TNRC Guide Corruption Risks and Anti-Corruption Responses in Sustainable Livelihood Interventions

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Targeting Natural Resource Corruption

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

Corruption risks and anti-corruption responses in sustainable livelihood interventions

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This TNRC Guide shares practical knowledge for program designers and implementers to reduce corruption’s impact on conservation.

Key takeaways

  • Sustainable livelihood projects can create significant opportunities for illicit private gains, along with the power and enabling conditions to pursue those gains. In other words, these projects are subject to corruption risks that may partially or completely sabotage the project or, in the worse cases, contribute to further social and environmental damage.
  • Project designers and managers need to be cognizant of the corruption risks and build appropriate and feasible anti-corruption responses into their project theories of change.
  • This guidance offers some results chains, tools, and other resources to help those practitioners do just that.

Key definitions

  • Corruption: This guidance follows Transparency International’s definition of corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain.
  • Duty bearer: This guidance occasionally uses this term instead of “officials” to encompass anyone entrusted with authority or power, even if they are not officially part of the government or state.
  • Sustainable livelihood: “a remunerative, satisfying and meaningful job that enables each member of the community to help nurture and regenerate the resource base” (IUCN 1999). A sustainable livelihood intervention therefore both increases the options for remunerative and satisfying work drawn from the environment, while managing or reducing the impact of that work on the environment (IMM 2008, Charles 2021).

Sustainable livelihoods and corruption

From reefs to forests and from harvest to tourism, billions of people derive their livelihoods from nature (WWF 2020). Billions, if not trillions, of dollars, pesos, and rupees have been spent supporting, protecting, and increasing the environmental sustainability of those livelihoods (e.g., Kharas and MacArthur 2019). More should undoubtedly be spent (Dasgupta 2021), given the continued, dual needs of human benefit and natural conservation (WWF 2021).

Corruption, however, is a pervasive threat to those same reefs and forests and harvests and tours. It can divert money into the pockets of a few, eat away at efforts to protect resources, and harm the human rights and social capital that underpin collaborative efforts to conserve (Belecky et al. 2021; Klein et al. 2021; Korwin 2016; Outhwaite 2020; Pretty and Smith 2004; Sheill and Parry-Jones 2021). In this sense, sustainable livelihoods work is like any development endeavor. It shares the “conditions” that give rise to corruption risk: incentive, opportunity, and enabling attitudes (UN Global Compact 2013). Or, in more elaborate terms (adapted from Wathne 2021), a sustainable livelihood project may create (or align with):

  • the opportunity for private gains;
  • the power and discretion for people (and institutions) to pursue those gains; and 
  • systems (of incentives, behavior, norms) that excuse, permit, and/or rationalize that self-serving pursuit.

This guidance contains three modules exploring the corruption opportunities, power, and justifications that might manifest in three typical sustainable livelihood interventions:

  • payments for ecosystem services (PES)
  • carbon compensation co-benefits
  • protected area and other effective area-based conservation (PA/OECM) benefit sharing

Each module identifies corruption risks in that activity type and anti-corruption responses that have been tried or can be considered to address those risks.

Anti-corruption response resources

Each section highlights a subset of key resources to help frame specific anti-corruption responses. However, many additional guides and tools exist, and these are hyperlinked throughout the text. If any link is broken, details to locate the source are available here:

Miradi model results chain

Each module includes a high-level results chain illustrating where corruption risks might occur, adapted from the Conservation Action and Measures Library. Follow the links accompanying each figure, or find Miradi files here, for detailed versions that illustrate where anti-corruption activities can be integrated into sustainable livelihood programming.

Foundations: Framing, concepts, and caveats

First, this guidance is intended for project designers and managers who are already familiar with these types of sustainable livelihood activities. The three types of projects are stylized and simplified to be applicable in the widest possible range of cases, rather than detailed guidance for how to create a specific PES, carbon compensation, or PA/OECM benefit sharing project. Other types of sustainable livelihood projects also exist.

Second, and similarly, the goal is to show illustrative examples of how entrusted power could be abused for private gain, along with broad approaches that could be tried in response. The corruption risks described are illustrative and general, not exhaustive or specific. And both risks and responses are hypothetical, except where a specific study or case is cited.[1]

Third, therefore, practitioners must adapt these risks and responses to their specific operating context. Not all approaches will be appropriate or feasible for all projects. This guidance is only a starting point of reference that will, ideally, connect practitioners with resources they can use to take what actions they can—even if those actions are limited to partnering with or supporting the actions of other organizations.

Part of that adaptation to context involves reducing barriers for direct stakeholders to participate in, lead, and own activities. Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs), and their lands, play a crucial role in conservation (WWF et al. 2021). Therefore, all of the recommendations and potential responses in this guidance should be interpreted through the lens of inclusive conservation. Furthermore, the shorthand of “inclusive” is for readability, not to imply that inclusion is a small or perfunctory concept; rather, readers should interpret “inclusive” as recognizing, valuing, lifting up, and accommodating the different ways different people experience and contribute to conservation.[2] Similarly, while the modules use “benefit sharing” as shorthand, “individuals and communities are holders of rights, responsibilities, knowledge, capacities, interests and concerns… never mere recipients or beneficiaries of initiatives conceived and carried out by others…” (ICCA 2018).

Finally, this guidance intentionally prioritizes practice over exploration of broad anti-corruption concepts. Users may find further investigation of certain anti-corruption concepts helpful: 

  • Anti-corruption responses are often categorized as “Prevention,” “Detection,” and/or “Enforcement.” This may be a helpful way to organize anti-corruption response activities as part of project planning.
  • Root causes, and therefore the appropriate response, may exist at or across a variety of levels, from interpersonal to local to national and beyond (Wathne 2021). Generally, the most successful and sustainable anti-corruption efforts are systemic and holistic, using multiple approaches from different angles, because corruption itself is usually systemic (Tacconi and Williams 2020; Wathne 2021).
  • Even where large-scale, multi-pronged governance reform is infeasible in a single program of work, practitioners can still consider political, collective action initiatives to shift power equilibriums (Wathne 2021) or social norms around corruption (Williams and Dupuy 2019).
  • At a minimum, practitioners and experts designing or implementing sustainable livelihood interventions should try to incorporate context-specific corruption risk management into their adaptive management procedures (e.g., Johnsøn 2015, UN Global Compact 2013).

Details on these concepts, and many others, can be found at the introductory TNRC eCourse, U4’s overview of anti-corruption basics, and the Anti-Corruption Helpdesk run by Transparency International and U4.

Nature-based Solutions (NbS): How does this guidance relate?

NbS seek to address societal challenges, like climate change and sustainable development, “hand in paw” with nature. They “protect, restore or proactively manage” places to “deliver both a net socioeconomic benefit at the local level…and a net biodiversity gain…” (Pérez-Cirera et al. 2021).

Each module addresses NbS in the way most relevant to that specific topic. For example, payments for ecosystem services are one way to link the producers and recipients of NbS. Carbon compensation is one financing mechanism for NbS activities. And many NbS rely on proper management of a protected or effectively conserved area (UNDRR 2021).

Thus, in the same way that corruption can undermine the three types of sustainable livelihood interventions included here, corruption can also undermine NbS efforts. The anti-corruption responses below, therefore, will also be useful for delivering “the highest quality [NbS] interventions – those that protect nature and support people’s livelihoods, while also mitigating and adapting to climate change” (Hacking et al. 2021).

Key crosscutting resources

  • Communities, Conservation, and Livelihoods (2021)
  • A Guide for Anti-Corruption Risk Assessment (2013)
  • Legal empowerment to promote legitimate tenure rights (2021)
  • Women, Land and Corruption-- Resources for Practitioners and Policy-Makers (2018)
  • Overcoming the pitfalls of engaging communities in anti-corruption programmes (2020)
  • Supplemental Guidance: Grievance Redress Mechanisms (2017)
  • Guiding Practice from the Policies of Independent Accountability Mechanisms (2021)
  • Stakeholder Participation Guide: Supporting Stakeholder Participation in Design, Implementation and Assessment of Policies and Actions (2020)
  • Strengthening social cohesion: Conceptual framing and programming implications (2020)
  • Caja de herramientas para la gestión territorial indígena y el manejo de recursos naturales por comunidades (2021)


Rio Tambopata-View from the Kerenda Homet refugio, Located in Puerto Maldonado, Peru

Module One: Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES): Corruption risks and responses

This module covers the corruption risks and anti-corruption responses in PES programs. Such programs leverage market-based mechanisms to promote conservation by quantifying the value of a “service” that an element of nature provides society; charging the beneficiaries of that service; and using the proceeds to pay the owners or rights holders of that element of nature to continue to maintain it.

[1] For real-world cases of corruption, users are encouraged to explore Transparency International’s Climate and Corruption Case Atlas.

[2] Those differences include gender; indigenous heritage, background, or affiliation; class and socioeconomic status; and many, many more.


The author wishes to thank all reviewers and validation workshop participants for their invaluable contributions to each module of this guidance.


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