TNRC Blog Definitions matter: What do we mean when we talk about corruption in conservation, and what difference does it make?

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Definitions matter: What do we mean when we talk about corruption in conservation, and what difference does it make?

This blog post captures insights and responses to practitioner questions raised in a TNRC Learning Series Webinar on 8 April 2021. The webinar addressed the following learning questions: 1) How has corruption been defined in relation to renewable natural resource sectors? 2) How have understandings, definitions, and indicators of corruption relevant to natural resources changed or evolved over time and space? 3) What are the main implications of the various definitions of corruption in terms of prioritization of policies and approaches for tackling natural resource corruption? and 4) What lessons should natural resource management practitioners take away from discussions on corruption definitions and how might they apply these in their work? This virtual learning event was attended by practitioners in 28 countries. A TNRC publication on the topic is forthcoming, a recording of the webinar is above, and a PDF of slides can be downloaded here.

Key Takeaways

  • As practitioners seek to reduce the negative impacts of corruption on natural resource and conservation outcomes, the assumptions that they make about what constitutes “corruption” make a big difference for how they respond.
  • There is no universally accepted definition of corruption, but it is often defined in terms of individual actions that “abuse entrusted power for private gain.” Other ways of defining corruption reflect broader systemic issues like who exercises power over natural resources, who is excluded, and how informal powers may compete with formal institutions.
  • A more systemic understanding of corruption reflects that natural resource and conservation outcomes are affected by networks of power and decision making that need comprehensive and multi-level responses.
  • Conservation and natural resource practitioners should start by understanding the forms of corruption that affect their objectives, the different ways that actors may perceive corruption, and the range of formal and informal factors that shape the opportunities and constraints on responses.

Over the first two years of the TNRC project, working at the nexus of conservation practice and anti-corruption learning has revealed insights about these respective professional fields. Among the most important is that different backgrounds lead colleagues to define “corruption” in different ways. For some, corruption is an individual bribe or kickback; for others, a broken promise to protect a habitat is an example of corruption. This is a crucial insight not just because it reveals that the two practice fields may be talking past each other as we try to address the negative impact of corruption on conservation and natural resource outcomes, but also because an “anti-corruption” agenda will look very different depending on the definitions adopted. In this webinar, researchers presented various ways to define corruption, invited practitioner input, and discussed practical implications for addressing natural resource-related corruption.

How has corruption been defined in relation to renewable natural resource sectors?

Specialized definitions of corruption have been formulated for renewable natural resource sectors that can help practitioners better appreciate the roots of corrupt behaviors. Based on his fieldwork in India´s forest sector, Paul Robbins suggests corruption is “a system of normalized rules, transformed from legal authority, patterned around existing inequalities, and cemented through cooperation and trust.” Outside academia, the standard definitions of corruption adopted by the World Bank and Transparency International are most commonly used. The World Bank defines corruption as the “abuse of public office for private gain” while Transparency International (TI) views corruption as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.” The differences between these definitions appear slight. But whereas the World Bank definition emphasizes the public sector's role, TI's definition, though broader, assumes power is typically entrusted to leaders, seemingly excluding those who grab it by force. Robbins' definition, on the other hand, highlights two differences from the TI or World Bank definitions: corruption is understood (i) to involve a system that connects individual actions and (ii) this system exploits and perpetuates inequalities.

How have understandings and definitions of corruption that are relevant to natural resources changed or evolved over time and space?

Concern about corruption dates back to antiquity and the residual influence of the Roman Catholic Church on corruption discourse in the Global North means many people have a general idea what is meant when a person is described as “corrupt.” It is worth noting, however, that it was only in the Eighteenth Century CE that corruption discourse in Europe began to focus narrowly on integrity in public office. Since the 2000s, corruption definitions by the World Bank and Transparency International have been particularly influential due to their elegance and simplicity. But these definitions are not particularly well-suited to the multidimensional and transboundary corruption challenges we typically find in renewable natural resource sectors, which tend to cross several economic sectors and national borders. The overall point is that understandings of corruption are socially constructed and that an individual may be referring to any one of several understandings of corruption when using the word. Understandings of corruption that recognize the systemic character of the problem, however, have distinct advantages given the complexities of cases we observe in natural resource sectors.

What implications have varying definitions of corruption had in the context of land deals in Ghana?

If we were to take the World Bank´s definition of corruption at face value, we would miss many crucial issues in settings like Ghana, where large-scale land deals were made amid contested understandings of who owned or controlled land and widespread public ambivalence (Boamah, 2014a; 2014b). We could also miss the momentary (suboptimal) functionality of corruption in solving problems that occurred before and after the allocation of land areas for agricultural investments. This highlights circumstances where people and organisations become so entangled in complicated situations that circumventing due process or engaging in corrupt practices appeared to be the only possible option to protect their interests and/or circumvent the dire consequences of convoluted land tenure arrangements and ineffective bureaucracy. In the mid-2000s, a biofuel land grabbing euphoria gripped Ghana and institutionalized corruption arose amidst a plurality of actors struggling for authority over land to consolidate and formalise otherwise fluid land titles (see Boamah, 2014a, 2014b; Lavers and Boamah 2016). Chiefs, in particular, were involved in the reinvention of custom and manipulation of customary law to legitimize land deals seen by others as land grabs and thus tantamount to perpetuating social injustice.

What implications have varying definitions of corruption had in the context of the Peru forest sector?

Definitions of corruption, such as those from the World Bank and TI, that emphasize individual corrupt behaviors over a more systemic understanding of corruption, as suggested by Robbins, may lead practitioners to take a less comprehensive approach to addressing corruption. In the Peruvian Amazon it is crucial that we view the whole area as one territory where different actors are in dispute over how natural resources are used or conserved. It is also important to understand the fusing of state actors with timber barons where the boundaries between public and private actors is often blurred.

What general lessons should natural resource management practitioners take away from discussions on corruption definitions and how might they apply these in their work?

When designing a new intervention or project, practitioners need to integrate corruption analysis into their work and figure out how corruption could undermine intended goals. This can help improve an intervention´s design through the addition of mitigation or monitoring measures. But these measures, or any new ideas for interventions, will only be as strong as the corruption analysis underpinning them. Rather than rely on off-the-shelf corruption definitions and research methods, such analyses need to be appropriate to the specific sector and geographic context in focus. Typically, deep knowledge of the sector, geography, and corruption research methods is needed for such analysis to be useful for strategic programmatic thinking (or Theories of Change). You can find further advice here on how best to approach corruption risk assessments for REDD+ type conservation projects.

Further Reading

Boamah, F. 2014a. “Imageries of the Contested Concepts “Land Grabbing” and “Land Transactions”: Implications for Biofuels Investments in Ghana”. Geoforum. Vol. 54.

Boamah, F. 2014b. How and why chiefs formalize land use in recent times: the politics of land dispossession through biofuels investments in Ghana. Review of African Political Economy, 41(141), 406–423.

Lavers, T. and Boamah, F. 2016. The impact of agricultural investments on state capacity: A comparative analysis of Ethiopia and Ghana. Geoforum, 72, 94–103.

Buchan, B. and L. Hill. 2014. An Intellectual History of Political Corruption. Palgrave Macmillan. Basingstoke and New York (NY).

Gianella, C., M. Paredes, L. Figueroa. Forthcoming 2021. Informality and Power: Explaining the Limits to Institutional Approaches for Tackling Forest Corruption in Peru. TNRC Topic Brief.

Robbins, P. 2000. “The Rotten Institution: Corruption in Natural Resource Management”. Political Geography. Vol. 19. Issue 4.

Williams, D.A. and P. Le Billon. 2017. Corruption, Natural Resources and Development: From Resource Curse to Political Ecology. Edward Elgar Publishing. Cheltenham and Northampton (MA).

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Image attribution: © / Jen Guyton / WWF; © Brian J. Skerry / National Geographic Stock / WWF; © Georgina Goodwin / Shoot The Earth / WWF-UK; © Hkun Lat / WWF-Aus