TNRC Blog Part III: Six Things Donors Should Know about Anti-Corruption in Conservation Projects

Image representing TNRC's four focus areas: wildlife, fisheries, forests, and finance

Targeting Natural Resource Corruption

Harnessing knowledge, generating evidence, and supporting innovative policy and practice for more effective anti-corruption programming

TNRC Project-Based Learning Blog

Part III: Six Things Donors Should Know about Anti-Corruption in Conservation Projects

In addition to the anti-corruption knowledge assembled in TNRC’s Knowledge Hub, we have an exciting portfolio of activities around the world comprised of pilot projects and Associate Awards. From this innovative work, our project is learning about impactful, context-informed, adaptive solutions to corruption challenges in forests, fisheries, and wildlife. This blog post, part of a three-part series based on the first year of these projects, shares some lessons that could be relevant for donors aiming to support work in this space.

1. Be intentional with prescribing a definition of the corruption problem...

Understandings and interpretations of corruption will vary across sectors, jurisdictions, and stakeholders, as will the appropriateness of anti-corruption approaches. Donors should therefore make an intentional decision to either frame the corruption problem and prescribe a definition for corruption (or anti-corruption approach) during procurement, or plan for applicants to define terms and issues and make recommendations based on their own experience or new analyses.

If the donor opts to define and prescribe, attention should be paid to type of aid mechanism selected. Donors have a number of useful mechanisms for deploying their aid to recipient countries. Choosing the right delivery mechanism for an anti-corruption project – or at least understanding what the delivery mechanism can and can’t do in relation to the anti-corruption project – is vital for donors to understand in order to ensure effective outcomes. A contractor will give a donor tight control over expenditure and results – but the recipient government may see little to no resources flowing to them so may be less invested in the overall project outcomes.

Collaborating with the implementer to define and design may be better coupled with a more flexible implementation mechanism, like a cooperative agreement or a grant. Implementers can then play a role of “honest broker,” holding the confidence of different stakeholders (government, private sector, donors) to find solutions and navigate the messy politics which may include corruption. This would allow donors and governments to negotiate through the honest broker, without those parties having to refer directly to corruption being an issue, while still working toward the prescribed anti-corruption goal. To be effective, donors will therefore have to give the NGO space to work and not conflate the NGO into a simple delivery mechanism for the donor, as this could undermine the perception of the implementing organization’s impartiality and ability to work honestly.

2. Or be intentional with NOT prescribing a definition of the corruption problem

If donors prefer for the implementer to define (or co-define) the problem or the way to address it, TNRC can offer lessons from two kinds of co-design processes. One co-design approach, employed in the Associate Awards, set aside 6-12 months for analysis and developing an evidence base. This proved very fruitful in terms of trying to bridge understandings and hold discussions between the donor and the implementer. One clear advantage of this approach is that it can (or at least could) afford the team an opportunity to partner with anti-corruption expert(s) who could inject needed perspectives and enable a thorough analysis. (Note, however, that additional time may be needed if there are many analyses that have to be integrated into an understandable whole.)

A second approach, used with TNRC’s smaller pilot projects, worked through a Challenge Fund. A call for proposals was posted, and a panel reviewed submissions and rated them against a rubric. The TNRC technical advisor and MEL specialist met with the shortlisted teams to discuss their design and how it might be strengthened. Teams then submitted updated proposals for final selection. For these small projects, which could afford only 1-2 months at most for any original analysis, this approach helped to clarify the corruption problem, unpack project assumptions, and identify evidence gaps that could be filled by an abbreviated analysis and those that could be filled through the development of learning questions and collection of monitoring data.

This second approach was extremely effective in two important ways. Most of the proposal teams had limited anti-corruption capacity, so conversations were necessary to tease out whether the problem they had identified was truly corruption or merely illegality. Additionally, while the Challenge Fund listed broad categories of approaches (“community-based approaches,” “rights-based approaches,” etc.), teams benefited from talking through the system of actors and political dynamics of their proposal. Through this, a TNRC technical advisor was able to identify options for very specific technical activities for different entry points based on a better understanding of risks and opportunities.

3. Balance flexibility with clear parameters

Beyond the corruption problem, it is vital that donors be clear about what they want out of any analysis. Early decisions about parameters (e.g., the sectors, regions, issues that will be included in the analysis) will help stakeholders be clear about how much they can and should narrow or expand the possibilities of the eventual work. The focus, methodology, and scope of corruption assessments can vary widely and can only be narrowed by being clear about what it is the users want to know. A thorough and effective analysis depends on this clarity from the donor as a primary user. Additionally, corruption analysis may in some cases involve risks to institutional relationships or even staff safety, so a clear scope and logic is important to help implementers assess those risks.

At the same time, flexibility in meeting defined parameters is warranted. For example, the political sensitivity of some contexts led teams responding to the Challenge Fund to withhold important details from their proposals. A closed meeting between shortlisted proposal teams and TNRC staff let the proposing teams more freely answer staff’s questions. Staff were also able to be clearer about what changes could and could not be accommodated. At the end, some doubts about shortlisted proposals’ anti-corruption contributions, and some concerns from proposal teams about engaging in the work at all, were resolved. This also reinforces the need for donors to think creatively about how they can enable this confidential exchange of information at the proposal stage, in order to reach the widest range of interested teams in challenging contexts.

4. Moderate expectations for evidence

Given the limited state of conventional evidence (social science research, project MEL data, studies, etc.) related to corruption, its impact on biodiversity, and the effectiveness of various anti-corruption approaches, donors should devote extra attention to developing the evidence base and keep expectations for implementer knowledge proportionate to the scope or goals of the project. This includes being thoughtful about how much evidence is required in a proposal vetting process and a willingness to fund evidence collection either through formal analyses or project MEL processes. For formal analyses, budgets should be sufficient to hire a consultant and afford the engagement of that consultant through to a utilization workshop. Of course, donors can work to fill the evidence gaps proactively by funding research and learning independently from other activities with similar focus to cast a wider evidence net and explore issues more broadly.

The nature of corruption (its hiddenness, its highly context-based definition) increases the prevalence of less conventional “evidence” in projects, including but not limited to popular perceptions, first-hand experiences, and recurring second-hand anecdotes that lend a sense of triangulated certainty. When proposals include this kind of information, donors should ask implementers to develop a plan for further data collection to triangulate the evidence. Where data collection is not possible, donors should ask implementers to also lay out the drivers they think are contributing to the perceived corruption and the evidence available for those. This can be an effective means of bringing all possible information to the table for the best possible programming.

5. Risk-based decision-making processes are necessary...

Putting risk at the center of discussions from the start of the project (and throughout) can be a particularly helpful approach for anti-corruption projects, where identifying and responding to corruption issues can be fraught with difficulties. What is important to note is that risk is as much about identifying appropriate opportunities as identifying what cannot or should not be done. Proper understanding of the technical and political issues around the project is, ultimately, the best way to manage risks, identify reform opportunities, plan for effective risk mitigation, and anticipate where and when it might be necessary to make an adaptive decision. Having a clear, shared understanding with the implementer from the beginning about what results might be achievable within a given context and how projects need to strategize around foreseeable risks will improve collaboration and increase chances of a successful project. Ensuring that risk is a part of continuous management consideration will ensure the implementer is well-placed to respond to unforeseen risks or new ones that emerge.

6. And should be balanced with the value of government engagement

Local partnerships, or at least open discussions with, a relevant government agency has helped TNRC projects ensure buy-in for the work, which also increases the potential for scale up. While many of the projects had pre-existing working relationships with government, others had not considered this as important, or believed it was not possible when working on an issue like corruption. With coaching on how to discuss issues with stakeholders in a non-threatening manner, at least one team managed to secure government buy-in for their work. Given this, it is recommended donors have an explicit requirement for some level of government engagement. This can reduce the risk of projects being stalled by government blocks, as experienced on one TNRC project.

At the same time, this engagement will not always be feasible. In some cases, it may even be counterproductive or dangerous. The donor should understand how and when recipient countries tend to exercise their agency and provide support to the implementer in navigating political dynamics. That also means engaging with the implementer to learn from their experience navigating those political dynamics, which may be more nuanced than the donor’s—especially in contexts that agencies may just be reentering.

On-the-ground practitioners and experts

© Vecteezy / Ayuputri Setyorini

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