Why the Lid Doesn’t Fit the Pot: The Mismatch Between Corruption and Anti-corruption Programming

June 16, 2016 | Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church

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When programming does not fit the issue it is meant to address, creating significant change becomes highly unlikely.  As is posited in our forthcoming paper for the Corruption, Criminal Justice and Legitimacy Program, much current work assumes corruption is a “simple” problem and therefore reacts with a “simple” (e.g. predictable cause-effect based) solution.   The academic debate has unintentionally contributed to this adoption of simplicity with its focus on which theory better or more fully explains corruption as a phenomenon: principal-agent or collective action.  Should we follow the principal-agent model and analyze opportunities, discretion and sanctions to understand motivations? Or should we follow the collective action model and focus on group dynamics and lack of trust?

We would argue: both and neither.

Both theories are valid but…

Both theories offer valuable insights into what variables enable corruption, and thus provide useful conceptual frameworks for analysis that helps develop approaches to combat corruption. Understanding and addressing how discretion, monopoly, and accountability affect people’s incentives is important. At the same time, collective action theories bring the important insight that group dynamics also affect incentives—i.e. that there are no incentives to initiate changes in corruption practices when there is no trust that others will do the same. As Marquette and Peiffer conclude in their 2015 paper on Corruption and Collective Action, it is more useful to identify how both lenses can complement each other in analysis and strategic planning.

… neither leads to effective strategy and programming

Neither theory offers an explanation of corruption and its persistence. Marquette & Peiffer suggest that both approaches fail to recognize that corruption persists because it, in fact, solves problems.

They propose a third lens for understanding corruption: identifying the functions corruption serves and the political dynamics that underpin it.

We suggest that the lack of attention to this “third perspective” is a symptom of a larger blind spot in anti-corruption practice. It points to certain implicit but fundamental assumptions about the nature of corruption, in that both “principal-agent” and “collective action” theories treat corruption as a “simple” or “obvious” problem. In reality, corruption is a “complex” and resilient social problem that cannot be understood, or addressed, separately from the broader political, social, cultural and economic context in which it takes place. In other words, it is not only important to know what factors to look for in a corruption analysis, but also to understand how those factors interact with each other.

Why does this matter for anti-corruption strategy?

Simple and complex systems evolve and change differently. The “complexity” or “simplicity” of the situation one is trying to address will affect what kinds of strategies and programs will be effective in promoting change. Yet when a situation is understood—and analyzed—as a simple problem, the risk of adapting a “simple” strategy that cannot address the dynamics of a complex problem is high. This, we argue, sheds some light on the lack of effectiveness of many anti-corruption programs.

When “principal-agent” and “collective action” strategies treat corruption as a “simple” or “obvious” problem, they fall short when faced with the complexity of corruption. This results in a limited and narrow analysis that stops the development of effective strategies. Consequently, both models, together or separately, are unlikely to generate strategies that will succeed!  Anti-corruption strategies need to be premised on the assumption that corruption in fragile states is a complex dynamic.

About this article

The second in the CDA Perspectives’ corruption, criminal justice and legitimacy mini-series.

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 catalyzing significant change on strategic issues in places experiencing conflict and structural or overt physical violence.  As a Professor of Practice, at the Fletcher School she teaches and consults on program design, monitoring, evaluation and learning. Cheyanne is also a regular author and the curator of the CDA Perspectives blog series on corruption in fragile states.



  1. Jonathan White

    Thank you for the interesting post. I’m intrigued by how you’ve framed corruption as a ‘problem solving’ phenomenon. It would seem to be a major blind spot in most corruption analysis frameworks (e.g., moving beyond the function of corruption as simply self-enrichment or as a standalone phenomenon). It may also open up new grand theories of change and themes for anti-corruption programming, as well as new potential partnerships between different actors or sectors.

    I am somewhat confused, however, that you argue focusing on principal-agent and collective action is a both/neither choice; what are the alternatives beyond these two approaches? Certainly, applying both theories and recognizing the socio-political and economic dynamics underpinning systems of corruption ‘complexifies’ the analysis and approach – is this what you refer to when you state ‘neither’? Or are there other theories or steps that need to be applied?

    • Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church

      Thanks for the response Jonathan. In essence we are saying that neither theory on its own is likely to work in fragile contexts. We posit that both are likely often necessary in different forms, doses and timing combined with context specific additional strategies. More on what needs to go in those additional strategies in mini-series post #4 (coming last week of June).


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