What are we learning about collaborative citizen engagement in anticorruption?

By Florencia Guerzovich[1] and Paula Chies Schommer[2]

In 2014, we were in Southern Brazil researching how state and civil society actors worked together to monitor municipal contracts. Volunteers explained that they had received assistance from the Office of the General Comptroller at the Federal level (CGU) through the Olho Vivo no Dinheiro Público (in Portuguese, or “Keeping an Eye on Public Money”) – a program conceived in Brazil’s capital city, Brasilia, to empower citizens to monitor the use of federal funds received by municipalities .  We wondered: were we observing medium term results from citizen engagement, many years after the trainings took place and relationships were forged?

Our research was unfolding simultaneously with  Operation Car Wash – the biggest corruption investigation ever in Latin America. We were interviewing people who worked with federal prosecutors. We were talking with anticorruption reformers who lived in the cities  at the epicenter of the national corruption scheme. Journalists, politicians, business leaders, civil servants and members of civil society organizations, provided glimpses into what was making Car Wash possible.

A light bulb went off in our heads! There could be  a story behind the Car Wash story. This might all be grounded in three factors: institutional reforms, local adaptation of the international anticorruption regime, and participation.  Particularly, we asked ourselves, what was the role of subnational state-society coproduction of transparency and accountability, in addition to celebrated practices such as participatory budgeting?  We wondered how policy prescriptions emanating from international research would hold up against what Brazilian actors were learning by doing.  Much anticorruption research informing those prescriptions focuses on anticorruption projects and processes in other parts of the world (see e.g. here and here).

So, we researched the politics of systemic anticorruption change in Brazil. What forces were enabling and sustaining Car Wash? And how, if at all, were these factors informing local actors’ behavior?  Some of our answers:

  • – The forces that are/were underlying Car Wash and pushing for gradual systemic change cannot be reified to a criminal law reform or a small set of champions in the judiciary. A well-coordinated, capable state anticorruption infrastructure provided a necessary, but insufficient, platform to enable, scale and sustain results. Broader institutional and societal forces were shaping the political economy context that has enabled and sustained Car Wash.
  • – Anticorruption seems to have limited or no effect in the short-term partly due to the limited power of champions in civil society and accountability bodies. This is an insight consistent with the broad focus of the World Development Report of 2017 on Governance and the Law. In the past, localized wins were many times undone by corrupt structures. Yet, over time efforts added up due to the articulation of actors, institutions, organizations and processes of resource mobilization.
  • – A longer-term lens suggests a more important result. Brazilian reformers were experimenting with, and knitting together the conditions for, multi-stakeholder action against corruption. Civil society was experimenting with state agencies. State agencies were experimenting and learning themselves, too. Trial, error, and course-correction happened in office-islands at the federal and sub-national levels of government. Agents – more visible champions and their allies across the state and society– have been learning to navigate the politics, legal and technical aspects of reform, all at once. A shift from short-term ad-hoc wins to sustainable results at scale required moving beyond a narrow conceptualization of civil society engagement to a bet on collective action and coproduction of anticorruption.

Our experience linking global research and national practice informed a breakout session on ‘Collaborative and Coproduced Anticorruption’ at the Fifth Global Partnership for Social Accountability’s Global Partners Forum. In the session, we opted to reflect on the Brazilian experience along with the work of the Mexican Accountability Network, which supports multi-stakeholder collective action for institutional change. Lourdes Morales from the Network shared the opportunities and challenges of navigating the politics of anticorruption in her context. Johannes Tonn from Global Integrity and Jim Anderson from the World Bank’s Global Governance Practice helped us cover a global outlook of the field.

The conversation was rich and refreshing. We are excited that some participants made new connections, found out lessons that could be useful for their work (e.g. here). You can listen to the session here . Also coming up: a blog post on the parallel event – Collective Action to Fight Corruption in Latin America: a roundtable convened by Global Integrity.

Key takeaways included:

  • – Civil society dynamics are critical for the activation of anticorruption mechanisms and institutions. It is helpful to think about the synergies between state and civil society, rather than pose dichotomies. We think anticorruption coproduction is a useful concept to move the conversation forward. For reformers, coproducing anticorruption has become a strategic pillar for action because it helps supplement organizations’ own technical, legal and political resources and levels the playing field.
  • – In Mexico’s current context, arguments of anticorruption for equity may also provide an entry point for the human capital project.
  • – Small business owners, in some localities in Brazil, have become interested in anticorruption reforms for better spending. One of their motives is the link between the quality of public services and workers’ productivity. We have research in the pipeline on this point, so stay tuned!
  • – One of the reasons citizens are mobilizing against corruption is because they are making the link between poor public spending / fiscal crises and poor service delivery that affects their lives. In Brazil, prosecutors, judges and media coverage have reinforced the connection between corruption and citizens’ day-to-day experiences (e.g. here).
  • – There are important tensions and caveats in any anti-corruption process. Civil society is heterogeneous, with different groups vying for and against the anticorruption agenda. Actors within the state also face many dilemmas in how they navigate legal, political and technical aspects of anticorruption changemaking.
  • – In the cases we discussed, anticorruption work is adaptive and political. Too many times, global research on corruption and anticorruption is not. More from Johannes Tonn on this challenge here.

We want to conclude with a thought for those who have a chance to inform global debates about anticorruption. Brazil and Mexico are only two of the ‘laboratories of change’ worldwide that are providing insights. Whether and how we bring these and other cases into our conversations can have consequences for future programming in the field. Doing it well means we can help bridge the gap between research and action in a useful way.


[1] Florencia Guerzovich – Independent Consultant and Researcher. Sr. Monitoring, Evaluation, Research and Learning Advisor, The Global Partnership for Social Accountability, The World Bank.  [email protected]

[2] Paula Chies Schommer – Professor of Public Administration – Santa Catarina State University, Udesc, Brazil – [email protected]

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