Elevating local voices in the fight against corruption and toward democratic renewal

March 27, 2023
A community member stands and shares their thoughts at a community event in Cambodia. Credit: Pact

The 20th International Anticorruption Conference (IACC), co-hosted by the United States Government and Transparency International in December 2022, was a sobering reminder of how corruption perverts and undermines democratic systems and hinders progress on other global development priorities. The conference was also a testament to how a focus on anticorruption is animating U.S. foreign policy, with high-level political representatives including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, President of the World Bank Group David Malpass, and USAID Administrator Samantha Power, among others. As USAID’s new anticorruption policy, launched at the IACC, makes plain, “corruption is development in reverse” and threatens national security.

The political will on display throughout the five-day event was impressive. However, it is equally important to elevate the grassroots efforts of civil society organizations (CSOs) and individual activists fighting corruption daily. Many of these actors were appropriately lauded and celebrated during the event. Their dedication and ingenuity, such as Janet Zhou’s work in Zimbabwe building the #HowFar campaign to deepen citizen agency to demand greater accountability, can provide inspiration and even working models to policymakers and peer activists alike. 

Two critical issues deserve more attention at future international gatherings on anticorruption. First, policymakers and activists alike must openly wrestle with the fact that many of the ideas, approaches and language of anticorruption champions are increasingly appropriated and weaponized by governments around the world to restrict the operating environment for civil society. Second, those of us seeking to strengthen anticorruption measures must confront the reality that transparency and related actions do not necessarily lead to increased trust in democratic institutions.

Introducing restrictive legislation under the aegis of transparency and accountability is unfortunately not new and remains an urgent challenge for CSOs around the world. Since 1994, more than 60 countries have passed laws restricting the activities of CSOs, particularly their ability to access foreign funding, arguing that CSOs lack transparency, are susceptible to corruption and even act as “foreign agents” not pursuing the priorities of citizens. These concerns are typically fig leaves for silencing critics. In some cases, governments weaponize the very demands anticorruption champions make of them; while public asset declaration is an important tool in fighting kleptocracy, in India, employees and officers of NGOs that receive foreign funds in excess of approximately $14,600 per year are considered public servants who, once the law takes effect, must declare their assets. In practice, this further exposes CSOs to government scrutiny, discourages people from working with CSOs and make it even more challenging for CSOs to conduct government oversight

Secondly, prioritizing anticorruption efforts does not necessarily portend that citizen trust in government will rebound. Trust in government has steadily declined globally; however, worryingly, autocratic regimes have experience less of a slide, in part because they are perceived as more efficient. The U.S. government’s recent focus on how democracy delivers and how corruption undermines its ability to do so by hollowing out the state’s ability to provide critical services, erodes trust and discourages investments, links these two agendas. However, calls for greater transparency by anticorruption activists can be a double-edged sword—research suggests that higher levels of transparency do not always lead to increased levels of trust in institutions, and increasing awareness of corruption (even if corruption levels are low) instead can increase mistrust and contribute to cynicism. Democracy cannot thrive where corruption is rampant, but the relationship between them is not linear.

The forthcoming Summit for Democracy is an opportunity to give more attention to these issues and champion the development of new tactics for grassroots activists to mitigate them. The Summit, scheduled for March 29-30, 2023, will focus on countries reporting on progress made against the commitments made at the 2021 event, and as peers from the Open Government Partnership, Brookings and Results for Development have noted, a significant number of these are related to anticorruption. The international community should endeavor, at every opportunity, to ensure its rhetoric bolsters the work of those doing the dangerous and difficult work of fighting impunity and avoids potential unintended consequences.

One pathway to bridge these conversations, and effectively highlight CSO perspectives, is to capitalize on the Summit’s focus on supporting Ukraine. Ukraine holds practical lessons from their own fight against corruption, which many activists see as integral to their fight to protect their democracy. The war has refocused efforts on ensuring foreign assistance to Ukraine is spent transparently and can be accounted for. As bilateral donors review their own policies and accompany aid with oversight at all levels, stakeholders are centering anticorruption in reconstruction planning discussions. One CSO coalition, the RISE Coalition, has started collaborating with the Ministry of Infrastructure to make Ukraine’s reconstruction process transparent and viewable by the public through an online system that leverages Ukraine’s existing e-governance and open data platforms. These planning efforts, proactively advancing a constructive anticorruption narrative and pursuing actions aimed at promoting transparency, accountability and longer-term trust in critical institutions, hold the potential to be a watershed moment for the broader movement.

The current administration has articulated that democratic renewalfighting corruption and rebuilding citizen trust are important tenants of U.S. foreign and national security policy. As Summit for Democracy participants reflect on progress made over the last 15 months, there is an opportunity to recalibrate how we connect these issues and integrate the practical lessons of civil society, who understand firsthand how to bring these agendas together and ensure they do not work at cross-purposes. By narrowing the gap between global and local perspectives, we can ensure stakeholders committed to advancing democracy around the world carry the hard-earned lessons of the past into the future.

Ayder Khalilov, Vasili Kukharchyk and Roland Kovats contributed to this post.