The papers were stimulated in part by a series of international workshops that brought together leading researchers, practitioners, and policymakers to explore ways to develop innovative approaches to analysing and combating corruption.

The hypothesis that underpinned the workshop series is that core questions we ask about corruption have been poorly posed, analytic frames have not always been helpful, targets have often been inadequately specified, issues of political feasibility have been frequently underplayed and/or vested interests have interfered.  If prevailing approaches have not worked, how do we move beyond them?

Of particular note is the growing awareness that the prevailing focus  on individual nation states in much of the work on anti-corruption is increasingly out of touch with the reality of how many forms of corruption develop and function in practice. “As hard as it might be for scholars to accept,” Cooley and Sharman (2017) have observed, “it is notable that through their stings and data-dumps, investigative journalists and NGOs have done more to push our understanding of corruption in a transnational direction that the bulk of academic work on the subject.”

The participation of many of the world’s most renowned researchers in the field of (anti-)corruption, as well as representatives from major international organisations, key figures from national development agencies, and a host of nongovernmental organisations ensured that these workshops achieved their intended aim of making a contribution to helping shift the debate, or ‘change the conversation,’ in regard to how corruption is understood and combated (see, for example, here, here and here).

To help address the practical implications of what ‘rethinking’ means, the seminars sought to ensure that discussions linked back to core issues:

  • Who are the critical actors who need to be involved in helping to change the terms of the conversation?
  • How can they be supported in doing so?
  • What are the resource implications?
  • How can participants at the workshops best contribute to moving from our existing paradigm to developing more effective approaches to both understanding and combating corruption?

Although we did not come to any comprehensive agreed-upon conclusions, the seminars none the less served to highlight key issues in relation to the scale of the challenge in tackling corruption. They also reinforced the view that, if we are to make substantive progress, we need to be prepared to adopt a more open and flexible mind-set, moving away from the idea that ‘we know what works’ and assuming that technocratic interventions and institutional fixes provide all the answers.