Public rhetoric about the battle against corruption often centers on the need for “zero tolerance”–the need for institutions, including perhaps most importantly law enforcement agencies–to aggressively root out graft through vigorous prosecution, no matter the circumstances. What more often goes unsaid, though, is that actually following such strategies may end up being counterproductive. The aggressive pursuit of corruption-busting litigation can lead to political elites pulling the rug out from underneath the anticorruption agency (ACA). In South Africa, for example, the National Assembly dissolved the Scorpions, a special investigative unit, once it began going after high-ranking government officials.
As a result of the danger of being undercut, ACAs face an inherent tension in their work: they want to fight corruption to the greatest extent possible, but fighting it too aggressively can lead to the agency’s ability to perform its duties being completely undercut. How far, then, can an ACA push? Though the unique context of any given ACA means no universal lessons exist, there are some general guidelines ACAs should consider when shaping their anticorruption efforts, if they want to avoid a backlash that ultimately consolidates the power of the corrupt: