Politics of Poverty

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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