Seizing Windows of Opportunity to Dismantle Kleptocracy

Pro-democracy protest in Belarus.
Pro-democracy protest in Belarus.
Jana Shnipelson

The heroes of dekleptification are the civil society actors and other engaged citizens who risk it all to open windows of opportunity, make government work for the people, and lead their country toward a post-kleptocratic future. They are the entrepreneurs who get fed up with paying bribes so they take to the streets, environmental activists who expose the truth about corrupt mining concessions, investigative journalists who reveal the criminal dealings of “untouchable” oligarchs, honest prosecutors who press charges against the country’s most powerful crooks, policy advocates who push for transparency and accountability, grassroots organizers who get out the vote in record numbers, political newcomers in whom an entire country vests its hopes, and all the bold reformers—in and out of government—who dedicate themselves to delivering on public mandates for dekleptification. At USAID, it is our honor to walk with these front-line reformers through the hotly contested process of building new governing institutions, have their backs when the going gets tough, and share their lessons with the world.

This guidance is a resource for USAID staff working in countries trapped in severe corruption, particularly those whose courageous citizens open windows of opportunity for reform. It also aims to set the agenda for the broader community of donors, implementing partners, scholars, and other experts focused on countering kleptocracy and strategic corruption. This is one component of a suite of policy and programmatic products that the Anti-Corruption Task Force is developing to durably elevate anti-corruption at USAID and advance the implementation of the U.S. Strategy on Countering Corruption.

“And we’re going all in on dekleptification. Today, I’m announcing the creation of a new dekleptification guide—a handbook to help countries make the difficult transition from kleptocracy to democracy. This guide, drawn from previous democratic openings in Romania, Dominican Republic, and South Africa, provides advice to reformers on how to root out deeply entrenched corruption and technical advice on how to implement radical transparency and accountability measures, how to stand up new anti-corruption structures. Moving rapidly and aggressively in historic windows of opportunity will make these reforms harder to reverse.”

-USAID Administrator Samantha Power, remarks delivered on June 7, 2022


When voters, protestors, and other engaged citizens open windows of opportunity to dismantle “kleptocracy”—government controlled by officials who use political power to appropriate the wealth of their nation—all too often reform momentum dissipates within a couple years. At that point, corrupt elements retake power. But over the past two decades, audacious anti-corruption reform movements in countries transitioning away from kleptocracy have met these historic moments and sustained institutional reforms. These reformers innovate radically transparent disclosure requirements, strictly independent accountability bodies, and structurally inclusive economic growth policies. They stand up these institutions faster than the traditional incrementalism of anti-corruption development. And they scope the policy details—how much information becomes public, how foreign experts vet candidates to lead anti-corruption bodies, how aggressively oligarch-owned monopolies are broken up, etc.—to be far more transparent, independent, and inclusive than in countries not suffering from kleptocracy and foreign-backed “strategic corruption.”

Asset e-declarations required of Ukrainian public officials.
Asset e-declarations required of Ukrainian
public officials.

At key moments, USAID has been deeply involved in helping these front-line reformers design and implement powerful tools, which range from public asset declarations (see image) and ownership registries to specialized institutions to prevent, investigate, prosecute, and rule on cases of grand corruption. Based on a series of stocktaking exercises with USAID experts who worked on these efforts, this guide collates promising interventions and lessons learned from “dekleptification,” which is the process of uprooting entrenched kleptocratic structures. The toolkit draws from Ukrainian public transparency, Romanian independent prosecution, Malaysian internationalization of prosecution, Moldovan vetting of judges and prosecutors, Georgian police reform, South African grassroots activism, Dominican procurement systems, and other interventions. And while USAID and other aid organizations regularly recommend lists of technical reforms, just as pivotal for dekleptification is the active engagement by USAID and its partners in the messy political process of pursuing such reforms. These dynamic and contested situations call for rapid action, strategic sequencing, timely information, adaptive leadership, broad coalitions, proactive communications, coordinated diplomacy, international conditionality, flexible programming, mid-course corrections, and other tactics.

Building the institutions of dekleptification and forging a post-kleptocratic social contract is only possible amid the highest levels of political will. This is typically demanded by major segments of society who mobilize to remove a kleptocrat from power. USAID does not pry these windows open. But it does at all times stand in support of civic actors such as investigative journalists and issue advocates. USAID also ramps up support for the reformist government after citizens complete a legitimate process of self-determination to pursue dekleptification. And aid is delivered in transparent, voluntary, and even-handed ways that are quite the opposite of covert, coercive, and corrupt interference in democratic processes. The objective of dekleptification support is to help reformist governments deliver upon public mandates for anti-corruption, converting windows of opportunity into virtuous circles. That’s when inclusive institutions become more effective and popular over time, and thus more resilient to attempts by foreign and domestic kleptocrats to regain power and undermine reform. No set of policy recommendations offers a simple recipe to make dekleptification work. But the process is more likely to succeed when USAID and other donors sequence support around windows of opportunity for reform:

  • Before the Window: Lay the groundwork for future openings by developing rich political analysis of corrupt activity and kleptocratic networks in the country, supporting investigative journalists and civil society advocates who expose corruption and frame public debates, helping local partners reach consensus about which policy reforms to prioritize in the future, and preparing flexible aid mechanisms and funding pools that can be redirected and scaled up quickly.
  • During the Window: Work with the reformist government and civic actors to rapidly show the public results across three dimensions: transparency, accountability, and inclusion. First, expose and deter corruption through public transparency disclosures. This might include requiring public officials to declare their assets, establishing registries identifying the true beneficial owners of companies, and migrating public procurement to online platforms. Second, that digitized information about who owns what, and how state resources are being spent, informs investigations by civil society and law enforcement. Pursue justice on grand corruption via specialized anti-corruption bodies, headed by leaders whose integrity has been vetted by reputable foreign experts. Third, break the corrupt and monopolistic hold that oligarchs have long enjoyed over captured revenue streams. Fill that vacated economic space with honest entrepreneurs and businesses that thrive on a competitive playing field.
  • After the Window: Understand how and why the window is closing, including whether “rekleptification” takes the form of gradual backsliding, violent backlash, or some middle ground. Hold the increasingly corrupt government accountable with sharper U.S. government interventions such as more forceful public diplomacy, redirection of aid away from the corrupt government and toward civil society, and sanctions on high-level corrupt figures.

Dekleptification also involves two planning and programming needs that USAID and other donors should persistently address in varying forms throughout the cycle of political will. First, employ applied political economy analysis and external assessment tools to map corrupt activity, kleptocratic networks, reform coalitions, and policy priorities. Political analysis is particularly timely in the months before and after windows open, but is always needed and must constantly be updated. Second, support investigative journalists and civil society activists who expose corruption and push for reform. These change agents take center stage in dekleptification, where they constantly need connections to peers, protective services, defamation defense, responses to disinformation, political amplification, flexible and reliable funding, and other forms of support.

The Ukrainian people have shown the world that dekleptification can be the most intensive form of anti-corruption. It requires innovation and perseverance. Ukraine’s resolute defense against Russia’s brutal attempt at recolonization and rekleptification shows how the governing capacity and public morale that flow from successful dekleptification can be the key to preserving democracy and protecting national sovereignty. Relying upon and building on the anti-corruption institutions Ukraine has erected over the past eight years will be key to a successful recovery and reconstruction process.

This forceful and strategic approach to dismantling kleptocratic structures is informed by USAID’s local depth and specialized expertise, which offer unique contributions to U.S. efforts against transnational kleptocracy and strategic corruption. But overcoming the deep pockets and malign influence of kleptocrats and oligarchs is only possible by joining forces across the global community of donors, implementing partners, scholars, and other experts focused on how international aid can counter kleptocracy and strategic corruption.

Download the Full Report (PDF 7MB)

Dekleptification Guide