Three Key Lessons In Fighting Corruption – Onyi Ough, Founder, Step Up Nigeria

Today is International Anti-Corruption Day, and I wanted to share some thoughts and reflections. I have worked in the field of anti-corruption for the past 17 years. I have learnt a lot and still learning what works. There are three things I have learnt so far working in this area:

1. Treat causes, not just the symptoms of corruption. Most anti-corruption efforts
focus on detecting corruption and sanctioning corrupt offenders. Sometimes, more
effort is being put into the symptoms rather than the causes. Whilst it is essential that
we have systems and mechanisms in place to detect corruption and punish corrupt
offenders, I believe that we need to focus more on preventing corruption in the first
place. For me, this is like the corruption fight. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us
that prevention is better than cure. We have been able to move on because of the
vaccination. We need to have a cocktail of vaccines to prevent corruption from
happening in the first place. Therefore, I established Step Up Nigeria to focus on
preventing corruption by tackling some of the root causes of corruption. The first step
is educating people from a young age on the dangers of corruption and how to resist it.

2. Social sanctions could be more effective than legal sanctions for corrupt offenders.
Social sanctions could be a very effective tool to punish corrupt offenders compared to
legal sanctions. Anti-corruption efforts should focus on shifting social norms from
corruption being widely tolerated to less tolerance for corruption. Anti-corruption
education, not awareness-raising alone, will help in specific contexts. The first step will
be adopting an approach to identifying social pressures that drive or enable corruption.
Conducting a political economy analysis to understand the political and social context
will be helpful. For example, in Nigeria, it could be the pressure to help family friends
to get a job or business contract when in a position of power. Anti-corruption
interventions can look at creative ways to allow societies to generate new norms that
prioritise integrity and shun corruption. Then we can devise approaches to tackling
these social pressures that enable corruption. Creating a society that dissociates itself
from corrupt individuals by ostracising and excluding corrupt persons could be more
effective than arresting them. Most people rely on social networks, and being ostracised
from social networks could make them more ashamed of their corrupt actions.
However, this will be context specific.

3. Behavioural approaches to tackling corruption could help build collective action.
We need to focus more on behavioural approaches to tackling corruption. This will help
in building collective action in the fight against corruption. To change behaviour, we
need to demonstrate the costs of corruption to people’s lives, the benefits of acting with
integrity and how to act. We also need to support citizens’ efforts to tackle corruption
and reward actions that citizens have taken in this area. Recognising citizens that are
taking measures, no matter how small, helps to incentivise others to act. Step Up Nigeria
is adopting this approach in its anti-corruption practice, and we see its impact on
people’s behaviour. We conducted a randomised impact evaluation last year to see how
our storytelling approaches to educating children on corruption could positively impact
children’s behaviour. Results showed that our film screening and participatory book
sessions reduced cheating behaviours by 20% compared to control groups (statistically
significant with 99% confidence). Evidence from our anti-corruption star awards also
reveals that our behavioural change approaches educate children and teachers about the
issues and enable them to stand up to corruption.

As we celebrate anti-corruption day today, I would like all anti-corruption practitioners to reflect on how anti-corruption reforms have fared in the last 20 years and what we can do to have a more positive impact on society. Happy International Anti-Corruption Day! Let’s shun corruption and grab integrity.

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