A recent U4 Issue presents a framework to help practitioners plan more targeted anti-corruption interventions. The paper focuses on developing and transition countries, using Albania as a case study.

Written by

Luca J. Uberti, Alexander Nash Fellow in Albanian Studies in UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies and David Jackson, Senior Adviser U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre.

In developing and transition countries, broad-based anti-corruption efforts often struggle to make a significant impact due to economic constraints and political resistance. In such contexts, development practitioners should target specific anti-corruption interventions that are both feasible and promise highest impact. A recent U4 Issue presents six steps to help practitioners identify priority sectors and strategies. It highlights the case of Albania as an illustration.

Systemic anti-corruption strategies should be complemented by more targeted interventions

Aid-funded anti-corruption initiatives are typically grounded in a ‘systemic’ approach: they seek to reduce corruption across the board by means of centralised anti-corruption efforts, such as legal reforms or national commissions and strategies. Yet, in most developing countries, a top-down reduction in corruption may be practically difficult. These countries may not have achieved a sufficient level of economic development to be able to afford effective legal enforcement, for example. They may also be facing deep-seated political rules of the game that disincentivise political action against corruption.

The need for targeted interventions

Building on recent thinking by Prof. Mushtaq Khan and his team at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies), the U4 Issue argues that systemic anti-corruption strategies should be complemented by more targeted interventions, confined to a specific space, such as a particular sector or policy area. Such approaches need not rely on a country’s elites’ ability and willingness in the short run to enforce a set of overarching anti-corruption laws and regulations. Instead they depend on assessing in which spaces anti-corruption interventions will face the least political or social resistance and are also likely to have the most impact on economic and human development. Thus, for practitioners, the challenge is to identify interventions that are most feasible and high impact given the specific context of the target country.

‘… the challenge is to identify interventions that will face the least resistance and are likely to have the most impact on development’

How can practitioners identify a ‘smart space’ (or ‘sector’) for anti-corruption interventions? And second, within that space, how can they identify the right set of policies and interventions? This U4 Issue provides a stepwise framework to help practitioners answer both questions.

Six steps to identify priority areas and interventions

Step 1: Assess (anti)-corruption trends and patterns. Practitioners should first produce a map of corruption and anti-corruption trends and patterns in the target country.

Step 2: Prioritise feasible and impactful corruption spaces. Practitioners should select which corruption sector(s) to prioritise.

By charting a society’s political power structure (or ‘political settlement’), practitioners can identify the sectors in which corruption is less central to the interests of elites and powerful groups. In these sectors, anti-corruption interventions are likely to be less politically constrained. As such, they face a lower risk of implementation failure. At the same time, some forms of corruption are likely to be more damaging for economic development than others. Thus, to maximise the developmental effectiveness of anti-corruption aid, it makes sense to attack the most damaging forms of corruption first, feasibility permitting.

Step 3: Identify and evaluate corrupt practices in specific corruption spaces. This involves practitioners mapping and evaluating specific corrupt practices within the selected corruption sector(s). These practices should be classified in terms of their relative impact — the extent to which they disrupt development outcomes in that sector — and their responsiveness to external interventions (their feasibility).

An ideal, first-best intervention would be both feasible and high impact. Yet it may not always be feasible to implement the most impactful interventions. Similarly, the most feasible interventions may sometimes only have only a marginal impact on development. When programming anti-corruption interventions, therefore, donors are often called to make second-best choices.

To evaluate the trade-off between impact and feasibility, donors should cross-tabulate these two dimensions and identify the sectors with the best combination of impact and feasibility.

Step 4: Chart the state of play of anti-corruption within sectors. In particular, practitioners should record and assess any anti-corruption efforts launched to date. They should also look at any policies or reforms that may have, or have had, an indirect effect on the form and prevalence of corruption in the target sector(s).

Step 5: Develop an action plan. Here practitioners develop a comprehensive anti-corruption action plan for the sector. An effective plan should identify a coherent set of interventions that are judged to be both impactful and feasible.

Step 6: Gather empirical evidence. The plan should be based on empirical evidence. Here, practitioners generate quantitative empirical evidence, to the extent possible, before moving on to the implementation phase.

Albania case study

The author of the U4 Issue argues that in Albania, higher education appears to be the sector with the most favourable combination of potential impact and feasibility at the present time. This conclusion was reached based on a multi-method approach that combined primary and secondary data analysis, unstructured interviews with practitioners in Albania, and desk research.

For this reason, donors should seriously consider channelling anti-corruption resources into this sector. Specifically, the paper suggests that donors should target two corrupt practices: i) the undeserved awarding of grades by university lecturers to bribe-paying students, and ii) the promotion of university lecturers based on nepotism and favouritism rather than merit.

To attack these corrupt practices, practitioners are invited to consider a range of tools and interventions. These include:

  • a pay-for-performance system for lecturers and researchers;
  • a reform of the way public and private research funds are allocated;
  • a tightening of academic promotion standards; and
  • an increased reliance on international academic monitors when awarding research grants or making accreditation decisions.

Tailoring strategies to local context

This U4 Issue concludes by suggesting that anti-corruption practitioners should avoid the tendency to rely exclusively or mainly on international ‘best-practice’ templates. Instead they ought to complement these widely recognised approaches with more targeted strategies that are better tailored to the specifics of the local context.

Insofar as it stops short of creating systemic anti-corruption safeguards that aim to reduce corruption across the board, a targeted, sectoral strategy may be considered ‘second-best’. Yet in the short run, it is likely to make better use of scarce aid resources — so improving aid effectiveness.

A targeted, sectoral strategy … is likely to make better use of scarce aid resource [and] … may also relieve constraints on implementation in other sectors

At the same time, substantially reducing corruption in one sector may also relieve constraints on implementation in other sectors. This creates opportunities for sequential interventions across different sectors. Over time, as more and more ‘islands of integrity’ emerge and consolidate, the entire institutional structure of a country could be changed, laying the groundwork for the establishment and successful operation of more traditional (systemic) anti-corruption safeguards.


The U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre at CMI works to identify and communicate informed approaches to partners for reducing the harmful impact of corruption on sustainable and inclusive development.

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All views expressed in this post are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the U4 partner agencies, or CMI/U4.