TNRC Blog Framing and implementing effective assessments of corruption for conservation interventions

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Targeting Natural Resource Corruption

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Framing and implementing effective assessments of corruption for conservation interventions


This TNRC event, hosted by the U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, shared research insights and practice experiences on how to get the most out of corruption risk assessment opportunities that arise in the project cycle. The panel featured Achiba Gargule (U4), Natalia Muñoz Cassolis (WWF), Jennifer Lewis (USAID), Alina Rocha Menocal (ODI), and Aled Williams (U4), moderated by Liz Hart (TNRC). A TNRC publication on the topic is forthcomingA recording of the event is above, and a PDF of slides can be downloaded here.

Understanding situational factors that facilitate corruption

Various methods and approaches have been used over time to assess corruption risks and determine policy and practice options for anti-corruption. These range from tailored studies to institutionalized Corruption Risk Assessments (CRAs) following common methodologies. All assessments aim to help us better understand situational factors that facilitate corruption, and how these may undermine intended goals. They encourage project partners and aid recipients to adopt and incorporate risk management strategies, including adaptive management and monitoring, evaluation and learning techniques. Structured assessment of corruption risks is an emerging field of practice for conservation organizations and has recently been undertaken by WWF in certain countries under the USAID-funded TNRC Project. This webinar shared research insights and practice experiences on how to get the most out of corruption risk assessment opportunities that arise in the project cycle. It focused on the following questions:

  1. How are corruption risk assessments defined and what do they typically entail?
  2. What are the main lessons from research and experience on effective implementation of corruption risk assessments?
  3. What are the challenges in moving from analysis to practice?
  4. What actions could natural resource management (NRM) practitioners and others take to help improve the effectiveness of corruption risk assessments for conservation interventions?

Insights from experts working in this space are captured below. The biographies of contributing experts are available here.

What is Corruption Risk Assessment?

Achiba Gargule, Senior Advisor, U4-CMI, and Targeting Natural Resource Corruption:

A central goal of a corruption risk assessment is identifying weaknesses in a system that may present opportunities for corruption. Such weaknesses might include a) institutional capacity, b) remoteness of the locations in which conservation work is being performed, c) the existence of higher revenues in these sectors, and so on. CRA also involves identification of issues associated with, contributing to, or otherwise facilitating corruption in a particular setting. CRAs may involve some degree of revelation of a corrupt practice occurring and the impact that this might have on conservation or on a project.

Many types of information can contribute to assessing corruption risks; here are five important ones:

  • Political economy analysis (PEA) – This form of analysis is concerned with analyzing the interactions of political and economic processes in a given context, society, or community. It particularly looks at the distribution of power and wealth between different groups and how that process creates or sustains relationships of these groups or communities over time. It provides an increased understanding of contextual factors and it is an essential tool for capturing informal relationships.
  • Public perception surveys – These are a very important methodology of collecting or analyzing corruption in a given context, used to assemble general information related to governance.
  • Direct observation – This involves observation of proxies or obtaining indications of corruption through direct experience. An example would be attending court for proceedings of corruption cases and observing phenomena that are assumed to be proxies or near proxies of corruption in a given context. Observations can be carried out at various scales and used by various organizations to carry out corruption risk assessment.
  • Value chain analysis – This looks at corruption risk in terms of actors, relationships, and interactions in a value chain. This can provide an accurate way of pinpointing where corruption is most likely to occur. The benefit of this approach is that it highlights specific “hot spots” where action to reduce risk can be concentrated. Especially in the context of natural resources, where the value chain is quite defined from the decision to extract, to transportation, all the way to investment of the proceeds of natural resources, it's easier to map out the vulnerabilities in the value chain and then how organizations can effectively respond to corruption risks.
  • Interview-based methodologies – This approach involves interviewing various natural resources experts to gain information about corruption risks in various sectors. This is very important for securing information directly from people who use natural resources, who engage in conservation projects. The most important thing to say about interview-based methods is they can be used with various other methodologies, including political economy analysis. Interviews can complement some of these methodologies to make sure that where information is not available directly, it can be collected from the users.

Important considerations when performing a CRA are:

  • The definition of corruption is highly consequential. Who defines corruption and how they define it will strongly shape what questions get asked, what data is collected, and what responses to corruption are possible.
  • Assessments involve quite a lot of investment in resources—human, financial, and technical. The experience so far is that what donors and implementing agencies mobilize in terms of resources for corruption risk assessment is very low compared to the need and the requirements for understanding these risks.

  • The scale of the assessment can limit effectiveness. National and sectoral assessments, which are the main scale that are used for corruption risk assessment, might not give a true picture or might be overly general. This will, in turn, then make the anti-corruption initiative that's derived from these assessments not very effective in certain contexts.

Learning from a recent CRA in Colombia

Natalia Muñoz Cassolis, Consultant, World Wildlife Fund:

In 2020-2021, WWF Colombia partnered with Transparency for Colombia to conduct a corruption risk assessment that examined political, structural, and institutional factors that create opportunities for or vulnerabilities to corruption that contributes to deforestation. Key insights from our process are:

  • These processes need to be accompanied by experts with sufficient seniority to provide a thorough understanding of the background of identified drivers. These experts can point to information gaps or they can point to those sensitive matters that require further research. One of our modules provided identification of value chains or patterns (in the case of land grabbing as a driver, it was not possible to determine a value chain). We consider these value chains or identification of patterns to be a central tool. These tools helped to bring together all of the other aspects that we were looking at in the several different modules. For instance, it allows for the identification of stakeholders or processes and procedures linked to a specific phase of the value chain.
  • Multi-level knowledge is required. It is important for the researchers to have a thorough understanding of the different phases, such as production, transportation, and commercialization. But also, to have knowledge on the institutions and the institutional legal framework, both at the national and local level, as well as an understanding of social dynamics and local stakeholders. So, our encompassing lesson learned from the methodological approach is that having fragmented information (as we had) makes the analysis more difficult.
  • Analysis of organized crime dynamics is key, as this allowed us to further identify risks of corruption.
  • Knowledge of legal frameworks and processes is essential for CRAs. We didn't have a team of lawyers at the beginning of the project, but later on, we hired some legal advisors to fill in the gaps in terms of legal framework information that we were missing.
  • Identification of knowledgeable stakeholders for interviews is important. We suggest aiming to get to those in the highest levels of power or people with the most expertise, but we know that is a progressive process. You can start by reaching out to the people that have less expertise, and ask who else they recommend.
  • There is a risk of collecting a lot of information that will be hard to manage. We suggest an additional step of parsing and reflecting and trying to identify the gaps in the information. Try to start drafting the findings and then re-engage once again with focus groups or more interviews to validate your findings.

Further considerations:

  • Allocate sufficient time for these types of analysis (they do require a significant amount of time). Also consider including advocacy phases. In order to include those phases, we also suggest setting specific time to design or provide a roadmap on advanced advocacy strategies and not just provide results or recommendations.
  • At their initiation, conservation projects should analyze the problem from an anti-corruption lens, trying to identify who benefits from not changing the status quo. That could also help increase the effectiveness of risk assessments in the future.
  • Determine beforehand the anti-corruption focus. Besides prevention and detection, we also saw that the other two phases of anti-corruption efforts, investigation and sanctions, were very important. It helps to improve the effectiveness of the assessment to identify which phase you would like to give more importance to, and it helps to identify more sensitive information or phases that require further attention during the research.
  • To deepen the understanding of social, political, economic, and cultural aspects amongst natural resource management practitioners, consider promoting internal discussions or capacity building. Integrate the conservation agenda with human rights, organized crime analysis, and anti-corruption efforts to have more holistic approaches to CRA.
  • Seek lessons learned from other sectors. It was very important to have Transparency for Colombia, who brought their extensive experience from working in anti-corruption strategies with private and public sectors in Colombia.
  • Promote a regional approach to projects. This was important since we were looking at drivers that have a transnational approach. Looking at those regional scope analyses raised the bar on the importance of the environmental crimes we were looking at and identifying players beyond borders.
  • Rethink recommendations and advocacy from a behavior change standpoint to understand why people engage in these practices. Use a non-judgmental approach, more grounded in empathy. Understand that corruption is an expression of social values, so you have to understand those in order to have more effective implementation of these projects.

Learning from a recent CRA in Zimbabwe

Aled Williams, Senior Advisor, U4-CMI, and Research Coordinator, Targeting Natural Resource Corruption:

U4-CMI worked with the German Embassy in Harare to inform their engagement on the Zimbabwean National Anti-Corruption Strategy in 2020. We worked with colleagues at the Zimbabwean Studies Unit at Rhodes University in South Africa and colleagues at the University of Zimbabwe on this study. This was a different method, but again, it was a mixed methods approach. It was a political settlement analysis which included a mini case study on the health sector and also included field interviews in Harare. The main findings from this were that the current semi-authoritarian character of the state in Zimbabwe would inherently inhibit the full implementation of the National Anti-Corruption Strategy and that there is a need to carefully consider how to support the various anti-corruption bodies within the state apparatus.

Both of these cases are a political process of engagement and informed dialogue with various partners on corruption issues, and they’re analytical exercises. This work shows that one of those two should not come at the cost of the second. It is important to combine very good methods that really get to the heart of the question being asked, but also make that very integrated within the process of engagement with partners on questions of anti-corruption.

Learning from a recent CRA in Cambodia

Aled Williams, Senior Advisor, U4-CMI, and Research Coordinator, Targeting Natural Resource Corruption:

U4-CMI worked with the Swedish International Development Agency (Sida) on a workshop in Phnom Penh in 2018. We produced a background study for that workshop with colleagues Jacqui Baker at Murdoch University and Sarah Milne at Australian National University, both in Australia. This was a critical political economy analysis that looked at anti-corruption interventions from 2008 until 2018 and included an integrated education-sector mini-case study as part of the broader study. The main finding was related to the overall question of “what explains the persistence of corruption amidst intensified anti-corruption initiatives?” The idea was to do a retrospective study to look not forwards towards potential risks, but to actually look back at how interventions had attempted to address actual corruption cases and prevalence. What was found was that anti-corruption was approached in these cases in a neoliberal manner and primarily geared towards improving the business environment. There was less attention to what the authors called “democratization” and “democratic accountability measures” related to anti-corruption.

Insights on developing methodologies and questions

Aled Williams
, Senior Advisor, U4-CMI, and Research Coordinator, Targeting Natural Resource Corruption:

There is a great level of detail and granularity of data that is available in different contexts. A good starting point is to discuss with a counterpart, somebody who has that type of experience and can sensitize a project or an individual towards the different types of data available. From there:

  • Make sure that the methods fit the research question.
  • Give much consideration to triangulation. How do we make sure that we are not being duped in terms of the data that we're collecting? Can we triangulate perceptions of various stakeholders against each other? For example, one challenge is if we are only interviewing power holders and not interviewing, for example, victims of corruption, we could get a very skewed understanding.
  • Environmental change data can also be crucial because it can be contrasted against political economy type information and narratives from interviews. So, if we see, for example, the deforestation rate is increasing, not staying the same or not reducing, then that can be taken into account.
  • It is possible to do vertically integrated studies, where you look at both the macro and micro challenges and that can be a way of ensuring that operational and project level questions are not lost within the macro analysis. That way the macro analysis can still inform project level and more operational considerations. This is important because usually, of course, the project doesn't exist in isolation. It exists within a broader context, and very often the context forms and shapes what happens with the project level.

Alina Rocha Menocal, Principal Research Fellow, Politics and Governance Programme, ODI:

Anti-corruption is a joint challenge. It requires looking into what practices from the donor countries help to reproduce corruption patterns and that should be part of the political economy analysis that is done across time and place.

Think of PEA as an approach, not a one-off activity. It is really essential to think about political economy analysis as an approach and as a mindset and not as a fixed output (a report). It should be an ongoing process of informing how you're approaching your everyday work. An original investment in analysis is a good output, because it can give a very good foundation for going forward. But then how you go about ensuring that the analysis is kept up to date, that you don't lose track of what's happening, can be done in a less formal way, through informal conversations. But it should not get lost, because that part of how you continue with your analysis on the way forward to systematically test what you're doing on the ground and understand what we need to change as a result, is core to Thinking and Working Politically (TWP).

How we move from analysis to practice

Alina Rocha Menocal
, Principal Research Fellow, Politics and Governance Programme, ODI:

How can we manage more adaptively and better foster learning? Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Design and think about programming in ways that are not only technically sound and normatively appealing but also politically feasible. Development is not linear or straightforward but it's rather complex, and institutions matter. Behind institutions are power and politics, and this has led to growing recognition that more technical approaches to development have serious limitations. The challenge of development is less about what needs to be done and much more about how things are done and the processes, incentives and other the factors that can facilitate or obstruct change.

I think one of the main insights as to why TWP is so important is that there has been a tendency in international development to use a cookie-cutter approach. TWP is a deliberate process of stepping back from a given situation and examining its characteristics with a more open mind. Shifting away from normative assumptions about how change should happen to how things actually work on the ground and constrain or enable change provides an opportunity to step back and understand the context better. It enables you to question and test assumptions about what needs to change, and how you can contribute to changing something, and why.

TWP provides a compass to help navigate the political complexities of reform and change. International development actors, including USAID, have made more progress on the thinking part of the TWP, but tailoring programs accordingly and working differently as a result has been a much more enduring challenge.

  • It’s essential to build relationships based on trust and to be able to not only think in a more politically-aware way, but also to work differently as a result. Trust is essential to provide partners with the space, autonomy, and authority they need to learn and adapt. That way they can test, reflect, and create feedback loops at the frontline of implementation, and give donors the confidence that the decisions being made on the ground are based on evidence and learning to improve effectiveness.

How to nurture this trust is a critical question. Enabling trust is essentially about creating an enabling environment for collective learning, including from what does not work. This requires a shift away from management systems and relationships that are reliant on tight central control and operational/upward reporting towards a focus on deeper learning.

  • Institutional leadership and champions (within the donor and implementer communities) are essential to foster a supportive management culture that encourages adaptive ways of working. TWP is resource intensive because building relationships that are based on trust takes time, skill, and patience. This is part of a commitment to learning.

Challenges to be aware of:

  • Tensions between learning and adaptation, on the one hand, and pressures for quick and tangible results, on the other. There are perceived or actual donor pressures or requirements to disperse funds quickly, or to show results, or around procurement. At the same time, organizational cultures and monitoring and evaluation (M&E) systems don't always adequately support learning and adaptation. There is still a tendency to focus overwhelmingly on upward accountability (so accountability to the donor), which is very much about reporting, rather than on accountability for learning and building the trust and support that this requires.
  • Tendencies to instrumentalize context analysis and learning and adaptation. This turns the analysis into more of a “box ticking” exercise than something that is actually substantive and meaningful. So, learning has remained overwhelmingly on the “what”, which entails small adjustments of activities and work plans, and far less on the “how” and “why”, which calls for deeper reflection on the theory of change, assumptions, strategic decisions, and what needs to be adjusted as a result. Part of the challenge is also that sometimes there is limited support from senior leadership, who may be facing other pressures that make it very difficult for them to prioritize learning, testing, and experimentation, including in relation to what does not work and risk and failure.
  • Inflexible, short-term planning and budget planning cycles. This affects the relationships that are built with implementing partners. So, there's an urgent need to rethink processes around accountability requirements. With all frameworks, value for money considerations, procurement, and contracting mechanisms need to be understood and applied so that they can better align with TWP and adaptive management principles. Because, as I said, some of these can be in tension with one another.

Working with and talking with others about corruption

Natalia Muñoz Cassolis
, Consultant, World Wildlife Fund:

Establish a common understanding in the project of how you are defining corruption. In our project, we leveled the ground among the practitioners on what the understandings of corruption were. Corruption is bound by legal frameworks, so it changes within countries. We tried to understand what the particularities of corruption in Colombia were, and then to bring those thoughts to the conservation sector. We built upon Transparency for Colombia’s definition, one specific for the project, and all the practitioners or the researchers on the project had a common understanding, or at least an agreement, of what we were looking at when talking about corruption.

Approach your analysis and the specific questions with empathy. Since we were looking at corruption and its integration with organized crime, when you talk to people, do it in a more empathic way. When we were talking with illegal gold miners, for instance, we were not talking about their illegal activities or telling them that they were involved in illegal gold mining and asking how corruption worked. It was “please let us know how this works in the region”, “how do you get the gold?”, “who are the authorities that are working along with this?”, “who does the controlling?”, “how do they work?”. We were just trying to understand how it operates, rather than asking about the “C”-word (“corruption”) directly. People can be engaged more easily when you talk about it this way.

Achiba Gargule, Senior Advisor, U4-CMI, and Targeting Natural Resource Corruption:

Especially when working with local organizations or people, adapt your assessment materials to the context but also to make them accessible for everyone participating. Simplified materials may be necessary to build the capacity of stakeholders to participate in the work.

Alina Rocha Menocal, Principal Research Fellow, Politics and Governance Programme, ODI:

The corruption issue is deeply emotive. Frame questions carefully. One example of this was a political economy analysis around drivers of corruption that I was supporting a USAID team with in a country in Latin America, where the framing question was “why are citizens not more outraged about corruption and its effects on their daily lives than they are?”. This is an extremely normative way of crafting a question. I had to get the team to step back a bit and reframe it: “how does corruption work here? How is it manifested? Why does it work the way it does? What are the ways I would say it in your culture? Who are the key actors involved? What are the dynamics? Who benefits and why?” And then on that basis, we can start to think about how different people may think about the issue of how to tackle corruption.

Anti-corruption and corruption risk assessments at USAID

Watch the recording above for insights from Jennifer Lewis, Deputy Director of the Anti-Corruption Task Force at USAID on how the Agency has been thinking about corruption risk assessments and approaches moving forward.

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