What Can We Learn About Corruption in Fragile States?

March 17, 2016 | Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church and Kiely Barnard-Webster

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This post discusses why “what can we learn about corruption in fragile states?” is a central question for The Central Africa Accountable Service Delivery Initiative, and first steps taken to investigate it.

The Central Africa Accountable Service Delivery Initiative (CAASDI) was initiated due to concerns that anti-corruption efforts by foreign assistance actors were not achieving their desired effects. Funded by the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau (INL) of the US State Department,  CDA Collaborative Learning Projects and Besa began work on CAASDI in September 2012, with the aim of developing a diagnostic process to understand corruption dynamics in the criminal justice sector (police, courts, corrections) that will help generate more effective programming in conflict and fragile affected states.

A Diagnostic Process to Understanding Corruption Dynamics

In order to analyse corruption dynamics differently, the first step was to develop a pilot diagnostic process.  Initially designed in early 2014, it drew on a variety of disciplines including political economy analysis, human systems dynamics, social norms research, negotiation theory, collective action best practice and traditional anti-corruption work namely principal-agent approaches.  The theory being that we needed to look beyond traditional areas in order to gain new insights.

The analysis stage of the diagnostic process drew on adaptive systems research to help develop a way of understanding the realities of corruption. The logic behind this approach is that: any system, for example your digestive system, involves a cycle of cause and effect which catalyses action and reaction.

When analyzing how to change any system, particularly a complex one like corruption, focusing on ‘fixing’ specific parts/outcomes in the system will not work. Understanding the relationships and interconnectedness of the entire system was integral to the diagnostic process because it feeds useful thinking about why the system works.

The diagnostic process made the system of corruption more explicit, aiding project design by highlighting gaps and possible ‘entry points’ into the corruption system that served as a starting point for effective program design.

The diagnostic process was initially used to guide research in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). As of the end of the initial research in early 2015, several key lessons were identified that have continued to remain relevant.

1. Usefulness of Available Documentation

Though significant documentation on corruption and/or conflict may be available, CAASDI discovered that this rarely offers useful information for a systems-centric corruption analysis either in focus, coverage or depth. Thus, key questions for the diagnostic process included:

  • Given the quantity of things one could learn about corruption in the criminal justice sector, where are the boundaries between must know, good to know and just interesting in order to develop more effective programming?
  • How does one balance the level of detail and nuance (particularly when it comes to power analysis) needed to understand how corruption embeds within a service delivery mechanism with the amount of resources ($, skills, time) agencies generally have to conduct analysis?

2. Changing the Key Focus

The coalition building literature suggests a successful coalition must be built upon existing momentum in a society; we coined this outrage. However, we quickly learned that the way the word ‘outrage’ translated into Congolese French was not immediately accessible to people in the cities of Kinshasa or Lubumbashi.  More importantly, even with appropriate translations and variations of the term/concept the team was not able to find the equivalent of ‘outrage’ with respect to corruption in the criminal justice sector.  Eventually concluding that outrage against corruption did not exist, thus making the idea of mobilizing existing energy in some form of collective action defunct.

As a result, a key focus of our initial diagnostic process has been thrown out and has since been re-formulated in the second edition of the diagnostic process in our sister project in Uganda (details forthcoming in a future post!).

3. The Role of Donor Behavior

Though not a new lesson, the role of donor behavior in a corruption system was reinforced. Despite explicit statements about the primacy of fighting corruption with foreign aid, in many instances an anti-corruption agenda is not in the international donor community’s interest. Thus, analysis of the dynamics of corruption in fragile states does not often benefit from a sufficient level of nuance and reflection. This is exemplified through the repetition of obviously flawed programming that in theory is meant to advance an anti-corruption agenda. This knowledge prompts us to ask:

In order to create an effective program that seeks to impede corruption, do the actions of the supporting donor or all international donors in relation to complacency on corruption need to be taken into account?  If so, how?

About this article

This post is part of the corruption in fragile states series. The series provides a space for conversation about corruption in fragile states. Since its inception in 2016 as part of the CDA Perspectives Blog, the series has sought to challenge status quo thinking with a particular emphasis on exploring systems-based approaches to understanding and acting on corruption dynamics. Topics in the series range from new research findings in Uganda, Iraq or the DRC to provocative thought pieces intended to contest dominant paradigms or practices.

Now hosted by the Institute for Human Security at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, series contributions are inspired by, but not limited to, the Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy project as well as the, now concluded, Central Africa Accountable Service Delivery Initiative. All blog posts published after March 1, 2018, information about submitting guest posts, and subscribing to future series updates is available here.

To receive blog posts on other topics from CDA subscribe here. You may contact [email protected] if you are interested in submitting a guest post on the latest work in the fields of accountability and feedback loops, conflict sensitivity, peacebuilding effectiveness, and responsible business.

About the author(s)

Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church is Principal at Besa: Catalyzing Strategic Change, a social enterprise committed to catalysing significant change on strategic issues in places experiencing conflict and structural or overt physical violence. She has significant experience working on anti-corruption and state legitimacy in the DRC and Uganda.  As a Professor of Practice she teaches and consults on program design, monitoring, evaluation and learning.


Kiely Barnard-Webster is Program Manager at CDA Collaborative Learning Projects, working on innovative approaches to tackling corruption in the DRC and peacebuilding and conflict sensitivity in Myanmar. She also has experience in the field of gender and development.



  1. Tugume Desteo

    I am very happy with this important work done in my country Uganda. Corruption has become a problem in a sense that it is hidden especially in public offices, bribery, tribalism or nepotism taking effect. I would very much love to see concerted efforts to scale down through working with grass root organizations that fight corruption of all forms especially in empowering the masses to air out their views that affect their rights while advocating for corrupt free environment in Uganda.

    I am a Do No Harm trainer, I have made several observations in issues to do with conflict, there are some tendencies where some masses are being sensitized on tribalism, breeding a culture of hatred, disunity, and enmity between tribes. It is a time bomb mechanism, while this is happening, the leaders are keeping quiet and the young generation are growing up with this suicide thinking. I feel the concept of Do No Harm should be expanded widely to the Country Uganda, I can offer to work given the mandate and logistical support so that we can together help mitigate the silent conflict going on which may become so destructive in the future.

    • Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church

      Thank you for your comment Tugume. You raise a number of important points pertinent to the Uganda context. We are currently in the midst of data collection and will certainly take the variables you mention into account.

  2. Trond K. Botnen

    There is a lot of interesting work that has been done by Shaazka Beyerle and ICNC on bottom-up, people power approaches to fighting corruption. See e.g. her book:

    and. i curriculum that has been developed and available for free.:

    I was quite surprise to see above that the exsitence of “outrage” was denied, partially on purely linguistic grounds. Experience show that the idea of channeling existing energy into collective action is far from defunct, it happens and has happened in many places.

    I would therefore like to ask CDA to what extent these approach have been taken into account in the project and if you really think you can generalise from two DRC cities to conclude that it is not possible to chennel existing energy into collective action?


    • Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church

      Thank you for your thoughtful reflections Trond. Your questions are appreciated. Shaazka’s work, amongst others, related to collective action and/or nonviolent action were reviewed carefully. And I should note as we continue to think, we continue to engage with all of these ideas including Shaazka’s new curriculum..

      We certainly would not generalize our findings to the entire DRC given its size and complexities. Our inability to find ‘outrage’ simply represents the two cities noted above that were included in the study. Further the linguistic point, was more of a research lesson and was not the basis of the conclusion. Once we found suitable means to convey the concept, it was suggested to us that corruption was so normal, it was banal and therefore not something that catalyzed great reaction. .


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