19. August 2014

The role of academia in anti-corruption Collective Action

By Virna Di Palma, Director of the TRACE Anti-Bribery Specialist Accreditation and Senior Director of Global Strategy and Communications at TRACE International, an anti-bribery business organisation.

Last week I joined leading anti-corruption experts and academics from all over the world in Vienna, Austria to discuss effective teaching and pedagogy in anti-corruption studies within institutions of higher learning. The workshop, which was organized by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and formed part of the Anti-Corruption Academic Initiative (ACAD), facilitated the exchange of academic expertise between professors with experience in the delivery of anti-corruption education and those who wish to introduce anti-corruption courses in their institutions. I participated in my capacity as Director of TRACE’s Anti-Bribery Specialist Accreditation program, (“TASA”), and also as a member of the TRACE Scholar selection committee which awards full scholarships to LLM students from developing countries studying anti-corruption efforts at the graduate level in the United States and United Kingdom.

During the three-day workshop, academics, government officials and anti-corruption professionals with diverse backgrounds, perspectives and experiences shared stories, challenges, resources and teaching methodologies. A major theme that reverberated throughout the seminar was that academics have an increasingly important role to play in advancing the global anti-corruption agenda and that a deeper level of change can result when academics engage in collective action and collaborate with business and government.

Unfortunately, however, anti-corruption studies and research remain in their infancy due to the present lack of inter-disciplinary anti-corruption materials and funding at the donor level. The ACAD, a collective action project formed in 2012 between UNODC, Northeastern University in Boston, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the International Bar Association (IBA), seeks to address these issues mainly by 1) providing the academic community with a comprehensive anti-corruption academic support tool and 2) encouraging the teaching of anti-corruption issues as part of courses such as law, business, criminology and political science. Still, more needs to be done to include academics and researchers in the global fight against corruption. Here’s why:

1. High quality academic research is needed to improve anti-corruption strategies

There is a serious lack of high quality research in the field of anti-bribery. In other words, we still don’t fully understand corruption and thereby are limited in our ability to effectively tackle it. World-class academic research into the nature of corruption and measures to reduce it is needed to assess the effectiveness and efficiency of anti-corruption strategies, to improve our understanding of how corruption operates in different contexts and to inform public and private sector policy recommendations. Academics are also needed to challenge existing information on anti-corruption and to filter out low quality research. As one workshop participant noted, “Academics write the truth and support it with evidence.”

2. Academics play an important leadership role outside of the classroom

The role of academics in fighting corruption extends beyond institutions of higher education to the public sphere. They can petition for policy changes, help lead public awareness campaigns and draw media attention to corruption issues. Not coincidentally, in countries with high levels of corruption, professors are often also activists and play a firsthand role in shaping public opinion and policy issues. Although international institutions play a similar role, academics are uniquely positioned as they typically operate under fewer political constraints and can speak and write more freely about sensitive corruption issues.

3. Teaching anti-corruption has a huge impact on political, economic and social structures

The most important role academics play in combating corruption is of course in the classroom. As Nelson Mandela once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” Academics educate future policy makers and business executives, directly shaping social, economic and political structures and values. No other stakeholder plays such a fundamental role in setting the anti-corruption agenda. Academics can influence behavior, promote international standards and norms, counter rationalizations before they become ingrained and mold future leaders. Business and government can collaborate with universities to recruit students who are well trained on anti-corruption and transparency and who can introduce new ideas and strategies in the workplace.

And so, as we continue to address questions of curriculum content, we should also be thinking about the broader role that academics can play in charting a path for the future of anti-corruption and what else can be done to support their work. Bringing academia to the table may be the only way we can build constructively on what has already been achieved by other stakeholders.


Virna Di Palma