Some Reflections on the Meaning of Anticorruption “Success”

Last month, we had a spirited debate in the anticorruption blogosphere about the conceptualization of corruption, academic approaches to the study of the topic, and the relationship between research and practice. (The debate was prompted by provocative piece by Bo Rothstein, to which I replied; my critical reaction prompted a sur-reply from Professor Rothstein, which was followed by further contributions from Robert Barrington, Paul Heywood, and Michael Johnston.) I’ve been thinking a bit more about one small aspect of that stimulating exchange: How do we, or should we, think about evaluating the success (or lack thereof) of an anticorruption policy or other intervention? I was struck by the very different assessments that several of the participants in last month’s exchange had regarding whether the anticorruption reform movement had been “successful,” and this got me thinking that although part of the divergence of opinion might be due to different interpretations of the evidence, part of what’s going on might be different understandings of what “success” does or should mean in this context.

That observation, in turn, connected to another issue that’s been gnawing at me for a while, that I’ve been having trouble putting into words—but I’m going to take a stab at it in this post. My sense is that when it comes to defining and measuring “success” in the context of anticorruption reform (and probably many other contexts too), there’s a fundamental tension between two conflicting impulses: Continue reading