From moral-philosophical fiction to real political scenario’s: why a particularistic focus on integrity should replace universal views on (anti) corruption. 

By Dr Toon Kerkhoff, Assistant Professor of Public Administration at Leiden University, The Netherlands

The current failure of anti-corruption

Anti-corruption research and policy since the 1980s have mainly departed from a rather universalist approach, which holds that there is a set of values and norms about corruption or ‘good governance’ that is valid anywhere. Corruption has accordingly been defined quite narrowly as abuse (i.e. unlawful, illegitimate use) of public office for private or personal (mostly monetary) gain. Its root causes are, furthermore, economic (poverty but also incentives to maximize gain) and/or legal (not enough or badly enforced laws and regulations or weak formal government institutions).

The result of universalism and a narrow definition has been a global one-size-fits-all economic and legal approach to anti-corruption, most notably by international financial institutions such as the IMF or the Worldbank or political transnational organizations such as the EU and UN. In essence: the belief has for long been that what works in one context must also work in another and what works is having certain public institutions in place, such as democratic and free elections, political party competition, an ombudsman, or a free judiciary.

This approach has, however, not been very successful. Decades of one-size-fits-all anti-corruption policies – mostly instigated by Western powers and put in place in non-Western countries – have scarcely helped to reduce or prevent corruption across the globe. Instead – and as something of an undesired effect perhaps – universal policies have implicitly stressed the flawed idea that corruption is something of so-called ‘developing countries’ or ‘the global South’ which have to catch up with the ‘North’ and ‘West’. It is, so the thought goes, the latter’s rules, principles and institutions that are needed to end corruption.

There are (at least) two reasons for this problematic state of affairs, which need to be addressed if we are ever to find a way out of the current deadlock of lots of policy on the one hand but little to no visible effects on the other. First, scholars as well as practitioners and policy makers should adopt a particularistic (i.e. historical and contextual) approach to anti-corruption instead. Second, and related: the focus should shift from corruption to integrity. Taking both particularism and integrity serious can help to at least make discussions on anti-corruption policy more honest, open and nuanced, but this will require quite a radical change of attitude in the field.

An emphasis on particularism…

Historical and/or anthropological research into corruption and changing ideas of good and bad governance over longer periods of time in different contexts, has shown how ideas on corruption, integrity and indeed public morality as such develop in their own relevant environment of time and place. After all, various acts that were once perfectly acceptable (consider 18th-century sale of public office or gift-giving practices) are these days generally condemned. Similarly, what is not corrupt in one context (consider specific forms of political campaign financing) can easily be considered at least questionable in another.

This implies that rather than stressing universal rules and regulations, anti-corruption measures should be particularistic in nature and acknowledge historical, cultural and temporal variance. Simply put: in order to adopt effective policy, it is essential to acknowledge that different contexts can simply have different values and norms of good governance. Some forms of ‘corruption’ can, for instance, have a purpose and can therefore be widely accepted and very difficult to root out. In the absence of reasonable salaries or a properly functioning judiciary, for example, it is no wonder that bribery might occur and might even be considered commonly accepted practice. This is even more the case with other ‘corrupt’ actions than plain bribery or fraud. In cultures based on strong family or tribal relations, such acts as nepotism or cronyism are likely to gain an entirely different meaning.

Embracing particularism has serious consequences. After all, as soon as one accepts the notion that views on right and wrong may easily change again tomorrow and will always differ depending on context, it becomes clear that adopting a universalist approach to anti-corruption will simply never work. This might seem like an open door but is far from generally accepted. It has not, for instance, really found its way in current anti-corruption practice. Particularism does not, of course, provide ready-made templates any more than universalism. That would be against its very nature. However, at least it does not claim to have solutions which cannot in fact work and provides nuance, flexibility and the option for pragmatism in anti-corruption efforts. In addition, embracing particularism does not imply that anything goes either, “because it’s in a different context than one’s own”. Nor does it imply that one cannot have an opinion on right and wrong behavior simply because it happens in a different context. Acknowledging cultural relativism (there are observable differences between cultures) is, after all, perfectly consistent with ethical universalism (there is a way of providing solutions and we can say how one should act). Yet, it does mean that current global anti-corruption policy has to listen more to local contexts and must be tailormade accordingly. It also means that it must rid itself of often Eurocentric and neo-imperialist tendencies.

Integrity rather than corruption

A second reason for failed anti-corruption policy is the dominant emphasis on corruption rather than integrity, which has led to a focus on quite narrowly defined behavior, such as bribery or fraud. Integrity on the other hand is much broader and is capable of covering a wider range of behavior related to ‘bad governance’ that may otherwise remain hidden from view. For example: you lack integrity if you are a hypocrite but this does not necessarily make you corrupt. However, you would miss the important element of hypocrisy as a symptom of bad governance as long as you are simply looking at corruption in the sense of bribery or fraud.

The applicability of the concept of integrity becomes clear from efforts by some to differentiate between different types of integrity violations. The latter allows for a much better sense of what is actually going on in specific cases of bad governance. Using a typology of integrity violations that ranges from being simply illegal and generally condemned (such as bribery) to ‘grey’ violations that are not necessarily illegal and are much more difficult to immediately categorize as bad or corrupt (such as wasteful governance) opens up a valuable perspective on a wider range of good and bad types of behavior.

Tackling bad governance then means tackling grey areas of contestation as well as ‘simple’ corruption. This is especially the case since different potential integrity violations are often interrelated (consider, for example, conflict of interest and gift giving) and since grey area violations often outnumber the more obvious illegal and generally condemned ones. Public condemnation at least seems to be stronger when the norm still has to be established; not when something is clearly illegal. Understanding good and bad governance (corruption) therefore requires taking a closer look at the wider integrity of public officials and going beyond the mere economic and legal – as a focus on corruption tends to do. Instead, one must also look at its social and moral causes and consequences. All too often, after all, behavior is legal but morally reprehensible (consider the example of the 2009 British expenses scandal). The reverse can also be the case. Some illegal behavior can easily be morally acceptable, given specific circumstances.

Taking into account integrity rather than only looking at corruption as a central concept therefore allows for more nuance and offers a better view on potential causes and consequences of problematic behavior. This helps to better understand how specific characteristics (of individuals or organizations) might lead to specific violations. In turn this leads to better because tailor-made solutions. In addition, a focus on integrity rather than corruption opens the door to explore the positive functions of integrity management and ethical leadership rather than a ‘mere’ look at the negative side of punishment and rewarding or other forms of institutional sanctioning. Increasingly, literature advocates finding a balance between compliance based and ethical approaches to integrity management. Next to solid systems, laws and regulations, an ethical or value approach that is focused on internal and soft controls (such as training, education and ethical leadership) actually helps people better understand their own integrity (or lack thereof) by learning how to behave better from within. This move towards a mix of compliance and integrity approaches, based on context and the specific needs of a country or organization is a promising way forward. Conceptually as well as practically, this means that ‘integrity management’ should come to replace ‘anti-corruption’.



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