What Ukraine Must Do to Fight Corruption: Lessons from Around the World

Right to the top: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with some of his officials. The figure in the middle, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, resigned in the wake of a recent corruption scandal. Image: President.gov.ua / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

Fighting corruption will be central to Ukraine’s reconstruction, but a focus on technical or top-down reform is unlikely to be effective. Instead, the Ukrainian government and donors need to be assertive, prosecute corrupt individuals, and encourage resilience across Ukrainian society.

In January, investigative journalist Yurii Nikilov broke a scandal: the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence had signed a contract paying vastly inflated prices for food for the armed forces. The government responded quickly, firing several top officials. But it was a reminder that corruption is well-rooted in Ukraine, which ranks as the second-lowest country in Europe – just above Russia – on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Unfortunately, when it comes to what to do about corruption, many anti-corruption handbooks and toolkits are based on limited empirical research. They also draw on cases where success was achieved under particular development conditions and are clearer on what success looks like rather than how to get there. A recent RUSI project took a different approach, reviewing evidence from decades of research on corruption – including large-scale statistical and comparative historical analysis – to identify the structural, institutional and political factors which impact control of corruption. This piece discusses the lessons that can be drawn from this to counter corruption in Ukraine.

‘What Works’ to Counter Corruption?

In one sense, the international evidence on countering corruption is disappointing, as it is not very clear ‘what works’.

Most development interventions need extensive customisation to fit local conditions, but with anti-corruption it is not clear what to customise. One 2018 review found little evidence in support of the majority of anti-corruption policies, including: rewarding integrity (for example, with better pay) and penalising illicit behaviour; better monitoring (such as with audits or e-governance); restructuring bureaucracies; screening and recruiting public servants; and the impact of anti-corruption agencies, educational campaigns, and international agreements (such as the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention). Unsurprisingly, adequate salaries are a necessary pre-condition for effective anti-corruption, and the report also found the most robust evidence in support of policies based on monitoring. Other reviews have similarly concluded that there is little evidence in support of most measures, particularly those focused on technical, institutional change.

One of the main reasons anti-corruption policies fail is that they focus on formal institutions and are based on what researchers call a ‘principal-agent’ approach. According to this, corruption occurs because public officials (agents) with discretion over public resources lack accountability and can pursue their own interests at the expense of their political or bureaucratic leaders (principals). Corruption can therefore be addressed by reducing or regulating monopolies, making it more difficult for a single individual or group to control a public good, curtailing official discretion and enhancing transparency and accountability. But in many corrupt countries, anti-corruption-orientated principals are rarely present or influential. Corruption goes beyond principals and agents and is a socially dominant norm at both the political and societal level.

Corruption is well-rooted in Ukraine, which ranks as the second-lowest country in Europe – just above Russia – on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index

In response to the limitations of the principal-agent model, researchers have proposed a ‘collective action model’ to explain the broader factors required to address corruption. This notes that controlling corruption depends on the three elements of the principal-actor model: curtailing discretionary power, reducing access to resources, and enhancing formal and legal constraints. But it differs by adding a fourth element: strengthening social anti-corruption norms.

Statistical and comparative analysis provides some insights into what causes these four dimensions to result in control of corruption. A correlation between scores on development and those on control of corruption suggests a baseline of modernisation (for example, in terms of literacy and urbanisation) is important. But there are also important outlier examples. Russia, Argentina and Mexico score relatively high on development but low on control of corruption, and vice-versa for Rwanda, Botswana and Uruguay, indicating that structural factors alone cannot fully account for control of corruption. Comparative analysis of countries that have achieved control of corruption, such as Chile, Estonia and South Korea, demonstrates that they did so via different paths and at different speeds, but all by reducing opportunities and enhancing constraints in line with the four elements of the collective action model.

This evidence raises two important points. First, control of corruption is dependent not just on strengthening formal institutions but on the range of structural, institutional and political factors that affect social norms on corruption. Second – and more pertinently in relation to Ukraine – it indicates that effective anti-corruption measures require not a single set of interventions but a broader set, to strengthen the legal constraints on corruption, to reduce opportunities for corruption and unaccountable access to resources, and to build resilience across society.

What This Means for Ukraine

A broader examination of the evidence base suggests effective anti-corruption measures will require the Ukrainian government and its allies to focus on several areas.

Any type of profound governance shift requires political will, and it is obvious that effective reform in Ukraine will require strong and sustained leadership from the Zelensky administration. Donors often treat political will as something that is either present or absent when instead it needs to be nurtured. Domestically, this requires political anti-corruption coalition building and, for donors, continued strong pressure to ensure anti-corruption is a political must for the government.

Investing in efforts to bolster collective action on corruption will be more effective than formal institutional measures or top-down political drives alone

It will also require the government and donors to be assertive, and this means challenging vested interests, including oligarchs and individuals who have benefitted from corruption for decades. Vested interests will corrupt and undermine anti-corruption initiatives, including anti-corruption political coalitions. Excluding anyone with a history of corruption is impractical, but the most egregious individuals should be prohibited from joining. Donors also need to be assertive. Too often, they take host governments’ anti-corruption initiatives at face value and fail to acknowledge that change requires forceful measures. This must be tempered by rule of law and human rights standards, but donors will need to support measures including the prosecution and firing of corrupt individuals and the empowerment of those who can do this.

Generating political and societal collective action in support of change will also be vital. Investing in efforts to bolster collective action on corruption – for example, increasing demands for good governance and empowering citizens – will be more effective than formal institutional measures or top-down political drives alone. Again, this requires an assertive approach. Donor-sponsored civil society organisations often focus on research and awareness-raising, measures which can easily be ignored. Moreover, they also commonly lack widespread domestic backing, which limits their ability to gather support for disruption. The collective action model indicates that, while it may be challenging, it is important to support civil society actors, including investigative journalists, who are more assertive – who will name and shame, call for resignations, campaign for litigation, and even generate and coordinate public protests.

The war in Ukraine is about far more than expelling Russian troops from the country. It is about building a model of government which, in contrast to Russia’s, effectively provides public services to its citizens. The war has also strengthened Ukrainians’ solidarity, a foundation from which to build effective collective action against corruption. It is now up to the government and its allies to ensure that this is translated into effective governance.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Liam O’Shea

Senior Research Fellow

Organised Crime and Policing

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