Corruption and development are two mutually related concepts equally shifting in meaning across time. The predominant 21st-century view of government that regards corruption as inacceptable has its theoretical roots in ancient Western thought, as well as Eastern thought. This condemning view of corruption coexisted at all times with a more morally indifferent or neutral approach that found its expression most notably in development scholars of the 1960s and 1970s who viewed corruption as an enabler of development rather than an obstacle. Research on the nexus between corruption and development has identified mechanisms that enable corruption and offered theories of change, which have informed practical development policies. Interventions adopting a principal agent approach fit better the advanced economies, where corruption is an exception, rather than the emerging economies, where the opposite of corruption, the norm of ethical universalism, has yet to be built. In such contexts corruption is better approached from a collective action perspective. Reviewing cross-national data for the period 1996–2017, it becomes apparent that the control of corruption stagnated in most countries and only a few exceptions exist. For a lasting improvement of the control of corruption, societies need to reduce the resources for corruption while simultaneously increasing constraints. The evolution of a governance regime requires a multiple stakeholder endeavor reaching beyond the sphere of government involving the press, business, and a strong and activist civil society.
After a comprehensive test of today’s anticorruption toolkit, it seems that the few tools that do work are effective only in contexts where domestic agency exists. Therefore, the time has come to draft a comprehensive road map to inform evidence-based anticorruption efforts. This essay recommends that international donors join domestic civil societies in pursuing a common long-term strategy and action plan to build national public integrity and ethical universalism. In other words, this essay proposes that coordination among donors should be added as a specific precondition for improving governance in the WHO’s Millennium Development Goals. This essay offers a basic tool for diagnosing the rule governing allocation of public resources in a given country, recommends some fact-based change indicators to follow, and outlines a plan to identify the human agency with a vested interest in changing the status quo. In the end, the essay argues that anticorruption interventions must be designed to empower such agency on the basis of a joint strategy to reduce opportunities for and increase constraints on corruption, and recommends that experts exclude entirely the tools that do not work in a given national context.