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Communicating anti-corruption messages in development

09 March 2015

Guest post for the OECD.

Development cooperation partners are increasingly asked by their constituencies to show that they give value for money. The financial crisis has hit public agencies around the world hard, and many countries have cut their development cooperation budgets. Under these circumstances, development practitioners are under strong pressure from government – and ultimately their citizens – to justify what they spend on development assistance.

The discussion about corruption in development cooperation captures two areas of great concern to development cooperation agencies: the contribution made to reducing corruption in developing countries, and the safeguarding of tax payers’ money. The costs of corruption are enormous. It undermines rule of law, state legitimacy and stability, and there are many of examples of human suffering in which corruption plays a significant role.

But how accepting are the general public in donor countries likely to be of any suggestion that their money may itself become subject to corruption, even if the projects being funded are intended to do good? And, in times of fiscal austerity, how should development practitioners justify what is spent in other countries when the money is needed also at home?

I recently wrote a report for the OECD Anti-Corruption Task Team, stressing the need for development cooperation agencies to know what the public’s attitudes are before we try to develop a message that responds to their concerns about development programmes in corruption-prone environments. Looking at research that examines public attitudes to aid, we can identify two groups whose views are unlikely to be swayed by any line of argument – those who are aid enthusiasts and those who describe themselves as aid sceptics. Enthusiasts are convinced that aid is the morally right thing to do no matter what the risks, and sceptics are likewise unlikely to see aid as useful in any way, regardless of evidence on the contrary. There is, however, a third category; this group is willing to hear the arguments and can become supporters of aid if convinced that it brings positive change.

In an ACTT seminar on the topic last year, Martin Watson, Senior Consultant at Prospex, suggested that this third group was the one that should be targeted in any communication on development cooperation that hoped to generate support for aid. This is where development actors are most likely to be able to generate enhanced understanding of the complexities of aid and corruption, and also to increase the level of acceptance of their work. As long as donors are honest about what they do and the results they achieve – or don’t achieve – there will be acceptance of their work in complex environments. However, aid practitioners must also demonstrate a preparedness to respond to incidences of corruption when they occur.

However, inflexible responses to corruption in development cooperation pose a further challenge. Many agencies have in recent years adopted a ‘zero-tolerance approach’ to corruption. Each individual agency has its own sanctions, but one frequent response is to cut funds completely. Although risk analyses and pre-award audits have reduced the risk of corruption in recent years, that risk can never be completely eliminated – yet few donors have an action plan for how to handle any corruption they might encounter.

Perhaps a zero-tolerance approach means that we cannot admit to our constituencies that corruption is a risk. Although we engage in high-risk programmes in difficult environments, we do not plan for contingencies because to do so would be a tacit admission that corruption is a possibility.

The tendency among development practitioners has been to pretend that corruption does not exist until it happens; then they close down operations completely, abandoning all potential results, including any change for the better. By instead accepting that corruption may happen, we can plan for monitoring mechanisms and proportional responses – and these would also improve our results in the long run.

Among donors there has also been an inherent tension between the pressure to meet OECD-DAC aid commitments and the need to demonstrate zero-tolerance of corruption. The result? Heads of Mission in development organisations have sometimes closed their eyes rather than allow suspicions of corruption to disrupt disbursement targets. A policy shift is needed so that when corruption is identified and acted on, this is seen as an achievement rather than problematic for the responsible officer, something that sets an example for other aid recipients. It might even prove possible to recover some of the funds diverted by corruption.

This would, in fact, move the anti-corruption agenda forward, even if the donor underspent in the short-term. In the long-term, more funds would be channelled into generating results rather than finding their way into private pockets. And this would be the most positive message of all for the tax payers of donor countries as well as beneficiaries of aid in poor countries.

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