Popular action against corruption

Some of the biggest corrupt operations are run by governments themselves, and watchdog bodies often lack sufficient power to challenge entrenched problems. There’s another powerful approach: popular action, as documented in Shaazka Beyerle’s new book Curtailing Corruption. Review.

Brian Martin
22 October 2014

Citizens Alliance for the General Election (CAGE) 2000 - South Korea Source: Photograph provided by Taeho Lee. Corruption occurs in every country. It includes bribery, insider deals, appointments of family and friends, cheating on contracts, stealing from customers and clients, and a host of other techniques. The essence of corruption is a violation of fairness, and often a violation of the law, though some laws are themselves unfair and protect corrupt conduct.

Some of the most serious corruption occurs at high levels, for example when companies fix prices and sell shoddy products and when government leaders give favours to allies and steal billions of dollars to deposit in secret foreign bank accounts.

So what should be done about corruption? The usual approaches are to implement stringent controls, policies and accountability measures. Auditing is a standard tool. Whistleblowers - employees who speak out in the public interest - are important in exposing corruption. There are many government agencies set up to address the problem, for example ombudsmen, auditors-general and anti-corruption bodies.

The usual assumption is that better laws and procedures, plus government watchdog bodies, are the solution. They certainly can make a difference, but some of the biggest corrupt operations are run by governments themselves, and watchdog bodies often are underfunded and lack sufficient power to challenge entrenched problems. Furthermore, some agencies are captured by the industries they are supposed to regulate.

There is another option: popular action. Consider, for example, the mafia in Sicily, one of the most well known and entrenched systems of corruption in the world. One detail of the mafia’s operation is the pizzo, a payment required by the mafia from commercial operations: if the payment is supplied, then the mafia “protect” the business. Pizzo is a form of extortion.

On 29 June 2004, residents in the Sicilian city of Palermo discovered stickers pasted everywhere saying “An entire people who pays pizzo is a people without dignity”. Thus began a people’s campaign against a corrupt practice.

The campaign developed momentum as people began talking with each other, overcoming the pervasive fear of mafia reprisals. The youth who had posted the stickers initially remained anonymous and took other actions, such as writing anti-mafia graffiti and displaying banners at sporting events. They started strategising and developed a plan. They collected a list of people who pledged to patronise businesses that refused to pay pizzo, and then, after thousands of people had signed, they went to businesses until 100 agreed not to pay pizzo. Thus began a snowballing process of citizens and businesses joining forces against mafia extortion.

It was not easy or straightforward. The mafia torched a warehouse of a company that had taken the no-pizzo pledge. The campaigners rallied support from the community to provide money for the company’s workers and to obtain compensation from the government under anti-mafia compensation laws. The mafia’s attack backfired: it generated even more support for the movement.

The story of the anti-pizzo movement is just one of many fascinating episodes in a new book by Shaazka Beyerle entitled Curtailing Corruption: People Power for Accountability and Justice. The book is the first major treatment of how popular nonviolent action can be a powerful approach for challenging corruption.

I will refer to the author as Shaazka because I know her. I think her work is incredibly important but I’m very far from a neutral commentator: I provided support and comments while she was researching and writing the book.

Most studies of nonviolent action focus on challenges to repressive governments or oppressive systems. Famous examples include the movement led by Gandhi for Indian independence and the US civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. More recent examples include the toppling of dictators in countries such as the Philippines, Serbia and Egypt. The orientation in much of this work is on nonviolent action against arbitrary power that harms freedom and human rights. For some reason, corruption has been overlooked, perhaps because in western countries there are so many official bodies and processes that ostensibly deal with it.

Shaazka is a senior adviser at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, a privately funded body that supports research and training to provide insights and skills for nonviolent struggles. (The ICNC does not become directly involved in any campaigns, nor does it tell activists what they should do.) Most of the ICNC’s efforts are oriented to struggles against repressive governments - but Shaazka took the initiative to look at a different domain, corruption.


Monitoring of Qoryan Road, Zendajan District, Herat Province, Afghanistan, March 20, 2013. Source: Photograph provided by Integrity Watch. Afghanistan.

She investigated people’s anti-corruption campaigns in 16 countries and in her book reports on 12 of them, including ones in Korea, Brazil, Indonesia, India, Afghanistan and Uganda. Each case study is presented systematically, including contexts, campaign strategies and tactics, outcomes, analysis of the struggle and lessons learned. In gathering information about these campaigns, Shaazka drew on documents but especially on interviews with key campaigners. The result is a rich compendium of information about popular anti-corruption struggles, with ideas worth exploring and developing further: 

-       In Brazil, the Ficha Limpa or clean-record movement pushed for legislation to prevent politicians from running for office if they had been convicted of certain crimes; the campaign also served to promote civic engagement.

-       In Afghanistan, where reconstruction efforts were sabotaged by pervasive corruption, the local watchdog body Integrity Watch Afghanistan encouraged and supported community-led initiatives to monitor development projects in villages and build alliances to address problems in the projects.

-       In Turkey, the Constant Light campaign took on a crime syndicate using creative methods such as simultaneously turning off lights for a minute as a symbolic protest, thereby overcoming people’s fear in confronting the syndicate, which had links with the government.

-       In India, the 5th Pillar movement uses a variety of tactics to counter demands for bribes, including producing a zero-rupee note, a pseudo-currency that can be offered whenever a bribe is solicited. The zero-rupee note signals the existence of an anti-bribery network as well as providing information about 5th Pillar.

These are just a few titbits out of long and often complex struggles, all of which display the courage and creativity of citizen campaigners, given the right circumstances and opportunities.

The most important message in Curtailing Corruption is that people power - organised collective action by citizens - can be a powerful force against corruption, often far more effective than formal processes run by government agencies and international bodies. This is especially true when governments themselves are deeply corrupt.

One of the keys to success is being well organised. Campaigners need to overcome the fear that is often pervasive in communities. Being organised is not enough on its own, though. Campaigners need to understand what they are up against and develop creative and flexible strategies to oppose corrupt operations. Corruption is often deeply entrenched, so it seems natural and just a matter of habit. Furthermore, corrupt operators are skilled in divide-and-rule tactics, and often have allies in high places. So there is no guarantee that citizen action will be successful. Skills need to be developed.

Shaazka searched for cases across the world. Most of those she discovered were in developing countries, and often involved poor people challenging exploitative practices, for example police intimidation and extortion. Her case studies show that the normal approach to development falls down when there is so much corruption that funds, for example from foreign aid, simply end up in the pockets of officials and stored in foreign bank accounts.

Development assistance might better be targeted at spreading knowledge and skills in how communities can organise against corruption. And who best to spread knowledge and skills than activists with experience in anti-corruption campaigns?


There is also a message for citizens in richer countries, where corruption may not seem so obvious. Actually, various forms of insider dealing, pay-offs, favours and shoddy practice are present in nearly every country in the world. Official processes may give only the appearance of dealing with these problems. The lesson from Curtailing Corruption is that citizen action can be a powerful force anywhere. There is much to learn from this pioneering book.


Shaazka Beyerle, Curtailing Corruption: People Power for Accountability and Justice (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2014).


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