Despite a wide range of strategies to combat corruption, there remains an obvious discrepancy between such efforts and the collective capacity to make a real difference. Intergovernmental bodies, development agencies, and governments have supported the engagement of citizens in development strategies to improve project outcomes and curb corruption.

Practitioners from different continents, using varied approaches, have carried out monitoring of developments projects to identify what factors are crucial for such programmes to succeed. Their research and collected data demonstrate that such projects need to embrace the issues that directly affect people’s lives and promote understanding amongst communities as to how they are affected by corruption.

The benefits for the community

Encouraging citizens to become involved in such initiatives is about empowering them to participate for the common good of their community. A thorough concept of community and its organisation is needed to promote collective responsibility, ownership, and trust, and civil society organisations (CSOs) have an integral role in this engagement.

The definition and conception of corruption is often dependent on the geographic location and the prevalent social norms of a community, and their approach to corruption also shapes the engagement projects. The definition dilemma can be overcome by elevating such programmes beyond conceptualising corruption. The empowerment of communities creates an environment where they can feel confident in expressing their concerns.

Community engagement projects establish a solid social basis for anti-corruption work, as they provide a wider range of possible remedies and public control for problem solution. Getting local people involved means that more authentic information and data are gathered about the problem and adds legitimacy to the programme. This leads to improved quality of the projects and increases the accountability of public authorities and service delivery companies.

Recognising the issues

Anti-corruption initiatives seek to ensure that assistance is not misused by those with power and influence, and civil society is seen as essential in increasing demand for such measures and good governance. However, organisations face serious integrity challenges, such as disenchantment with the principle of transparency and scandal fatigue.

Despite the billions of dollars of investment in anti-corruption programmes, they often fail for the same wrongs as they aim to tackle. Practitioners and donors need to gain insight into social traditions and norms and take these into account when designing and implementing such programmes.

The elite capture of projects can lead to corruption becoming part of the culture. Mechanisms that focus on citizen engagement can lose direction or be abused, with political or personal agendas undermining public interest to achieve personal gain. To build long-lasting cohesion at the community level, practitioners must recognise issues such as local power structures and asymmetries, and the exclusion of certain groups or missing capacities within the community.

Often the mindset of citizens can affect their desire to tackle corruption, with apathy and scepticism towards development assistance projects leading to general social resignation and the acceptance of corruption – people thinking there is no point in doing anything or contributing to community interest as nothing is going to change.

Increasing engagement and empowering communities

Collective responsibility, ownership, and trust are all key elements for successful engagement. A community that works together upon shared identity and interests, and through coordination and a unified approach, can achieve greater impact. Building up a solid sense of ownership regarding the projects is a fundamental task for CSOs. This will increase the concepts of belonging and participation, and promote civic social-mindedness. If all members of the community are involved in shaping anti-corruption initiatives, and there is trust and cooperation between them and the implementers, then they will take the risk to speak up and act against corrupt practices and be willing to engage in projects.

Special efforts should be made to include community members beyond those that are usually involved in local anti-corruption initiatives, such as women, young and elderly people, and members of vulnerable groups. This provides equal chances and stakes in common decisions. Also, improved communication and feedback at every relationship level and stage of the project can increase involvement by citizens. Fostering dialogue about needs, expectations, and concerns can promote the community’s belief that they can take effective action against corruption and experience the benefits of doing so.

Tools and strategies

Many different types of community engagement mechanisms and tools have been designed and utilised to counter corruption. These can encourage participation and support public decision-making and budget monitoring. Such measures include citizens’ charters that inform them about their rights and entitlements as service users, or assemblies to promote a culture of debate and informed decision-making.

Similarly, community reports or scorecards can be effective tools in encouraging engagement with regard to the management of public funds and service delivery. Open and transparent data programmes can enable the use of data to tackle problems, represent interests, advocate, or hold local governments accountable. Simple technological developments, such as mobile phone applications that enable citizens to monitor government infrastructure projects, can be instrumental to the success of a project.

Meeting the challenge

The expectations of communities regarding the benefits of anti-corruption policies and programmes decline if those who commit corrupt acts are not held accountable. Yet it is those very communities that can make a significant contribution to the effectiveness of programmes which aim to address the corruption which impacts their everyday lives. Trust, the sense of ownership, and inclusion are fundamental factors in creating and strengthening participation. As a development policy tool and a project design and implementation strategy, community engagement articulates citizens’ voices and can be a successful social accountability initiative to counter corruption.