The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

What if anti-corruption measures aren’t the best way to fight corruption?

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Oxfam finds that citizens monitoring government services at the local level may be more effective than internationally-supported programs.

Tariq Sayed Ahmad is a Researcher with the Aid Effectiveness Team at Oxfam America.

“What’s the best way donors can use aid to fight corruption?”

I’m trying to tackle this question here at Oxfam and I am quickly realizing something – the international communities’ efforts at reducing corruption have limited success. After 60 years of ODA and 30 years where corruption has been a top developmental priority, corruption continues to plague developing countries.

Meanwhile, leaders in the development community are having a legitimate debate on how important it is to fight corruption. In his annual letter, Bill Gates argued that obsessing over corruption in aid delivery is a waste of time and suggested—noting that while corruption happens and should be exposed—it’s not endemic as it used to be.  On the opposite end of the spectrum, World Bank president Jim Kim has upped his rhetoric against corruption. To him and a number of other thought leaders, corruption and its big brother, poor governance, are potentially the biggest constraints to effective development.

At Oxfam, we understand that corruption is a problem, not only because it lessens the value and impact of every aid dollar spent, but more importantly because the men, women, girls, and boys living in poverty – the intended beneficiaries of ODA – are disproportionally affected by corrupt behavior. Therefore the debate should not be about ending aid, or simply tolerating corruption in aid, or pouring more money into anti-corruption programs.

Rather, we need to learn more about the relationship between aid and corruption. That’s why I’m heading up a research project on the subject for Oxfam.

Our initial findings are telling us a deeper story about aid and corruption. There may be ways we can reform how the US and other donors give aid to protect aid from graft, but also empower local actors to end corrupt practices in countries. More often than not, anti-corruption successes are not related to internationally-funded efforts at the national level. I’m finding that they emerge when governments work in partnership with citizen oversight bodies at the local level to try to improve service delivery such as in clinics or schools.

In Sierra Leone, for example, the government initiated a program intended to decrease corruption within the health care sector. While the program was largely top-down, a community participation and oversight element facilitated local engagement. The project, in addition to the removal of user-fees, led to a 250% increase in the use of health facilitates in Sierra Leone and positive changes in health indicators.

We’re just starting this research project and I’d like your help. If you have some thoughts or insights on corruption and aid, please email us. But in particular, we’re looking for ways to demonstrate how tackling corruption may lead to a developmental impact. Please also share your examples of:

  • A case of corruption in an aid project (US or other donor.) How was it identified and addressed? What role did donors (and aid dollars) play in the situation?
  • When a person or organization successfully tackled corruption in either an aid project or in service delivery at the local level.
  • Government or civil society leaders who have “taken on” corrupt officials or corrupt practices. Under what kinds of circumstances? What was the outcome?

Watch this space to see more of our findings related to aid and corruption. If you have examples to share, kindly send them to TAhmad (at) OxfamAmerica (dot) org.

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  1.'Craig Fagan

    Ending corruption means ending poverty.

    It is that simple and it is a belief that both anecdotes and quantitative evidence confirm. It is also a common understanding that Transparency International (TI) shares with Oxfam.

    TI has done two studies on the topic (2010, 2012), which both show how higher rates of bribery correlate with higher levels of maternal mortality, lack of access to sanitation and higher illiteracy rates (

    Work done by some of our nearly 100 chapters around the world (two-third of which can be found in developing countries) show at the individual and community level the impact that corruption can have – and the positive benefits unleashed by fighting it.

    For example, allegations of corruption in a grain feeding scheme in Zimbabwe were investigated and helped to positively shift how the programme was working (

    In India, addressing corruption in local land administration in the rural state of Bihar helped to ensure a needy family the title to their land.

    As Tariq notes and these cases demonstrate, corruption remains a plague and affects communities every where, in the developing and developed world. In developing countries, TI believes that there are different ways that donors can use aid to tackle corruption. Part of it comes from looking at how donor delivery systems and processes are structured to prevent corruption while promoting openess, accountability and participation of the money that they are giving.

    The other side is looking at how actual funding is dedicated to certain programmes to promote broader anti-corruption and governance outcomes. However, both center on how each can be used to properly prevent, detect, investigate and sanction corruption.

    Donors, particularly multilateral organisations, often have checks and balances to help with how they are operating.

    For example, the World Bank’s integrity vice president (INT) investigates allegations of corruption in how money is being disbursed. The publication of annual reports provide a good topography into how corruption can happen in aid and the ways to mitigate the risks.

    This work is complimented by civil society organisations, like TI national chapters, that look into similar allegations.

    For example, investigative work of Transparency International’s chapter in Peru has revealed a case of misuse of funds in the country surrounding a climate finance programme supported by donors to complete a reforestation project covering 5,000 acres of reclaimed land, worth a total of US$1 million. Their auditing prompted an investigation that continues into the supervisor involved in the project.

    Programming also needs to focus on initiatives that provide ways to break the chain of corruption, nationally and locally.

    Rather than stand-alone anti-corruption interventions to build procurement or public financial management systems, the trend by donors is towards integrating anti-corruption in all aspects of work, such as education, health, natural resources, water, security and technology. Mainstreaming anti-corruption into sector work is to reduce corruption’s impact on delivery outcomes. Putting people at the centre of this process is critical and what will make achieving post-2015 commitments possible.

    TI looks forward in supporting Oxfam as it develops this area of work.


    Dear friend, you know most of the people of all communities (Bengali/Tamil) in this sub-continent are infected by ‘Culture of Poverty’ (Oscar Lewis), irrespective of class, dwells in pavement or apartment. Here material poverty is a less important issue. We do not truly condemn the deep-rooted corruption, decaying quality of life, bad Politics, poor work place, weak mother language, non-stop consumption / erosion of Social Space. Our traditional practice – becoming parents only by self-procreation (animal instinct supported by crude consumerism) deliberate deprivation of the basic rights of a caring society (and dignified living) to the newcomers. Never, ever consider alternative/positive values – stop giving birth to any child till the society improves substantially, co-parenting children those are born within extreme poverty, instead. If freedom is desired by us from vicious cycle of poverty, nasty pollution needs to put a clear commitment in our mindset, inducing some hope by changing our lifestyle, participate a move like ‘Production of Space’(Henri Lefebvre), fair & competent Politics would certainly come up. Howrah, India.

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