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‘Conspicuous integrity’ can change national perceptions of graft

Transparency International’s CPI may not be perfect, but the perception of corruption in a country matters. As one study found, if you go to a country where you expect corruption, and someone solicits a bribe from you, you are more likely to give the bribe.

The reverse is also true. If you go to a country that you do not think of as corrupt, and someone solicits a bribe from you, you are less likely to pay the bribe.

When social expectations of corruption become internalized, bribery and corruption are perpetuated, and could even become unconsciously perpetuated, based on perceptions of corruption in that country.

The next step, then, is straightforward — countries need to change their perception of corruption. The question is: How can they change it?

National integrity confidence-building offers one avenue. Originally named “Integrity Idol,” the Accountability Lab’s Integrity Icon program is aiming to do just that. In this initiative, local volunteers first raise awareness and gather nominations of government officials who act with honesty and integrity. This list is narrowed down, and five finalists are filmed for episodes on national television and radio.  Citizens then vote on the finalists via text message or a website.

Part of its purpose is to create debate and discussion around the idea of integrity as well as the importance of honesty and personal responsibility — therefore, even those who are not selected as a top-five candidate are included in the conversation at an annual integrity summit. The program has also become a learning platform, where consultations are conducted about how to create a mechanism within systems to promote integrity, and young people can shadow the Integrity Icon winners.

Beginning with Nepal in 2014 and spreading to Liberia, Pakistan, Mali, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and Mexico — and currently in negotiations with more countries — this initiative operates in countries ranked with high perceptions of corruption on the CPI. The biggest challenge initially was a lack of belief in the integrity of any government officials.

In Mali, for example, many believed that those in government worked to make money for themselves, not for serving the public. The tenacious nature of long-held perceptions of corruption within a country may also make it difficult to see the changes taking place. Thus, the conspicuous nature of an Integrity Icon assists in creating awareness and changing the national perception. Today, hundreds of government officials are nominated each year and the Integrity Icons are seen as career examples for youth and young professionals.

Although this program focuses on competition and on individuals, which has its limitations, it uses the individual as a positive symbol of what can be done when people take action to serve their communities with integrity. In the long-term, non-material incentives, such as a recognition of the contribution that each government worker is making to their community through their public service, may allow for all government employees to participate in the culture change.

However, this campaign is just the beginning of a process of changing individual and collective norms. Already the program is working to build cohorts of Integrity Icons around certain industries and expertise as well as reforming civil service training curricula. For example, there is a coalition brainstorming solutions in the healthcare sector and a group of female Icons thinking through gender and integrity. The Nepal team has also opened an Integrity School, where young government employees are discussing “integrity, the challenges to building accountability and practical examples of how to shift norms within bureaucratic systems”.

Through this program, the acts of these individuals and their teams receive positive reinforcement. This effort has given people a voice and a platform to share their encouraging and hopeful stories, and slowly the perception of corruption is beginning to change. Others in government service positions know that they do not have to perpetuate corruption. As Michaela Ahlberg discussed in a post a year-and-a-half ago, “Fear does not promote a capable and courageous leadership. . . .We have to find other ways to be courageous.”


Shirin Ahlhauser, pictured above, is an attorney admitted to practice in Washington, D.C. She works as a Legal Consultant (Sanctions) in the World Bank’s Office of Suspension and Debarment. The findings, interpretations and conclusions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the World Bank Group, its board of directors or the governments they represent.

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  1. Excellent post. It is easy for anti-corruption practitioners to focus too much on what NOT to do, which limits possibilities for meaningful cultural change.

  2. Nice post. I think there is a lot more to be done to use the insights of behavioral social science, and the issues and activities you highlight, including the creative work of Accountability Lab, are a great start.

  3. Shirin,

    You cite the specific case of Mali, a country that I know well over 35 visits during 14 years of work. In my extensive experience dealing with low, mid and high-level officials in Mali and other similar low-income countries across West Africa, supplementing low wages with bribes is widespread practice.

    I believe that the combination of small bribes paid widely to many government officials and development assistance funding to these low-income countries together enable senior local officials to misuse or even steal government funds that could otherwise be used to pay adequate salaries for low and mid-level officials.

    David Ireland

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