Strategies for building political will

The sources of motivation to mobilise against corruption are often perceived to flow from the top levels of a country’s political system (frequently prominent individuals) and permeate into the rest of governmental agencies and society. Paul Kagame in Rwanda and Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore are often referred to as some of the most striking examples of national champions driving such top-down anti-corruption reforms. But how can external actors, such as the donor community, foster political will among political elites to advance governance reforms? There is no straightforward answer to this question due to the numerous factors that affect political will. Some authors even suggest that the ideal scenario for the adoption of governance reforms is not when political leaders need to be forced or convinced to do so, but rather when they genuinely believe in the content and benefits of the reform. The literature, however, offers some insights on how to nurture political will among the political elite of a country.

How to generate demand for anti-corruption among the political elite

In many societies with poor governance, where transparency, accountability, participation and the rule of law are limited, generating political will can be difficult. Pressure exercised by external actors to adopt a specific agenda, such as ratifying the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), establishing anti-corruption institutions or passing a couple anti-corruption laws has been an approach used in many developing countries in recent years. However, importing models of laws and institutions from the developed world, which enjoys the rule of law, to contexts with weak institutions and governance systems has been found to be inadequate in many countries[1]. Building political will involves more in most contexts.  

Political self-interest is an important source of political will and, therefore, it is necessary to underline the political benefits that politicians and bureaucrats can derive from supporting anti-corruption reforms. Benefits might vary from attracting more donor funds to the possibility of exposing political opponents. However, if politicians or bureaucrats perceive the costs of anti-corruption reforms to outweigh their benefits, they are likely to lack the political will to push for them.  

In countries with a history of authoritarianism or with a recent transition to democracy, the political mantra is often to retain power at all costs. In such countries, a first strategy to generate demand for anti-corruption reforms among public officials may involve addressing the fear of losing power. Under such circumstances, it is necessary to advocate for anti-corruption reforms and show politicians that by fostering transparency, accountability and empowering citizens, they can enhance their popularity and power.  

The growing concern of the international community about the damaging effects of corruption has led to efforts to help foster political will in many countries. As donors seek to increase the impact of their aid through ex-post conditionality or progress-based criteria, transparency and accountability have gained a salient role in the selection criteria for receiving aid. Beyond the UNCAC, many other initiatives with more specific objectives have emerged such as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) and the Open Government Partnership (OGP). By requiring regular reporting on a country’s progress in the implementation of anti-corruption laws, several of these initiatives have helped create incentives for domestic actors to fight corruption. The potential of such initiatives for building political will derives from the costs of not fighting corruption, which may affect the flows of foreign investment and/or foreign aid.  

Reputation can also be a powerful resource to motivate political actors to care for the fight against corruption. Several organisations, such as Transparency International and the World Bank publish yearly corruption indicators, making it easier than ever before for the international community and civil society in many countries to assess the extent of corruption in a country. By doing this, these organisations have helped create incentives to generate political will among politicians in corrupt countries, as there are major reputational damages for politicians to be ranked at the bottom of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.  

Core strategies to build political will from a top-down perspective include (see Brinkerhof 2010):

Strengthening familiarity and trust between civil society and state actors

A lack of familiarity and trust between state actors, bureaucrats and citizens can be a great obstacle for political will. The “them versus us” mentality can make governments unaware of civil society, and civil society actors can be misinformed about government systems, laws and regulations. Providing a neutral space for discussion between stakeholders where both parts can share their views can help build political will for reform.  

Seeking critical collaborations

Governance reforms require that multiple stakeholders agree to work together. This does not imply that government and civil society must agree with one another, but they need to be willing to interact, by affording neutral avenues for meaningful dialogue, for example.  

Demonstrating the clear benefits of anti-corruption policies

Building political will might require investing time and energy in documenting and publicising the expected concrete benefits of the suggested reforms.  

Lobbying and making use of legal/policy reforms

Setting legal requirements and sanctions for corruption can help to modify the current incentive structure. These efforts, however, often need to be accompanied by programmes that support rule of law reforms, as well as training for investigators, lawyers and judges in order to guarantee correct enforcement of the laws and to credibly sanction corruption.


The donor community can support the above-mentioned strategies by identifying and bringing together politicians and public officials committed to anti-corruption reforms in order promote the emergence of home-grown initiatives. Another possible area of intervention for donors is the strengthening of government capacity through the provision of technical assistance in policy analysis, formulation, priority-setting, programme design and cost analysis. Supporting rule of law reforms and providing training for investigators, lawyers and judges can also help strengthen political will by increasing the application of credible sanctions against corrupt officials. Finally, donors can intervene in monitoring the progress of the reforms in order to diagnose whether or not the adopted policies need to be adapted or if institutions need further reforms[2].  

Generating demand for anti-corruption reforms among citizens and civil society

Political will to fight corruption is most often seen as coming from the top levels of a country’s political system, but political will does not only flow from the top down and can be supported by bottom-up approaches. Public officials on the frontline of service delivery might be committed to fight corruption and prevent fraud and abuse by higher-level officials. In other cases, one might find support for the fight against corruption outside the structure of the state, such as the private sector or in civil society organisations. The willingness of these actors to engage in anti-corruption activities, such as whistleblowing and advocacy, can generate pressure on power holders to initiate and sustain reform.  

Moreover, in countries where corruption is deeply entrenched, the effectiveness of institutional reforms and top-down anti-corruption interventions may yield little or no results, largely because they pose a threat to the political and bureaucratic establishment. In such countries, where political will is lacking or is insufficient at the top, bottom-up pressure from civil society on political leaders can contribute to generate political will for reform.  

Bottom-up interventions typically focus on building demand for reform outside government and targeting citizens’ behaviour. As the incentive structures of politicians can be affected by a decline of citizens’ support for politicians under whom levels of corruption are perceived as high, citizens’ changes of attitude and behaviours with regard to corruption can help generate political will for anti-corruption reforms. In democratic settings and countries with a strong and vibrant civil society, citizens can play an important role in generating political will through elections, advocacy and using social accountability tools.  

The effectiveness of such bottom-up interventions is determined by the political institutions that govern the relationship between citizens and politicians, such as the presence or absence of electoral institutions, electoral rules and access to information laws, among others[3]. Bottom-up approaches or social accountability mechanisms are more successful when civil society has the power to punish corruption or reward integrity through horizontal accountability and sanctioning mechanisms such as elections[4]. Therefore, building political will is an effort that requires both bottom-up and top-down approaches and the generation of coalitions among the relevant stakeholders, that is, high-level politicians and civil society.  

The most important strategies to generate political will from a bottom-up perspective include:  

Empowering citizens

Active and engaged citizens are a key element to build political will. Public officials that see citizens as uninformed, uninterested or unengaged are unlikely to support anti-corruption reforms. Providing education and training for citizens is therefore essential to boost the interest and the confidence of political stakeholders in the success of these reforms.      

Mobilising citizens

Ensuring and supporting citizens to have the space for expressing their opinions is a crucial element to generate political will. Forums that mobilise large numbers of citizens and directly demonstrate their capacity for collective action can be very effective in putting pressure on political leaders to take action against corruption.


As anti-corruption interventions work best when they are locally owned, country-led and supported by collective action from local stakeholders, the international community has a key role to play in making such coalitions become broad and powerful[5]. Donors can assist in the generation of demand for anti-corruption reforms by identifying and training relevant stakeholders, such as civil society watchdogs and journalists, and providing support to constituency building and advocacy coalitions. Providing grants to civil society organisations and the media to publicise successful anti-corruption efforts, as well as technical assistance in citizen satisfaction surveys on service delivery are also ways in which the donor community can help generate political will through bottom-up approaches. 



Roberto Martínez B. Kukutschka


Marie Chêne, Finn Heinrich, PhD, Transparency International, Carmen Malena, CIVICUS



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