Anti-corruption policy over the past two decades has been influenced by a ‘state modernisation’ approach that has largely failed to achieve sustainable pathways out of widespread corruption. Seen from the conventional perspective, anti-corruption is about shaping institutions and building capacity to alter the personal calculations made by potentially corrupt actors. While this has led to some advances, it is now regarded as insufficient. Most fundamentally, the dominant approach implies theories of change that, according to critics, do not hold up when confronted with reality. Moreover, insights from collective action theory suggest that the state modernisation approach is plagued by implementation challenges. This points to the need for a better understanding of how anti-corruption change happens and for shifts in how anti-corruption is designed and practised.

Some recent thinking about the most effective pathways out of widespread corruption has challenged the tenets of the conventional approach. As much of this innovative thinking remains somewhat fragmented, this U4 Issue attempts draw out connections between the various strands in order to present the key contours of anti-corruption policy thought that relates to theories of change.

A literature review identified five emerging policy perspectives that I have labelled ‘indirect anti-corruption,’ ‘localisation,’ ‘nurturing norms,’ ‘big bang,’ and ‘transnational (state to state).’ These perspectives base their arguments on questions of agency, that is, who and what is most likely to bring about sustainable changes to the domestic control of corruption.

They represent new directions because they rest on alternative theories of change that diverge in some way from the dominant state modernisation paradigm.

The indirect perspective questions the notion that direct anti-corruption reforms spur transitions to integrity, arguing that it is deeper changes to governance and society that allow for sustained progress. Research on indirect approaches, looking at case studies of past transitions, has sought to identify feasible social and political reforms that may bring about control of corruption as a by-product. Among the possibilities: universal social welfare policies, a free and universal education system, a trusted tax system in the public sector, economic reforms leading to growth, and increased gender parity in the public sector.

The localisation perspective holds that the choice of anti-corruption targets should be determined by local conditions and not by preconceived notions of what anti-corruption should look like or by donor preferences. In particular, localisation means targeting anti-corruption efforts to specific, discrete, and manageable spaces where sustainable transitions to impartial governance are realistically achievable and will have a high local impact. Under the localisation approach, donors become enablers rather than active agents of change.

The nurturing norms perspective suggests that agency in successful transitions results not from the development of formal institutions, but from informal institutions that uphold anti-corruption as an effective, widely accepted social norm. Proponents of this perspective argue that state modernisation approaches based on introducing formal institutions are at risk of being subverted by countervailing social forces embodied in underlying informal institutions and norms. Transitions therefore require steps to pro-actively nurture normative constraints on corruption. Such interventions need to go beyond conventional approaches based on civil society.

The big bang perspective critiques the incremental approach to anti-corruption and calls for rapid, comprehensive reforms to transform societies stuck in a high-corruption equilibrium. Reforms must be not only rapid but also sufficiently extensive, resulting in behavioural change across the public sector. This approach implies a return to top-down policies driven by the executive organs of the state. It also requires taking advantage of windows of opportunity – economic crisis, revolution, and so on – when an anti-corruption agenda can be implemented with least resistance.

The transnational (state to state) perspective emphasises that the policy response to corruption in one state must be linked to policies in other states. Because national economies are integrated through trade, capital flows, and foreign direct investment, and because corruption thrives within this nexus, corruption within a given state cannot be resolved only though anti-corruption efforts located in that state. Donor countries themselves have weak points within their domestic legal, accountancy, and banking systems that can facilitate money laundering, fraud, and other forms corruption in developing countries. The transnational perspective emphasises a research and policy agenda to address these sources of corruption. A second aspect of transnational approaches involves a more conscious use of power and politics in which aid-giving states create disincentives for national elites in aid-receiving states to engage in corruption.

The central insight of these five critiques is not that state modernisation interventions are faulty per se, but that they are unlikely to be carried out with sufficient commitment or efficiency in contexts of high corruption. By putting questions around limited agency front and centre, these emerging perspectives have prompted new policy thinking that investigates how anti-corruption interventions can overcome fundamental implementation challenges and lead to more sustainable change.