Richard Messick, former legal advisor at the World Bank, Jennifer Widner, Professor at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, and Nils Taxell, Senior Adviser at the U4 Anti-Corruption Centre, discussed why anti-corruption efforts often fail and whether any transferable lessons can be learned from successful attempts.

Contrary to the commonplace notion that transparency and accountability should be the bedrock of any anti-corruption strategy, Messick argued that “too many people in the developed world take their definition of accountability and try to transplant it elsewhere”. 

However this doesn’t work where the tools aren’t in place. Messick explained that “accountability is like jaws, and in order to do anything the jaws need teeth”. Accountability needs to be enforced by an effective prosecution and supported by a free media. Widner agreed, underlining that it is important to have “a justice sector that can actually bring people to justice”.

Similarly, Messick added, “transparency is often the handmaiden of corruption”. For example, when people are colluding to fix the price on public procurement, the best way to ensure they succeed is to make all the prices public—which is the Western notion of transparency.

“Anti-corruption strategies fall into three broad categories”, argued Widner, “reduce the opportunity for it; raise the cost; and change social expectations.” None are fail-safe options, and their effects are highly dependent on the local political economy.

Though there is no exact formula, Taxell suggested that some areas are showing greater effect: public financial management, social accountability and values, media and a strong justice sector are “the foundations of where you see corruption as having been reduced”. Conversely, he pointed out that “the interventions that directly target corruption tend to be the least effective.”

“Is fighting corruption really what we should have as our aim?” asked Taxell. It is not the end in itself, he argued, but a step towards better development outcomes. In isolation, ending corruption will not transform people’s lives. Its significance is that it will remove a persistent barrier towards development.

The event launched a new collection of case studies that illustrate how combatting corruption works in practice. Published jointly by the Legatum Institute and Democracy Lab as part of a series titled 'Curbing Corruption', the studies aim to identify ideas that do and don’t work and share them with the wider anti-corruption and policy communities.

The panel discussion was followed by an expert workshop, where participants examined the specific case studies that have shown positive results. Overarching themes included the balance of enforcement with values-based methods, the effectiveness of bottom-up and top-down approaches, and methods for maintaining momentum towards positive outcomes.

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About the Speakers

Richard E. Messick consults for international organisations, development agencies, and non-governmental organisations on legal development and anti-corruption issues. As an attorney in the United States he advised political parties, office holders, corporations, and political committees on campaign finance and ethics issues and represented individuals and corporations in state and federal matters involving fraud and corruption. After serving as Chief Counsel of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he joined the World Bank where he worked until his retirement on legal and judicial reform and anticorruption projects.

Nils Taxell is a political scientist and development practitioner focusing on governance, anti-corruption, fragile states and aid effectiveness. His current work at the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre focuses on issues related to people’s engagement, the interface between corruption and aid, and the United Nations Convention against Corruption. Prior to joining U4 he headed the Office of the UN Resident Coordinator in Albania, focusing on issues related to UN coordination and aid effectiveness. Before this, Nils was Chief Technical Advisor/Project Manager for UNDP’s Accountability and Transparency (ACT) project in Afghanistan. He holds a Master of Social Science from Uppsala University, Sweden.

Jennifer Widner Professor of Politics and International Affairs and Director of the Mamdouha S. Bobst Center for Peace and Justice. She runs a research programme on institution-building and institutional reform called Innovations for Successful Societies, a joint initiative of the Bobst Center and the Woodrow Wilson School. Her current research focuses on the political economy of institutional reform, government accountability, and service delivery. She is author of Building the Rule of Law (W. W. Norton), a study of courts and law in Africa, and she has published articles on a variety of topics in various political and legal journals.

The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.