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The flipside of corruption: when anti-corruption becomes politicised

Anti-corruption practitioners must be alert to how their work can be undermined by those seeking to preserve power and influence
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29 March 2022
A house of cards, falling down
Initiatives that aim to combat corruption must be alert to how that anti-corruption work can be politicised. They must support a range of solutions for deeper and genuine accountability, especially in areas where corruption is embedded politically. Photo:

Politicians use corrupt means – bribes, embezzlement, fraud, extortion – to divert public resources and funds to the infrastructure that helps them hold on to power. Corruption establishes patronage systems, builds loyalty, pays off rivals and opposition, co-opts accountability institutions, and buys votes and immunity from prosecution.

Corruption becomes politicised when it serves this power-preservation function. With politicised corruption, the spoils are not just for personal enrichment but rather to win, stabilise and extend political power.

With politicised corruption, the spoils are not just for personal enrichment but rather to win, stabilise and extend political power.

Corruption becomes politics by other means, enmeshed in how institutes operate, allocate power and make decisions. Politicised corruption relies on networks, with key players at the highest levels, but also – for example – unelected businesspeople, military leaders, senior bureaucrats operating at lower levels of administration, in education, health or taxation, where corruption can flourish in informal policy arenas, where accountability is hidden from the public.

And because the corrupt will always try to protect their interests, anti-corruption initiatives themselves can also become politicised for end gain.

How anti-corruption is politicised

Even though it is often seen as distanced from local or global political processes, anti-corruption can be politicised in different ways, leading to unintended or counterproductive outcomes.

  • Anti-corruption reforms can be used for narrow political purposes, for example, to target opponents. They can offer an excuse to remove institutional checks, ironically, making it even easier to pursue corruption.
  • Anti-corruption efforts can backfire: instead of being used to reveal abuses of power, artificial intelligence and surveillance technology can be used as tools for control.
  • In Cambodia, anti-corruption reforms were critical in consolidating power in the hands of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
  • In Rwanda in 2017, presidential candidate and political activist Diane Rwigara was disqualified from the election and detained for alleged tax evasion.

Tuning in to the politicisation of anti-corruption

Where corruption is highly embedded in the political system, those in charge of anti-corruption initiatives must be more astute and remain alert to the risk of pushback and unintended consequences. Wider and more targeted interventions from coalitions of anti-corruption practitioners can build a critical mass against politicised corruption and support alternative routes to genuine accountability.

Responding and finding new ways of working

The U4 Issue suggests a two-pronged approach for contexts where corruption is highly political with targeted, direct anti-corruption and more indirect efforts to embed accountability. These efforts could require different kinds of methods. For example, focusing on conventional areas such as the judiciary, parliament or other institutions, could clash with ruling elites’ interests. We suggest approaches that can align with politicians’ incentives.

1) Direct interventions should:

  • Target the most feasible reform areas
  • Mobilise those set to benefit from reform
  • Build new skills and capacity to support anti-corruption efforts

2) Indirect reforms to develop accountability constraint could aim to:

  • Improve access to information by supporting the free press, internet access, digitalise public services
  • Back new forms of collective action for the economy, public services and representative organisations
  • Develop smart sanctions and forms of leverage

To pursue these approaches, anti-corruption practitioners should seek partnerships across many sectors. They need to get involved with those promoting democracy, and develop platforms for broad-based collaboration in sectors such as welfare, media support, information and communications technology, and infrastructure development. These practices require long-term commitment if they are to support lasting change.

    About the authors

    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.

    Inge Amundsen

    Dr. Inge Amundsen is a political scientist at the Chr. Michelsen Institute focusing on democratic institutionalisation, parliaments, political parties, political corruption, and natural resources (petroleum resources management and revenue management). His geographic expertise includes Malawi, Bangladesh, Angola, Ghana, Nigeria, and francophone West Africa. He completed his PhD in comparative African studies at the University of Tromsø, Norway, in 1997.


    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)