How Think Tanks Can Support the Fight Against Corruption

10 July 2015

[Editor’s note: This post was written by Till Bruckner, independent researcher, advocacy manager for Transparify, and regular contributor to On Think Tanks.]

In many countries and sectors, corruption is major problem. Corruption distorts democratic processes, hampers economic development, and usually diverts resources away from the poor.

At the same time, when it comes to actual anti-corruption programming in developing countries, there is often a disconnect between academic thinking on corruption, empirical research and aid industry action on the ground:

  • Corruption is strongly culturally, socially and situationally contingent, but these dimensions are routinely ignored by the aid industry
  • Anti-corruption projects and programmes often target highly visible petty corruption rather than addressing grand corruption in the form of systematic market distortions and rigged infrastructure tenders
  • Most aid industry publications on the topic offer generic recommendations instead of actionable policy advice

Think tanks in developing countries are the actors best situated to bridge the gap between academia and anti-corruption practitioners, identify the most salient avenues of intervention, and produce actionable policy advice tailored to the information needs of national stakeholders.

As an anti-corruption practitioner, here are some things that I’d like to see think tanks doing even more in the coming years:

  • Draw on the academic literature, including on nonempirical approaches, to propose solutions that do not rely on rational choice approaches alone.
  • Refocus the attention of policymakers, activists and the media away from petty corruption and redirect it toward where the real money is.
  • Show evidence of critical thinking that goes beyond the simplistic, ahistorical and often empirically unsupported models often found in the aid industry.
  • Use tool boxes like the Open Government Guide to draw up lists of possible transparency and anti-corruption measures, critically compare these options, and identify the most promising approaches given local realities (disclosure: I currently work as a consultant for Transparency & Accountability Initiative, which produces the Open Government Guide).
  • Identify positive examples of successful anti-corruption action taken in comparable countries or sectors, and analyse how these could be adopted by various local actors.
  • Help local practitioners to shortlist the most promising anti-corruption approaches in the national context, and assist them in translating these into concrete activities that avoid the pitfalls outlined above.
  • Develop policy recommendations that meet the following criteria: legality, political acceptability, robustness under conditions of administrative implementation, improbability, budgetary viability and integrity, and opportunity (see this excellent blog by Leandro Echt for details)

In short, it would be great to see national think tanks deliberately and systematically introducing more critical thinking into their local anti-corruption tanking scenes. After all, only tanks that shoot in the right direction, and with the right ammunition, can actually destroy their targets.

Note: This blog was adapted from a longer article that originally appeared on the Devex website under the title “From corruption research to effective anti-corruption action: The role of think tanks”.