Corruption and Political Will

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A common complaint among reformers and policy practitioners is that anti-corruption efforts are frustrated by the low political will of politicians and bureaucrats. Unfortunately, this diagnosis is painting with too broad a brush. First, the concept of political will is inherently difficult to measure, resulting in a “black-box” effect: If an intervention does not work, we do not know if it was due to a lack of political will—or something else—and if it does work, we say “political will must have been present.” Second, the term can obscure the specific reason for low political will and conflate motivation to implement reform with capacity. Finally, the term focuses on high-level, individual actors and ignores the broad-based support that is needed to sustain reform.

Methods and Results

To better understand the dynamics of political will and its role in anti-corruption efforts, researchers conducted a three-stage process: literature review, evaluation of interventions, and in-depth case studies, with each stage building on the lessons learned in the previous. (See the full report here.)

In the literature review, instead of classifying political will as either present or absent, researchers found that in practice, there are five underlying scenarios that make corruption difficult to stop or mitigate in a low political-will environment and that each should be explored as part of a political economy analysis (PEA) and thinking and working politically (TWP) approach. Here is what reformers and practitioners must look and plan for:

  1. Officials who benefit personally from the corruption and are unwilling to change.
  2. Officials who owe their political power to their ability to distribute corruption’s rewards.
  3. Officials captured by economic actors, such as state-owned enterprises, connected companies, or powerful oligarchs, who are resistant to reforms and put pressure on politicians to undermine or stop them.
  4. Officials who may be sincerely interested but face roadblocks from powerful subordinates who benefit from the status quo.
  5. Officials who may be motivated to tackle corruption but lack sufficient capacity (resources and expertise).

Given this complex mix of potential motives, relationships, and capacity, the researchers concluded that direct, high-level anti-corruption programming is inadvisable in low political-will settings and that an indirect, sectoral approach was likely to be more fruitful. For instance, if improvements in education are critical, a corrupt business leader or government official may be willing to set aside some payback (rents) from the education sector to accomplish larger goals such as higher graduation rates, test scores, or labor productivity. The key to a sectoral approach is ensuring a focus on sectoral-level policy outcomes (e.g., improved education, health, or infrastructure outcomes) and addressing corruption as a means to achieve these outcomes.

Researchers then conducted an intensive evaluation of ten well-known and highly praised interventions that could be most fruitfully paired with a sectoral approach, evaluating them for theoretical and empirical support, reasonable costs, and political feasibility. They found four families of interventions with the greatest chance of success: 1) transparency initiatives, 2) social audits, 3) e-governance reforms, and 4) procurement reforms.

As a final step, researchers conducted four original case studies: in Vietnam, Mozambique, Ukraine, and Peru. A key finding was the role of timing and preparation for windows of opportunity when the status quo of “politics as usual” was suddenly and dramatically challenged. Even when the process of reform was long, these critical junctures created opportunities for internal champions and reform advocates to move forward.

In addition to the full report, these findings were summarized for USAID in this brief.



Edmund Malesky (PI), Maureen Lempke (Co-PI), Rachel Ansley, Abdedaim Battioui, Jorge Delgado Golusda, Rachel George, Griffin Riddler, Dean Storelli



USAID Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance (the DRG Center) as part of the Learning, Evaluation, and Research (LER) II Activity

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Economic Governance, Governance, Citizen Participation, Corruption, Economic Development, eGovernance, Global