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In recent years, corruption has sparked anti-government unrest in a growing number of countries. Corruption has unleashed protests in 33 countries in the last three years and toppled leaders through resignations, no-confidence votes, impeachment or removal from office in 21 countries between 2013 and 2018, representing more than 10 percent of countries in the world. In many more countries, corruption scandals have unseated incumbents at the polls.

One interpretation of this trend suggests that global citizens are broadly rejecting corruption and demanding thorough reforms. But a more nuanced reading of reform contexts reveals that citizens may not see all forms of corruption uniformly. They may reject the brazenness of elites who rob the state of millions. They may rail against the shakedowns and harassment of police.

But at the same time, they may welcome the ability to expedite bureaucratic processes or invoke mutual obligations of support within their social networks.

In Ukraine, for example, MSI is supporting the efforts of government and civil society to combat corruption through the USAID-funded Support to Anti-Corruption Champion Institutions (SACCI) project. The project is empowering “champions” to drive the effort forward at the national, regional and local levels, assisting reformers who have taken office since the 2014 Revolution of Dignity and subsequent 2019 elections, which ushered in a new generation of reformers.

However, a recent survey and focus group discussions have revealed that a majority of citizens identify grand corruption as harmful, but consider petty corruption to offer a reasonable way to secure services with a high degree of certainty and ease in a context of red tape and inefficiencies.

Accordingly, SACCI is sequencing administrative reforms to improve service delivery and shrink the space for corruption through such initiatives as streamlining and digitizing citizen services before it undertakes awareness-raising campaigns. It recognizes that appeals for zero tolerance for corruption will only succeed when citizens experience palpable improvements in service delivery. In addition, publicizing these improvements will provide a potent lever to shift their behavior.

In other regions, research has shown ways that citizens may accept petty corruption as consistent with social norms. In one study in Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda, focus group participants indicated that using public office to help one’s family and friends, such as by expediting or securing access to services, confers respect and good social standing in a community, whereas failing to help them by following the rules confers shame. Such a social norm may prove highly resistant to messages that emphasize citizens’ rights and duty bearers’ obligations or explain the societal costs of corruption.

Recent work has stressed that social norms are often more influential than attitudes and morals when it comes to behavior. In such a context, interventions need to address the shortages and barriers to effective service delivery that prompt users to seek preferential access through their social networks. Appeals to just “say no to corruption” are unlikely to work. However, more nuanced social behavior change strategies supporting community deliberation and promoting “positive deviants” or role models to help socialize ethical behavior may complement administrative reforms aiming to improve service delivery.

As is true for other international development efforts, understanding the context for anti-corruption reform is key. Despite increased attention to corruption issues and political fallout from corruption scandals, reform initiatives cannot assume wholesale intolerance of corrupt practices. They must undertake the nuanced examination of attitudes and social norms alongside the structural drivers and power dynamics sustaining corrupt practices. Such a political economy analysis needs to inform interventions at the outset but also on an ongoing basis to support adaptive management and maximize impact. Public tolerance or intolerance of different forms of corruption needs to inform the sequencing, targeting and content of reform initiatives.