PublicationsThe U4 Blog


Five ways to prevent anti-corruption from ‘thinning’ over time: taking a ‘bold’ approach in Ukraine's reconstruction

Enthusiasm for anti-corruption at the start of any reconstruction effort can slide into chaos and apathy in time. But this is not inevitable. Here we present five important ways to build in boldness.
15 June 2023
 a group of volunteers is sorting through the rubble of a house destroyed by Russian missiles.
Reconstruction in Ukraine will be a complex, long term process. Clear thinking on anti-corruption is needed. Photo:
Halinskyi Max/Shutterstock

The ever-proliferating commentary (see this U4 overview) on future anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine has focused so far on the specific measures that will be required. Yet, there is an essential lesson from other post-conflict and reconstruction contexts that should focus our thinking: namely, that anti-corruption efforts in these settings tend to ‘thin out’ over time.

Efforts often start with ramping up the rhetoric, encapsulated in a bold recommitment to ‘zero tolerance’. But when rhetoric meets reality, two things almost inevitably happen: first, the supply-side system of resourcing and implementing frameworks tends to fray, and eventually incoherence and disorder emerges. Second – and partly as a result of the supply-side deficiencies – some domestic demands for anti-corruption ebb. Critical windows of opportunity to embed anti-corruption are thus passed over.

There is an essential lesson from other post-conflict and reconstruction contexts: that anti-corruption efforts in these settings tend to ‘thin out’ over time.

Neglectful anti-corruption efforts in Afghanistan are often held up as epitomising this pattern. There, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that of the nearly US$7.8 billion spent on infrastructure, US$2.4 billion of those assets had not been used for their intended purpose, had deteriorated, or were unused.

The thinning out of anti-corruption has been described in other reconstruction contexts too, such as the western Balkans, north Africa and Iraq. Studies of anti-corruption practice within international organisations describe inadequate human resourcing, narrowly defined indicators for success, and a lack of clear vision and technical and strategic guidance. A recent evaluation of long-term EU efforts to promote anti-corruption across many countries depicts mechanisms that are consistently under-resourced, with meagre conceptual and strategic guidance.

Anti-corruption in reconstruction need not suffer from this entropy and atrophy. This blog identifies principles that can help practitioners to pursue ‘bolder’, ‘thicker’, and more resilient anti-corruption efforts that can last the course.

Three reasons that anti-corruption thins out over time

The mismatch between rhetoric and practice is not so much disingenuous but a result of difficult-to-resist characteristics that make anti-corruption efforts susceptible to downward, minimising pressures.

First, anti-corruption is awkward! Diplomats, development practitioners, politicians and government may have an interest in not exposing too much corruption. As Phil Mason, a leading practitioner, describes: ‘a dissonance exists between what might be right for “doing” anti-corruption and what needs to be right for the donor agency as a whole…’. Anti-corruption can disrupt aid flows, threaten budgets and raise political operating costs. It can be in tension with other goals such as security, stability and relationship building.

Anti-corruption tends be to be viewed as being ‘owned’ by specific expertise. Artificial barriers are created between departments or sectors.

Second, it’s siloed! Anti-corruption tends be to be viewed as being ‘owned’ by specific expertise. Artificial barriers are created between departments or sectors. When attempts at mainstreaming exist, for example in development agencies, they tend to involve ‘soft’ measures rather than obligations. The sense of anti-corruption as a mere ‘add-on’ encourages safe, non-intrusive activities, often around training.

Third, demonstrating results is hard! Corruption is hidden, secretive, and has a basic measurement problem. In the political economy of agenda setting, this nebulous quality makes it difficult to demonstrate clearly the cost-benefit ratio of anti-corruption efforts. Everyone accepts that corruption wastes money. But few can say how much.

These downward pressures within development agencies and their partner governments are rarely guarded against. Despite Ukraine’s impressive anti-corruption architecture, the complexity of Ukraine’s reconstruction and the sheer number of actors and resources involved will exacerbate these countervailing trends, not solve them. Ukrainians are demanding a strategic approach. Corruption fears are still high. Convergence around the goal and priorities of EU accession does not necessarily make day-to-day anti-corruption actions clearer or more resilient for the long run.

Envisioning a bolder approach

So, before resources are requested, specific interventions are designed and partners are sought, what kind of principles can orient practitioners towards ‘bolder’ anti-corruption?

We examine five dimensions of anti-corruption to demonstrate where ‘thin’ approaches fall down, and how ‘bold’ approaches could succeed.

1. Bold anti-corruption uses evidence to determine explicit levels of resourcing

Thin anti-corruption does not actively consider the cost-benefits of action. U4 looked into how – and how much – funding is allocated to anti-corruption in development agencies. Nowhere could we find an approach where financial and human resources were matched to an assessment of the scale of the challenge. This is different from the private sector, where companies spend around 5–10% of turnover on managing risk.

Bold anti-corruption is about finding evidence-based funding formulas that take into account the real risks of losses and failure, as well as the potential of long-term savings from anti-corruption investment.

Bold anti-corruption is about finding evidence-based funding formulas that take into account the real risks of losses and failure, as well as the potential of long-term savings from anti-corruption investment. These are not always easy to estimate in advance – but open data and shared evidence can help. And the importance of this work is increasingly clear: longitudinal research suggests that if corruption levels remain high for five years after a conflict, the risk of the conflict recurring doubles.

Where there is evidence – contemporary or historical – of high risks, we suggest a figure of between 3–5% of reconstruction aid should be invested into a long-term plan that pays for up-front political economy analysis, invests in state capacity, helps the rollout of tools, and seeks ways to embed integrity norms and independent accountability structures.

2. Bold anti-corruption builds in a political understanding and spends political capital

Thin anti-corruption focuses overwhelmingly on compliance and technical reforms, which can often be circumvented or instrumentalised by vested interests – unless efforts are made to actively overcome this resistance.

Bold approaches build in political analysis that seeks to understand key blockers, interlocutors and anti-corruption champions. Alliances with politicians, public thinkers, figures in the media, diplomats and representatives from international organisations are actively nurtured to sustain a positive context for reform, sometimes described as an authorising environment. Diplomats are consulted and buy into plans. Political capital is then spent on the issue at key moments. Leaders call out corruption and back anti-corruption champions, either in tough meetings with local politicians or in a very public way – through a tweet.

3. Bold anti-corruption thinks in terms of system-wide accountability

Thin anti-corruption relies too much on isolated instruments and planning. Audits can be meaningless without sanction. Transparency matters little without a free, independent media. Political financing reform works more effectively in contexts of political competition. Integrity in higher education is threatened by systemic corruption in secondary schooling. Private sector compliance is irrelevant if public rents can be easily bought.

No anti-corruption measure is an island. Bolder anti-corruption joins the dots.

No anti-corruption measure is an island. Bolder anti-corruption joins the dots: it is sensitive to the broader ecology of accountability and is integrated in a cross-cutting and strategic way into government planning. This is not a vague agenda: it is about how typical anti-corruption approaches – from social accountability and investigative journalism to audits and political finance reform – can generally strengthen governmental responsiveness and democratic participation. This is also not an overreach for anti-corruption: corruption degrades accountability structures, so there is a need to consider how to protect them. This means ending a siloed approach and placing a long-term emphasis on working across multiple agendas.

4. Bold anti-corruption supports collective action within society

Thin anti-corruption rests on enforcement and top-down measures. In reconstruction contexts, these rarely have the overall reach or resources to contain corruption risks. Government institutions may not be trusted by everyone.

The voices of those communities who may lose out from corruption must be heard, and to that end they must be organised.

Bold anti-corruption recognises the need to find ways to spur more social forms of accountability. Planning can create the ways and means for social groups to organise. This means much more than funding civil society organisations, which can be weaker than more representative, community-based organisations in contexts of reconstruction. The voices of those communities who may lose out from corruption – like local business groups, trade unions, community and professional associations – must be heard, and to that end they must be organised.

5. Bold anti-corruption has wider social justice ambitions

Corruption is often an enabler and driver of critical social challenges – from insecurity, economic stagnation, de-democratisation gendered exploitation and social injustice. Thin anti-corruption is disconnected from broader social issues and systems, and downplaying the broader relevance of anti-corruption makes it harder to muster the partnerships, energy and political capital for effective action.

Bold anti-corruption makes this link explicit: rhetorically, politically and practically. For example, we know corruption and exploitation around gender go hand in hand. Anti-corruption should be sensitive to these gendered dimensions – and both ills can be fought together in joint policy frameworks.

A bold agenda for Ukraine

Bold anti-corruption efforts do not really mean big-bang style reforms that run the risk of destabilising low-capacity contexts. Rather they mean ensuring that, prior to the choice of specific measures and support, the supply of anti-corruption efforts is resourced and rests on a coherent and sustainable setting, a basis that can help achieve modest but sustainable results and embed anti-corruption in domestic agendas.

Optimism is rightly high for reconstruction.

Optimism is rightly high for reconstruction. Yet, being reflective on what could thwart these efforts – and mitigating against them – can improve the track record of anti-corruption in reconstruction. Practical progress can be measured against these dimensions. We should ask ourselves:

  1. Is funding matching the ambition?
  2. Are efforts politically sensitive and intelligent?
  3. Are the efforts contributing to the broader ecology of accountability?
  4. Do plans have a role for collective action?
  5. Are efforts connected to social justice agendas?


For more resources visit U4's topic page on anti-corruption efforts for reconstruction in Ukraine. We also offer publications in Ukrainian language.

    About the author

    David Jackson

    Dr. David Jackson leads U4’s thematic work on informal contexts of corruption. His research explores how an understanding of social norms, patron-client politics, and nonstate actors can lead to anti-corruption interventions that are better suited to context. He is the author of various book chapters and journal articles on governance issues and holds degrees from Oxford University, the Hertie School of Governance, and the Freie Universität Berlin.


    All views in this text are the author(s)’, and may differ from the U4 partner agencies’ policies.

    This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


    Halinskyi Max/Shutterstock