Corruption research: Hunting for glimmers of light in the gloom

Dr Caryn Peiffer, Lecturer in International Public Policy and Governance in the Centre for Urban and Public Policy Research, and her colleague Rosita Armytage of the University of Birmingham reflect on findings from their current project Islands of Integrity.

In most countries that struggle with endemic corruption, discussion of corruption is everywhere. It dominates national newspapers and is the subject of political infighting and point-scoring between politicians. Corruption scandals and allegations are discussed in family homes, social gatherings, and on street corners. Strong opinions and rumours are easy to come by.

But the challenge for researchers is to find people who can shed objective light on where and why it happens. Corruption is located ‘elsewhere’ – always attributed to other sectors, organisations, units, or individuals. For obvious reasons, few will admit their own involvement.

We thought we would have better luck focusing on anticorruption success stories. If people are generally willing to join in a conversation about corruption but reluctant to blame or attribute responsibility, we thought – perhaps naively – that it might be easier to start a discussion about what is going right. Not so.

We have just completed the second phase of our Islands of Integrity research project. In the first phase we scrutinised data from Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer and statistically identified potential anticorruption success stories. These are sectors within countries – whether the courts, education, or healthcare, for instance – where the data show a significant reduction in bribery, despite static or rising levels of bribery in all other sectors. In the second phase we have contacted people familiar with each of our potential cases in an effort to vet a handful of these apparent success stories to assess whether they are likely to represent a real reduction in bribery on the ground.

The third phase will focus in depth on whether and how bribery reduction was achieved. In the process of narrowing down to two cases for this fieldwork phase, we’ve had some surprising reactions from a handful of in-country experts.

For a start, most people we talk to are adamant that things are just as corrupt now as they ever have been, regardless of what the data might appear to say. Sectoral experts (NGO officers, advocacy experts, practitioners, academics, and specialists such as criminologists) in almost all the countries our project has looked at have expressed significant reluctance to discuss or even examine data which might suggest that there has been a reduction in bribery in their sector.

Many of those who have been willing to look at what the data suggest have pulled no punches about how suspicious they are of its validity and statistical soundness. Some have refused point-blank to discuss what factors might have been at play during any given period when there was an apparent reduction in corruption. And some, of course, simply didn’t reply. Why, we find ourselves wondering, is it so hard to get a conversation going with the people who might know what really works – and why – in the fight against corruption?

What might all this hesitancy be about? Some clues have been offered by our more communicative (though no less sceptical) respondents. We discovered, for instance, that if we were very clear that our data might only be detecting temporary reductions in corruption, and didn’t necessarily suggest that these improvements had continued or were ongoing, some of our respondents were more willing to get involved and investigate further.

Critically, as other correspondents pointed out, the sectors we are looking at – ranging from land use and health services to policing – are often the focus of intense political contestation. For police forces in particular – our focus in three of the countries we considered – there is the real danger that data that indicate even a temporary improvement might be appropriated to neutralise anti-corruption work. It might be commandeered for public relations efforts by incumbent administrations, or by anyone with a vested interest in prolonging and sustaining corrupt practices.

We wonder if all this adds up to a kind of pessimism. Perhaps experts who feel that there is still a long, long way to go on the anti-corruption trail find it hard to recognise even small or temporary improvements, particularly where apparent shifts are marooned in a sea of nationwide and worsening corruption.

Of course, it is also possible – as one of our most vehement correspondents has told us – that nothing has changed and our data is deceiving us. It may be that the success we think we have identified is an illusion created by poor data, and statistical outliers are, of course, notoriously clouded in this type of suspicion. But it may also be that those fighting corruption on the ground are fearful that any stories about corruption reduction will undermine the urgency of their work and erode the political will to combat the very serious corruption that still remains.

Some pertinent questions have recently been asked by Duncan Green about how the anti-corruption movement can sharpen up its act. But it turns out that researching corruption is almost as challenging as reducing it. And researching success can be particularly politically challenging. Seeking to locate improvements in contexts of ever-worsening official abuses of power can easily appear foolhardy, naive, or downright counterproductive. As researchers, we must consciously balance the need to find out what works in the fight against corruption with the imperative to do no harm.

Nevertheless, we will continue to investigate these glimmers and gleams of apparent improvement further. If we do discover some small – even if only temporary – improvement in one location, it might provide a clue to the circumstances, policies, or politics that can reduce corruption in other contexts too.

This post is cross-posted from the DLP blog (posted 25/07/17).

(Image: Darkday via flickr under Creative Commons)

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