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?

Guest Post: When and How Will We Learn How To Curb Corruption?

GAB is pleased to welcome Finn Heinrich, Research Director at Transparency International, who contributes the following guest post:

Listening to conversations about corruption among global policy-makers, corruption researchers, and anticorruption activists alike, I can’t help but notice that the focus of anticorruption research and policy is changing. The 1990s focused mainly on demonstrating that corruption exists and finding ways to measure it (largely through perception-based indicators), and the early 2000s were about assessing corruption risks in specific countries, sectors, or communities, and assessing the performance of anticorruption institutions. More recently, researchers (and their funders and clients) are shifting from the “Where is corruption?” question toward the “How can we fight corruption?” question. They ask: Do we know what works, when, where, and under which circumstances in curbing a specific type of corrupt behavior?

Answering such questions is extremely challenging. Corruption’s clandestine nature makes it difficult to measure, data is often of low quality or simply not available for time-series or cross-sectional analysis beyond aggregate country-level indicators. Furthermore, anticorruption interventions often lack an underlying theory of change which would be needed to design robust research evaluations to find out whether they worked and if so, how (and if not, why not). And we lack realistic but parsimonious causal models which can take account of contextual factors, which are so important to understand and tackle corruption, as corruption is an integral part of broader social and political power structures and relationships which differ across contexts. Similarly, there is a lack of exchange between micro-level approaches focusing on specific, usually local anticorruption interventions, on the one hand, and the macro-level literature on anti-corruption strategies and theories, on the other.

While we at Transparency International certainly do not have any ready-made solutions for these extremely tricky methodological and conceptual issues, we are committed to joining others in making headway on them and have therefore put the “what works” question at the heart of our organizational learning agenda by engaging in reviews of the existing evidence as well as ramping up impact reviews of some of our own key interventions. For example, we have just released a first rapid evidence review on how to curb political corruption, written by David Jackson and Daniel Salgado Moreno, which showcases some fascinating evidence from the vibrant field of political anticorruption research. We are also working with colleagues from Global Integrity on a more thorough evidence review on corruption grievance as a motivator for anti-corruption engagement and are planning further evidence reviews and impact evaluations.

As we start to get our feet wet and figure out how to best go about generating and making sense of the existing evidence on what works in anti-corruption, we are keen to engage with the broader anticorruption research community. Maybe there are others out there who have some ideas about how to go about learning about what works in fighting corruption? If so, please use the comment box on this blog or get in touch directly at