and the value of the Syrian lira has depreciated by over 700%. Yet President Bashar al-Assad and his loyal networks of regime insiders and elite businessmen continues to profit, thanks in large part to rampant corruption. Assad and his friends have diverted tens of millions in humanitarian aid, forced families of detainees to pay bribes to visit them or win their release, and pocketed and re-sold rationed wheat on black markets. Most recently, the Syrian regime and its business partners have turned the country into a narcostate. In a damning investigation released at the end of 2021, the New York Times found that the Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian Army—commanded by Assad’s younger brother, Maher al-Assad—is behind the production and distribution of the amphetamine captagon.

This story sounds depressingly familiar: In all too many countries, a tiny elite of privileged insiders gets rich from corrupt practices, while ordinary people suffer extreme deprivation. But in Syria there is a twist: In the last two years, the Assad regime has also been carrying out a ruthless anticorruption campaign, one that has targeted some of his own loyalists. For example, in 2020 Assad went after his cousin and close friend Rami Makhlouf, a once-untouchable business tycoon who at one point was estimated to control 60% of the Syrian economy. More recently, Assad detained and seized the assets of five loyal executives at Syria’s second-largest cellphone company.

This seems like a paradox: Assad’s anticorruption campaign is unfolding alongside his circle’s ongoing abuses of power. But in fact this is true to form. Starting during the reign of Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez Al-Assad (henceforth Hafez), the Assad regime has followed a pattern of “patronage and pruning” to manage the inherent tension between, on the one hand, cultivating elite support by allowing loyal elites to exploit public power for private gain, and, on the other hand, preventing public discontent with corruption from getting so out of hand that it threatens the regime’s stability and authority. Continue reading

China’s Anticorruption Campaign Adds Popular Culture Entertainment Into its Toolbox

A TV series called In the Name of the People, featuring China’s current fight against high-level government corruption, has gone viral in China. Dubbed the Chinese House of Cards, the show reached an 8% TV viewing rate (the highest in 12 years) and by the end of April 2017, had been watched over 20 billion times across major Chinese online video platforms. The show is widely acclaimed for its quality production, intriguing storylines, and, more importantly, for its bold, vivid depiction of the ugly side of China’s political and social reality. Shows like this are not merely entertainment: popular culture, including TV shows, can be an important tool in the fight against corruption.

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