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Corruption: is the right message getting through?

12 August 2015

A couple of years ago, Cote d’Ivoire’s government erected striking black and orange billboards around Abidjan that carried messages like “It destroyed my region” and “It killed my son”.

The plague the government was trying to raise awareness about was not disease, poverty, or even war; it was corruption. Even for those unable to read the slogans, the alarmist orange on gloomy black was evocative of menace. Unfortunately, it was also sufficiently reminiscent of the visual branding of telecoms company Orange to convince quite a few Abidjanians that they were looking at mobile phone network adverts.

The awareness-raising agenda now has a prominent role in many anticorruption programs. Anticorruption billboards and posters appear in major cities across the developing world, usually less cryptic than Abidjan’s, and they are just the tip of the iceberg. Anticorruption sessions feature in secondary school curricula. Anticorruption-themed pop music and events sing out in lyrics and act out on stage the ways people can resist corruption and limit the damage it does. In some countries, even the youngest children are not overlooked; on a trip to Fiji last year I was given a few cute anticorruption cartoon bookmarks that were being distributed by the anticorruption commission to primary school students.

The message is being pushed out, but what impact is it having? Gauging effectiveness is always a tricky business when it comes to anticorruption. And, sadly, one of the strongest messages from a recent DFID evidence paper is that the available evidence does not make it entirely clear what impact many anticorruption interventions have had—including efforts to involve civil society.

Yet corruption’s global profile has certainly been raised. A 2010 BBC World Service survey of citizens in 26 countries found that corruption was then the world’s most frequently discussed global problem. Though a bit dated, the statistic remains significant; even as recently as the late 1980s, it would have been impossible to publish a whole book about the international effort to quell corruption. And, as I understand it, raising the profile of corruption is intended to inspire citizens to demand loudly that the government cleans up – so loudly that they cannot be ignored.

So the question has to be asked: once awareness is raised, does it in fact create a groundswell of anticorruption civic resistance?

This question has inspired a new pilot research project from the Developmental Leadership Program. As project leader, I aim to gauge whether and how different awareness-raising messages influence citizens’ beliefs about what to do when they encounter corruption. We particularly want to address concerns that awareness-raising efforts might be backfiring, raised in recent years mainly by those researching under the ‘corruption as a collective action problem’ framework.

The argument goes that when there is a pervasive expectation across society that everyone is engaging in corruption, most citizens will be inclined to swim with the tide rather than perhaps find they are struggling against it alone. So if anticorruption messages give people the perception that corruption is more widespread than they would have otherwise thought, the messages may actually be reducing their willingness to fight it rather than firing them up to confront its perpetrators.

Little research has so far been done to test this notion, but there is already some worrying evidence. For example, in a recent DLP paper, my co-author Linda Alvarez and I do indeed find that when people think that corruption is becoming a growing problem, they tend to be less willing to report it, protest against it or join civic anticorruption organisations.

The new study will test what impact different awareness-raising messages might be having, using a survey-experiment. Working with the Regional Economic Development Institute in Jakarta, we will recruit 1,000 survey participants who will be randomly assigned to five groups. Each group will be asked to read one anticorruption awareness-raising message (except for the control group, which will not read any message). There are four messages:

  • how and where to report corruption;
  • recent achievements by the government in controlling corruption;
  • recent high-profile corruption scandals;
  • details about the prevalence of corruption at the local level.

After reading their message, all respondents will then answer the same questions about their perceptions of corruption, and their willingness to report or otherwise fight corruption.

The data will be scrutinised to see whether and how different messages provoked different reactions in the follow-up survey questions. The hope is that this research will begin to answer two questions: Do certain messages heighten worries about corruption, while others ease them? And do some messages ignite the activist spirit, while others dim it?

One thing is certain, however. As corruption awareness-raising programmes proliferate, we urgently need to know whether anticorruption messages are provoking much more serious unintended consequences than a little accidental PR for a mobile phone company.

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