Oxfam: Combating Corruption from the Bottom Up

This is the first in a series of guest blog posts from our partners from Global Integrity.

In an ongoing series called “Speaking Out,” Oxfam is taking a look at the ability of poor citizens to actively use their voice to enact change.

“Speaking Out” is essentially a series of papers, each highlighting a different sphere of grassroots activism. One of the papers published last month, entitled Tackling Corruption: Lessons from Oxfam’s Work, is dedicated to corruption and localized citizen efforts to combat the many forms that corruption can take.

Oxfam is primarily known for its fight against global poverty. Making use of its network of local partner organizations, Oxfam has collected information on corruption through informal surveys in nations where they already have a presence. Oxfam describes its approach to corruption as “indirect.” Similarly to Global Integrity’s approach of measuring the opposite of corruption, Oxfam focuses mainly on issues of accountability and the fair delivery of goods and services to citizens.

As suggested in A Users’ Guide to Measuring Corruption, a book jointly produced by Global Integrity and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), corruption measurement tools that center on subjective input through opinion surveys are more likely to analyze the effects of corruption rather than the causes. For Oxfam’s purely grassroots mission, these perception surveys are helpful as they provide Oxfam with a picture of what local advocates see as the biggest and most relevant issues in their everyday experiences.

The concern comes in how the results of these surveys become “actionable.” Oxfam’s measurement tool provides only a subjective image of what corruption looks like without including the institutional roots of the problems (i.e. laws and regulations). This tool leaves no clear direction of where local groups should focus their efforts because Oxfam and its local partners cannot compare the view from the ground to the proposed, in-law workings.

From Oxfam’s summary of results: “Many staff emphasized the importance of starting with the problems facing people in poverty. For people with no access to medical care or schools for their children, it makes little difference whether the cause is corruption, weak public policy, or lack of resources.” While citizens dealing with the effects of corruption may not care where the origins lie, civil society organizations depend on this knowledge in order to form a way to combat the causes as well as the effects of corruption.

One of the most successful partner organizations that Oxfam profiles in “Speaking Out” was able to address government corruption by combining perceptions of corruption with legal action. While it is not clear whether TERRAM, a Chilean environmental advocacy group, directly used Oxfam’s survey, they undoubtedly used the commonly held perceptions that Oxfam’s toolkit measured. TERRAM was the first to use the public access to information law to successfully bring a civil case against a government organization. TERRAM’s victory is especially salient considering the common perception among Chileans that government is largely unresponsive to citizen requests.

While we don’t want to give too much away, the 2008 Global Integrity Report also highlights the inefficiency of the Chilean government’s access to information mechanism: 60% of citizen requests for information go unanswered. However, in Chile, there has been a recent national focus on access to information as government just created a new mechanism to process these citizen requests. TERRAM’s success comes from its ability to capture widely held frustrations, similar to those measured in Oxfam’s survey, and make them “actionable” by pairing these perceptions with a working knowledge of the legal structures and institutional reforms.

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