ACE: A SOAS research project tackling anti-corruption


On the morning of 24th April 2013, a busy commercial building known as the Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed suddenly, killing 1134 people and injuring almost 2400. Housing garment factories, shops and banks, the collapse of the eight-storey building is considered one of the ‘deadliest structural failure accident in modern human history.’

Not only were the cracks that appeared the day before ignored, but the upper floors of the building were also reportedly built without a permit, and with substandard materials. Moreover, a space that was purely meant and designed for commercial use was used as an industrial unit.

The collapse of the building is the result of the systemic failure of several institutions: law enforcers, builders and the government. Linking the three is a long, convoluted legacy of corruption.   

Photograph: ACE

The practice of corruption is intertwined in the governance and social life of several countries, especially those of the global south that have large informal economies.   Informality is a complex idea, complicated by the labyrinth of networks that it has sustained. Benefitting the top classes, it is formed of the poorest of people; systematically sustaining poverty through a vicious cycle arising out of apathy and non-regularization. Its biggest outcome has been the normalisation of corruption.

From top government officials to the junior-most law enforcers; most countries of Asia and Africa are plagued by the fraudulence brought forth by corrupt activities whose consequences have been disastrous. The above-mentioned construction incident does not exist in isolation. Illicit drug economies, slave and arms trade, human trafficking and several more global concerns are sustained by corruption.

ACE research project
Photograph: Nasser I Hossain/ACE

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan said, “If corruption is a disease, then transparency is an essential part of the treatment.” Several organisations in the world are striving towards the same in an effort to save the most vulnerable. However, for a practice that is so deeply entwined in bureaucracy and state, a dynamic and multi-faceted approach is required in order to truly eliminate it. A SOAS led research project known as ‘Anti-Corruption Evidence’ (ACE) recognises this and has been ‘taking an innovative approach to anti-corruption policy and practice’ in Bangladesh, Tanzania and Nigeria.’

Funded by the Department for International Development (DFID); the ACE programme has two components: the SOAS ACE research consortium; and a programme led by Global Integrity, an independent, nonprofit organisation tracking governance and corruption trends around the world using local teams.

According to ACE, their research consortium is aimed at “responding to the serious challenges facing people and economies affected by corruption by generating evidence that makes anti-corruption real and using those findings to help policymakers, business and civil society adopt new, feasible, high-impact strategies to tackle corruption.”

Taking a multi-dimensional approach; they do this by (a) Aligning Incentives which includes working towards policy changes to ensure that ‘productive behaviour achieves satisfactory returns’; (b) Designing for Differences which involves ‘distinguishing between different types of organisations operating in a sector’; (c) Building Coalitions to ‘generate support for enforcement by helping to organise new coalitions that combine collective interests with the capacity to pressurise rule enforcement agencies’; and (d) Resolving Rights that ‘solves conflicts over resources amongst various parties that result from overlapping claims.’

ACE has been carrying out several projects aligning with these strategies, such as examining cost-effectiveness in Bangladesh’s power plants; building sufficient ‘horizontal support for effective enforcement’ of building and infrastructure in Bangladesh, encouraging horizontal coalitions for sugar producers in Tanzania suffering from smuggling; implementing policy change and anti-corruption practices by digitising land records, and improving transparency in land administration in all three countries.Working in sectors like public governance, health, infrastructure and more, the projects are being led by a team of SOAS professors and researchers in collaboration with international partners such as Transparency International, Bangladesh; Ifakara Health Institute (IHI); the University of Nigeria; Economic and Social Research Foundation (ESRF) and several more. Its executive director is Dr Mushtaq Khan, a senior academic at the Department of Economics, SOAS.

ACE has a powerful and elaborate theory of change to “support relevant actors to implement incremental, sectoral reforms that will improve both anti-corruption and development outcomes.” It is not just working towards building transparent sectors but enabling both policy and grass-root level changes that will eradicate the very need of corrupt policies — which would have a far-reaching impact on capitalist systems, poverty and quality of life.

As Antonio Andreoni, ACE’s Joint Research Director sums up, “ACE will be collecting new evidence to reform schemes, improve policies and ultimately improving the outcome in sectors and also improving the conditions of people in these countries.”

Find out more about Anti Corruption Evidence.

Devyani Nighoskar is a SOAS Digital Ambassador from India. A former journalist, she is currently pursuing her MA in Critical Media and Cultural Studies. Check out her work on Instagram @runawayjojo

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