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The key to better anti-corruption strategies is to conceive corruption reform differently.

Think of it as a different mental model. Mental models are the images, assumptions and stories that we carry in our mind about every aspect of our world. They are often tacit and unexamined, like icebergs below the surface, yet they determine our behaviour. CurbingCorruption has re-thought how those in front-line situations can develop more useful & pragmatic anti-corruption strategies.

The result is the Sector Focus Remediation Action (SFRA) approach for tackling corruption: 



Corruption reforms are usually best addressed at sector level, not at a broader governance level. Reformers understand their sector (health, education, telecoms, policing, etc). They understand the economic incentives that drive their sector, the language of their sector, the social norms that govern peoples’ behaviour, the political specificities of the sector. There is also usually ownership and pride among those working in any given sector, powerful motivators if ways can be found to harness them. Click here for more about the Sector approach.


The corruption challenge needs first to be focused – disaggregated – into specific issues. Our experience is that there are 20-40 different issues in each sector, recognisable to those working in it. They are then organised into an easily comprehensible format – a typology. 

The reforming group then uses the one-page typology as the starting point for discussion and analysing them: their scale, importance, context, avoidability and solubility. Then they use this for building shared understanding of their impact across colleagues/partners & others. Click here for more on Focus.

Health sector example – typology

The typology for health is shown opposite. 42 issues were developed from the existing anti-corruption literature in the health sector, allied with practical experience from health corruption reform in Afghanistan, Greece and elsewhere. The sub-headings – aligning with health nomenclature – come from the World Health Organisation’s categorisation of health systems.

Then, focus on the relative importance of the issues, which ones could feasibly be tackled, and building a common understanding across the reforming group.

Defence sector example – Burundi

In July 2014, the top military leadership in Burundi, some 30+ participants, spent a full day discussing corruption reform. The typology of corruption issues in the defence sector was used to stimulate that discussion, coupled with asking those present/involved to vote on the relative importance of the specific issues.

Voting can sometimes be done in open discussion, but often tensions, dominant personalities, hierarchies and political divisions render openness impossible. In fragile states with endemic corruption, conducting the voting anonymously is more likely to provide a more honest, representative view.

In Burundi, the defence leadership cadre voted anonymously on their top five issues. The results, opposite, showed the main concerns to be different forms of favouritism, use of false invoices for second-hand equipment, taking corrupt advantage of the lack of defence budget line detail, and keeping the Inspector General away from scrutinising defence. These results helped to build, for the first time, a common view of the specific corruption challenges in the defence sector. For more on the Burundi experience, see here and here.


The objective is to improve outcomes, not directly to reduce corruption. The objective of any proposed action is reformulated as reducing, removing or avoiding barriers to the achievement of mainstream delivery and performance objectives, and/or on the related change of behaviour, rather than on the generic problem of corruption. Click here for more on Remediation.

Education sector example – Afghanistan.

A corruption analysis initiated by the Minister of Education in 2016 started with the prevailing mindset that the objective was to reduce corruption in school construction. However, what emerged from the 542 interviews as the most damaging specific issue for Afghanistan’s future was the nepotistic appointment of teachers (here). That analysis led to a major reformulation of the challenge, away from construction corruption towards developing a better appointment process for teachers.


Front-line reformers are not just interested in analysing corruption issues, but in better outcomes.  Thus the fourth stage of SFRA is to lay out and examine what remedial actions may be possible. ‘Actions’ for us means ‘Actionable Reform Approaches’:

‘Actionable’ means that we excludes approaches that are impossible, theoretical or simply a statement of desire. For example,in societies that have widespread rule violations, high-impact anti-corruption is only likely to be feasible if the overall strategy succeeds in aligning the interests and capabilities of powerful organisations at the sectoral level to support the enforcement of particular sets of rules (Khan et al. (2016, 1)). Declarations that more political will is required or the judicial system needs strengthening may reflect genuinely held desires, but they are not actionable approaches.

Reform’ emphasises that this activity is not about restating the challenge to be addressed, the problems it gives rise to, or the underlying causes. It is focused foursquarely on the constructive side, identifying feasible interventions and actions that can be taken to change a situation for the better.

Approach’ signifies that this is about both the political & strategic direction as well as about the specific reform measures – there is  a matrix of possible combinations, and the skill is in working through which combinations represent the feasible approaches.

The approach encompasses the available leverage and sources of advantage available to the reformers. It takes into account the broader political context, the support they can garner and the likely opposition they will face. In the political & tactical track, the reform group considers eight types of options, from broad approaches through to keeping-up-hope approaches. For example, could it be more effective to adopt a narrow strategy, energetically tackling one aspect only of the corruption problem so as to concentrate effort and have a visible result? Or to adopt a low-profile incremental strategy, keeping the measures below the political radar? SFRA proposes broad thinking about what an improvement measure might be; from functional measures through to integrity and nudge measures (see diagram below), to offset the narrow conception that many have of anti-corruption: e.g. being solely about Rule-of-Law measures, or – as often seen in the health sector – about safeguarding funds.

Thinking simultaneously about the political options and the possible specific measures gives a fresh way to narrow down an otherwise limitless set of options. It makes it easier for the reform group to see the different possibilities and compare their political, tactical and technical merits. This ‘twin track’ can be visualised easily as a matrix, as shown above. Click here to go to the Action pages.


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