Beyond Advocacy: An Inclusive Role for Civil Society Organizations in Addressing Corruption


When addressing corruption and transparency, international development organizations and projects tend to view civil society organizations as passive participants who advocate for action by government agencies but take no direct responsibility for reforming corrupt systems themselves. However, according to Alina Mungiu- Pippidi, professor of Democracy Studies at the National School of Administration and Political Science of Bucharest, “To date few successes have resulted from this investment [in anti-corruption projects]. Few anticorruption campaigns dare to attack the roots of corruption the distribution of power itself. Instead, anticorruption strategies are adopted and implemented in cooperation with the very predators who control the government and, in some cases, the anticorruption instruments themselves.”

In this observation Dr. Mungiu-Pippidi is recognizing that official corruption is often essentially monopolistic rent-seeking behavior of government-managed services where public officials are able to influence the price for their services through bribery or coercion. To limit anti-corruption efforts to advocating for greater transparency without fundamentally changing the monopolistic structures has yielded only temporary injunctions at best. At worst, advocacy organizations themselves can become yet another corruptible gatekeeper.

An alternative, proven approach is to empower civil society organizations to serve as more transparent solutions to the corruption problem without government mandates. Self-regulation might seem counter-intuitive to some, yet, in fact, it has been proven to effectively reduce corruption, foster more transparent business environments, lower risks to financial and human capital investments, reduce the informal economy and increase formal market participation and the tax base, and spur economic growth.

Significantly, self-regulation shifts the cost of regulation from taxpayers to the direct beneficiaries of more transparent market activity – participating suppliers and their customers. This more targeted funding approach ensures the long-term sustainability of independent anti-corruption programs and reduces fiscal demands on cash-strapped government agencies.

Not meant to replace advocacy, which must remain an important tool to effect change within government institutions, self-regulation provides a powerful complement to anti-corruption efforts by leveraging market forces to reward transparency rather than punish corruption. By engaging directly in regulating economic environments, civil society organizations become responsible and accountable for the end result. Through this greater responsibility, self-regulating organizations become proactive partners with government in promoting social goals and not just demanding action by others.

Through examples drawn from both developed and developing markets, this article explains the theoretical foundations, historical background, mechanics of self-regulation, and why it works. It includes a discussion on the conflicts of interest that self-regulating organizations face and how those conflicts are best managed.

Richard O’Sullivan is the principal and founder of Change Management Solutions, an international consulting firm dedicated to helping organizations identify, understand, and harness the forces of profound market, economic, and social change. An economist and business environment analyst with 30 years experience in the public, private, and civil society sectors, O’Sullivan has worked with associations and other nonprofit organizations around the world. He is a recognized expert in applying market forces to address social concerns. From 2002 to 2004, O’Sullivan served as Assistant Director at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Civil Society Studies. He founded and now serves as co-chair of the Civil Society Workgroup for the Washington, DC chapter of the Society for International Development (SID-W). He also is one of 15 selected members of the International Council of American Society of Association Executives (ASAE).

The views expressed by the author are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). CIPE grants permission to reprint, translate, and/or publish original articles from its Economic Reform Feature Service provided that (1) proper attribution is given to the original author and to CIPE and (2) CIPE is notified where the article is placed and a copy is provided to CIPE’s Washington office.

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