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Michael Johnston: Relying on ‘political will’ to fight corruption is magical thinking

Corruption control is difficult enough without falling back on magical thinking. By that I mean assuming that A will cause B, without specifying any causal connections between the two. A closely-related fallacy is the notion that naming an idea creates something real. A bit of reflection on these problems may help us understand why checking corruption continues to be so difficult.

A prime example of magical thinking is the notion of “political will” — a hardy perennial that crops up in just about every discussion of corruption control. On its face the idea is sensible enough: reforms are unlikely to succeed without strong support. But “will” of any sort is a matter of intentions and dispositions and, as such, is fundamentally unknowable in anyone other than ourselves.

Despite proclamations of civic virtue and “zero tolerance” — the latter usually indicating that the speaker hasn’t thought about corruption very deeply — how can we know whether political will does, or does not, exist? How can we distinguish between political will and the consequences we assume, or hope, it will produce? How do we know bold reform statements do not conceal a sinister agenda?

After some time has passed, we might examine the results of reforms and conclude that political support from various sources, or its absence, influenced success or failure. But even then, outcomes are shaped by many forces and circumstances; what look like results of political will may reflect other causes. Reform scenarios dependent upon political will amount to claiming “these ideas will work if someone makes them work” — wishful, and circular, thinking at best. Should they fail, the political will argument comes perilously close to blaming the victims: “we gave Country X good ideas, but they didn’t follow through.”  The latter part of that statement may be true, yet hardly be the sole cause of failure — and, maybe our recommendations weren’t so great to begin with ?

A final problem is that political will is usually thought of as originating at the top of the system. But even if an anti-corruption “champion” produces positive results, what happens when she or he leaves the building? In many societies — even those falling short of full democracy — sustained political demand from citizens may well be the best lasting source of support for corruption control. Without it, even high-profile proclamations of “political will” often turn out to mean “political won’t.”

Another example of magical thinking has to do with “capacity” or “capacity-building.” In some settings the idea makes sense: we might add staff and data-processing power to an agency and increase its theoretical capacity to process invoices, for example. But will such added capacity actually yield better performance? What’s more, the capacity idea is often used in much broader ways, as for example in efforts to improve the overall performance of legislatures, law enforcement, or courts. There, the argument is often that higher capacity will produce better representation and legislation, more effective and fairer law enforcement, and better access to justice.

But how many shortcomings in the performance of such institutions reduce to shortages of “capacity” — as opposed, say, to willful mismanagement, favoritism, and the like? Are we even sure that those broader forms of “capacity” exist? Can we measure them and be confident about their consequences? How will broader benefits come to pass — or, who will have a sustained stake in making them happen? Like “political will,” many capacity-building scenarios reduce the full complexity of improving the quality of government to a single factor — one that, on closer examination, may well be an empty slogan.

A final sort of magical thinking applies to civil society. Again, we have good reason to think that where civil society is solidly behind reform results are likely to improve. But the term is often invoked as a singularity – “get civil society involved” — when it can actually be unclear what is meant by “civil society” and what it ought to do. Instead of looking at the full range of networks, social activities, and sources of mutual trust that can enable citizens to demand better government, we usually reduce the term to formally-organized, dedicated anti-corruption NGOs. 

“Working with civil society” too often boils down to aiding a handful of externally-funded NGOs in and around the national capital. Do those organizations reach outward and downward into society, and do they engage the lasting needs and wishes of citizens? How much grassroots support have they really got, and can they mobilize it for specific purposes? Too often we assume that a group must have a formal structure and an overt anti-corruption agenda, ant that people who resent corruption will more or less inevitably become active supporters. Overlooked, as a result, are many low-level networks and social processes that may have no overt political purpose, but still help build trust, organizational skills, and local leadership. Even in unpromising circumstances, citizens use those sorts of connections all the time for purposes of social interaction and mutual aid.

Formal organizations, by contrast, suffer from classic free-rider problems surrounding the pursuit of public goods. Overtly challenging corrupt interests can be difficult and risky; moreover, some citizens may have a stake in the status quo – receiving a few crumbs from the table – or believe they stand to do so eventually. And when it comes to promises of reform, chances are they’ve heard it all before.

What would be better? Start by seeing corrupt actions as symptoms of deeper imbalances in power, weaknesses in institutions, and gaps in accountability. While it will often be necessary to address those actions directly via laws, penalties, incentives, and process-oriented improvements, such remedies will require lasting demand that they be enforced — demand from all segments of society. Such demand will be more effective if we can show citizens anti-corruption efforts are paying off in better services and fewer official abuses — and, if we can show officials that dealing with citizens’ real problems is a way to build support for themselves. That agenda does not depend upon anti-corruption “toolkits” or short-term projects.

It is, instead, a matter of building an open, effective, and accountable state within which citizens can safely express and defend their interests. It does not necessarily require full-blown democracy; indeed, democracy brings its own corruption challenges. It does, however, require addressing corruption as a systemic problem requiring systemic political change. Such a process is long, difficult, and often contentious, and it requires a clear long-term vision — not magical thinking.    


Michael Johnston, pictured above, is a Distinguished Professor at the International Anti-Corruption Academy in Laxenburg, Austria and the Charles A. Dana Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Colgate University. He has served as a senior consultant to organizations such as the World Bank, United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the U.S. Agency for International Development on questions of corruption, democratization, and reform. His book Syndromes of Corruption: Wealth, Power, and Democracy (Cambridge University Press) won the 2009 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order, presented by the University of Louisville. He holds a PhD from Yale University.

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  1. Political will and capacity building are two crucial components of developing an effective anti-corruption strategy, so I am rather bemused about categorizing them as magical thinking unless that is a euphemism for believing they are achievable!

    There are external pressures that can be bought to bear to achieve political will, as well as appropriate training using the KUSAB model. In my experience corruption exists in an environment where there is insufficient oversight of the process and those responsible for delivery. Secondly, the institutions may well be in place with the legislative back up required, but a lack of resources to deliver capability and, oh yes, capacity to enforce breaches. Regrettably, academic research tends to over complicate the issues and lose sight of basic human nature!

  2. Excellent article. It is most refreshing to read something other than a rehashing of these tired epithets of 'political will', 'top down' and 'zero tolerance'. Whilst all do actually mean 'something', they are too often bandied about as if they offer any kind of solution. 'Magical thinking' is a great way to categorise this syndrome.

    No doubt your article will attract the ire of those who like to rely on comfortable epithets but I, for one, think that you raise vital issues in projecting this whole discussion wider civil society conditions.

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