Three Reasons Why Actors Working in Fragile and Conflict-Affected States Must Stop Ignoring Social Norms

By Diana Chigas and Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church

As OECD Knowledge Partners, we originally presented these ideas at the 2019 OECD Integrity Week.

Those of us who work to stop abuse of power – in the form of corruption, criminal activity, violence, state capture, etc. –  are increasingly recognizing that social norms are key to achieving sustainable behavior change.  We assert that in fragile and conflict-affected states (FCAS) social norms — the mutual expectations about what is typical and appropriate for members of a group — are even more important. Given their critical role in driving behavioral choices, programming that ignores social norms can have serious negative consequences.

Why social norms are more important in fragile and conflict-affected contexts

Working in “fragile” and conflict-affected states (consider Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic (CAR), Ukraine, and Afghanistan, to name a few) means working in contexts where society is fragmented, or destabilized by violent conflict.  Identity groups are divided, hostile and distrustful. Power and politics are highly contested, often violently, and even if there is a peace agreement or constitution, it does not (yet) reflect a social contract based on shared principles and values or a common vision of what the state ought to be. And in many of these contexts, government institutions are either a battleground for inter-group competition and conflict, or a source of exclusion and grievance.

In our work in these environments (DR Congo, Uganda, CAR and elsewhere) we have observed that social norms have a significant influence on people’s behavior. We have wondered why they seem to influence people’s behavior even more there than in more stable contexts. Based on our own peacebuilding experience, we think there are three factors at play:

1. The sanctions are harsher.

Conflict enhances intra-group cohesion and solidifies an “us vs. them” mentality that breeds distrust, fear and, at the extreme, dehumanization of the “other.” So not only are people likely to be more “loyal” to their group, but the social sanction for being “disloyal” (i.e. breaching a social norm held by the group) is likely to be stronger. In our experience, many of the people who breach social norms, especially those involving any interaction with the “other,” are branded as traitors, ostracized, threatened, and sometimes attacked or killed. As a police officer in Central African Republic told us, “if someone asks for a service, you are required to do it, even if it goes against your own ethics. To refuse is to put in opposition, and this can be dangerous.” Indeed, it can be life-threatening.

2. The consequences of being sanctioned are more serious.

Ostracization, harm to reputation, diminished support — all common sanctions for breaching social norms — have far more serious consequences in FCAS because membership in the group in these contexts can be critical for survival. When resources are scarce (due to war, lack of investment, etc.), and the government does not or cannot provide security or services, and can even be the perpetrator of violence threatening the group (think, for example, Syria or Afghanistan), people have to rely more on their networks for basic human needs: food, shelter, safety, healthcare.  The vital nature of group membership is so entrenched in CAR, there is a Sango proverb for those who are left out: “Pity the man who is alone.”

3. Social norms provide some order and predictability.

Social norms and traditional practices help to provide some semblance of order and security. Having a sense of what others will do and what you should do can offer a modicum of predictability in a place of constant uncertainty and insecurity.

Three consequences of ignoring social norms 

If social norms play a significant role in determining behavior in FCAS, then what happens if anti-corruption programming ignores them? We offer three initial thoughts from our research which suggest the implications for programming are quite profound.

1. Undermining effectiveness of integrity promotion efforts

Ignoring social norms can undermine the positive momentum generated by good work in other areas. Let’s take corruption in the Ugandan police and judicial system as an example. In 2011 Global Integrity gave Uganda a 98/100 (very strong rating) for its legal framework, yet corruption in Uganda remains very high. As this image from our systems analysis of corruption in the criminal justice system in Uganda (2016) shows, robust oversight, and legislative and professional capacity-building initiatives to increase the integrity of the police, were undermined by peer pressure to conform with corruption in the workplace, and the accompanying social and professional ostracism (e.g., being posted to a remote area) if one did not.

2. Exacerbating corruption itself

We have seen that ignoring social norms can actually backfire — i.e., make corruption worse! There is substantial evidence in social norms theory that awareness raising, for example through campaigns about how bad corruption is, can call attention to the behavior and make it worse by creating the impression that the behavior is ubiquitous. However, this is not the only way social norm ignoring programs can cause harm. Consider the example of the Ghanaian government’s program to reduce petty corruption among traffic officers by increasing salaries. (Note that Ghana is not a very fragile state). The result: an increase in bribes demanded. The study does not offer concrete reasons why this happened; however, we posit that a contributing factor was the public nature of the policy change, which increased kin’s demands on the police officers who felt required to conform due to the norm of looking after one’s family.

Finally, an even worse example: police reform in CAR, in which international donors have invested significantly, especially in capacity building (training, vehicles, equipment, etc.). Here the injection of resources, coupled with the social norms of “get what you can now” and “pay up or else,” actually enhanced these actors’ capacity to abuse their power — and in the case of the police, to extort people more effectively.

3. Endangering people’s lives

“They are going to burn my house down and come after me.” These are the words of one judicial official in CAR commenting on why he cannot resist corruption. In FCAS it can be dangerous to be the “first mover,” or to deviate from a social norm. Fear of reprisal from those considered part of “your group” or from armed group members connected to institutions can exert a very powerful pressure on people. Efforts to support “positive deviants” or “trendsetters,” or to address social norms in a professional organization (like the police), without considering the secondary, yet powerful, indirect norms, can expose participants to danger.

Does this mean that social norms are the key to changing corrupt behavior?

We would say yes and no. Social norms, even in fragile and conflict-affected states, are not the only factor influencing corrupt behavior.  But they are powerful, and ignoring them or misunderstanding them not only stymies effectiveness but can make matters much worse.

This does not mean “do nothing.” It does mean that we need to think about alternatives to working around conflict and fragility (i.e., ignoring the differences in the context). We need to develop better approaches to understanding when and how to work to change social norms in these contexts. When that is not possible (or at least not possible within the relevant time frame), we must work to mitigate the negative side effects. And this needs to happen in the context of multi-prong change efforts, where social norms are but one facet.

About the authors

Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church is Principal at Besa: Catalyzing Strategic Change, a social enterprise committed to catalysing significant change on strategic issues in places experiencing conflict and structural or overt physical violence. She has significant experience working on anti-corruption and state legitimacy in the DRC and Uganda. As a Professor of Practice, she teaches and consults on program design, monitoring, evaluation and learning. Cheyanne is also the Corruption in Fragile States blog series editor.

Diana Chigas, JD, is the Senior International Officer and Associate Provost at Tufts University and a Professor of the Practice of International Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. Diana has worked with governmental and non-governmental organizations on systemic conflict analysis, strategic planning, and reflection and evaluation to improve the impact of peace programming. Diana has over 25 years’ experience as a facilitator and consultant in negotiation and conflict resolution, as well as supporting and evaluating social change programming in conflict-affected countries. Her interest in corruption emerged from her experience supporting peacebuilding programming, where corruption has consistently been a key factor hindering effectiveness and driving conflict.

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4 thoughts on “Three Reasons Why Actors Working in Fragile and Conflict-Affected States Must Stop Ignoring Social Norms

  • April 4, 2019 at 9:35 am

    I see a lot of parallels of your arguments in this piece with what is normally coined a “conflict-sensitive approach” or CSA, including the CSA promoted by the OECD in fragile states. So not much new in what you are saying, but a more unpacked I would say. That said, I would like to see how your interesting arguments match up against the discourse on applying cultural relativism when supporting actors in conflict-impacted and/or fragile contexts, especially when promoting gender equality or human rights norms.

    • April 9, 2019 at 1:17 am

      Mirko, you are right to notice the parallels with CSA. Our research suggested certain parallels, and we have taken some inspiration from the “Do No Harm” framework developed at CDA Collaborative Learning Projects (see in thinking about this and have been exploring whether a Do no Harm-type framework would be useful. As with conflict sensitivity, we have observed that it is counterproductive to ignore social norms, but it is not always possible (or programs may not be prepared) to address social norms directly. At the same time, the lessons from conflict sensitivity — that even peacebuilding, which addresses conflict directly, has to be conflict-sensitive — is helpful here; even efforts to change social norms need to think about potential negative side-effects. I would only add that in fragile and conflict-affected environments, approaches to dealing with social norms, and to anti-corruption in general, need also to be conflict-sensitive, and we have seen some instances in which anti-corruption efforts have exacerbated conflict.

      We are keenly aware that “nudge” efforts and efforts to influence social norms are fraught, and questions about whether the intervenors are imposing their own values are never far from the surface. Here the need to work in true partnership with and in support of local actors is very important. But also social norms can and do change. We would be interested in your thoughts on the implications of the discourse on cultural relativism in relation to work on social norms.

  • April 4, 2019 at 6:25 pm

    I appreciate the research and insights. Social norms do indeed matter. I would be interested in seeing a similar lens applied to the policymakers and donors. What norms are prevalent within the UN and donor leadership charged with addressing programs in fragile and conflict affected states? Why do programming decisions consistently emphasize standard train and equip programs, elections, etc., without addressing underlying systemic and/or social problems? These are perhaps uncomfortable lines of inquiry, but I suspect application of your research–and similar lessons learned–will continue to be the exception, as opposed to the rule, until we can address them.

    • April 4, 2019 at 10:50 pm

      Thanks for the probing response Scott. We totally agree with your assessment on the role of donors in directing the field away from this type of programming. To this end we have been working with a few donors with varying degrees of success (to be frank) to encourage uptake. I’ll give a shout-out to the Democracy and Governance Fund in Uganda who brought us in to do a workshop on social norms and corruption to all of their grantees.


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