As Rick has discussed in a previous post, one common strategy adopted by donors seeking to engage in development and humanitarian work in countries with corrupt governments is to try to bypass national institutions. Instead, they direct their efforts towards the local level, engaging with communities, local leaders, and smaller-scale NGOs. Theoretically, this approach means the money passes through fewer hands, and there are therefore fewer opportunities for some of it to be skimmed off. Furthermore, donors may believe that local institutions are less corrupt or more easily subjected to (or more responsive to) monitoring by donors or other overseers. Donors may also opt for a local-oriented approach for reasons not related to corruption, like supporting projects that are more responsive to people’s actual needs, furthering community empowerment, and building institutions.
However, recent evidence from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) indicates that a local-oriented approach has its corruption-related drawbacks. Resources channeled through national political figures may have the potential to be stolen or misdirected for personal gain, but community-driven development programs are also vulnerable to elite capture. In fact, broader research has indicated that members of community development organizations—the very people with whom donors are partnering in hopes of side-stepping corruption—are more likely to pay bribes than non-members. Furthermore, even when donor programs succeed in creating infrastructure, they tend to fail to improve local governance, accountability, or capacity.
Still, given the pervasive corruption in national governments (in the DRC and elsewhere), and the way those in power benefit from avoiding any meaningful action against corruption, the impulse towards local-side aid is understandable. What, then, are donors to do? Though it’s impossible to guarantee positive results, there are some steps that foreign governments and NGOs can take to mitigate the risk of the money targeted locally from being illicitly diverted: