Politics of Poverty

4 new ways to think about foreign aid’s role in fighting corruption around the world

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Alfred Sirleaf, citizen journalist and founder of The Daily Talk, gives comment on current events in Liberia - including the deadly Ebola outbreak and the government's response - via a blackboard newspaper on a busy intersection in Monrovia, Liberia in July 2014. AP Photo/Jonathan Paye-Layleh

Oxfam America launches new research report on local accountability and foreign assistance.

Few Americans would disagree that the aim of US foreign assistance to developing countries must be to help people help themselves. But Americans also don’t want their foreign aid to be lost to corruption—or worse, to fuel corruption.

Traditional top-down, donor-driven approaches have failed to deliver lasting results on fighting corruption, however. The US needs new ways to help people hold their governments accountable:

1) Treat corruption like the common cold.

There is no cure for the common cold—rather, the best therapy is to nurture the immune system. Likewise, the most sustainable and effective way to fight corruption is to nurture a country’s domestic accountability system. Aid can do this by supporting a locally-driven approach that affects the root causes of corruption, not just the symptoms.

2) Stop investing in form over function.

The reliance on technical fixes comes from the mistaken impression that corruption comes from a lack of local technical capacity “to govern like developed countries.” This misunderstanding of corruption leads donors to help countries set up new agencies and pass new laws and regulations, without paying enough attention to the whether they will work in practice.

3) Don’t turn off the aid spigot automatically.

Stopping aid sends a signal to domestic taxpayers that donors are serious about avoiding corruption. But there is no evidence that cutting off aid to a country with deteriorating governance conditions has any long-term effect on reducing corruption or increasing accountability. Cuts to aid disproportionately hurt people living in poverty, who are already experiencing the brunt of the effects of corruption, while having little impact on the power or comfort of corrupt elites.

4) Stop investing in white elephant projects.

Aid agencies fear that if aid money is corruptly diverted, political support for aid will disappear. However, when narrowly focused on only one type of risk, agencies lose sight of the equally significant risks to program outcomes, and to a donor’s reputation when locals view aid as unhelpful or badly targeted. Too often, the conventional approach leads to projects where donors can account for every dollar spent, but the project has little impact on helping people lift themselves out of poverty.

Aid should be a tool that helps countries and citizens take ownership over the development process. Congress, the American people, and most especially the citizens in the countries receiving assistance want aid to be accountable as well as effective. US foreign assistance can help unleash people’s ability to demand accountability from local authorities and instill a culture of integrity in public services. Invested in the right local leaders, foreign assistance can actually help push governments to do the right thing for their citizens.


Learn more in Oxfam America’s new publication, To Fight Corruption, Localize Aid. Oxfam America is working to deepen the US government’s commitment to making poverty-reducing foreign aid more effective. We can’t let Congress miss out on the vast, untapped potential of effective local leaders who are fighting corruption, and that’s why right now Oxfam needs your voice to stand with people around the world who make demands of government, fight for accountability, and get results.

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