Originally published on GI-ACE
Why do some countries keep struggling with high levels of corruption in spite of adopting most, if not all, internationally recommended legal and institutional anti-corruption prescriptions?
It is striking that some of the countries deemed the most corrupt also happen to boast some of the most extensive and comprehensive anti-corruption regimes…at least on paper. While it is clear that, in such contexts, formal rules are not strongly observed (the infamous implementation gap), there are, nonetheless, certain unwritten understandings, or open secrets, that often are only known to those who are enculturated within those contexts and, therefore, practically invisible to outside observers. These unwritten rules play a key role in shaping expectations and generating predictability, thereby strongly influencing behaviours.
Those practices and norms that inevitably co-exist with formal laws conform the realm of “informality,” which was the focus of our Phase 1 ACE project in which we explored the informal practices associated with corruption in seven countries in East Africa, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. That research uncovered the centrality of informal social networks that operate at all levels, connecting political elites, business interests, and ordinary citizens. The practices of the networks are associated with the prevalence of high levels of corruption, but also are useful for “getting things done” and, as a result, become entrenched.
From the perspective of citizens – in contexts in which resources are scarce and the state is weak – building strong personal connections helps gain access to public services or career opportunities. For example, the research shows that citizens resort to bribery to solve immediate problems (e.g., get medical treatment), but also as a means to grow and cultivate social networks. The reason for this is that the bribe is not intended as a one-off transaction; rather, it is about building useful relationships, for instance, with a health worker.
For political elites, networks can help win and maintain political power. Cultivating informal networks helps to reward supporters, sanction dissidents, and demobilise opponents, thus promoting regime survival. The usefulness of networks is evident, for example, during elections, when links to business interests can be mobilised to finance campaign costs and patronage networks activated to secure votes.
For business interests, informal networks involving powerful political figures provide access to profitable government contracts, “special” tax exemptions, and other financial benefits. Sometimes entrepreneurs build their networks by sponsoring aspiring politicians who, when successful, are obliged to use their decisionmaking authority to look after the interests of their benefactors.
In our current GI-ACE follow-on project, “Harnessing Informality: Designing anti-corruption network interventions and strategic use of legal instruments,” we have taken a step back to reflect on the meaningfulness of our Phase 1 findings and their implications for anti-corruption practice. Adopting a perspective that puts networks at the centre helps understand some of the shortcomings of conventional anti-corruption instruments. For starters, anti-corruption laws, policies, and interventions typically target individual incentives, utilising legal approaches to increase the costs and diminish the benefits of engaging in corruption. Such policies have been conceived in line with the classical model of the “homo-economicus” as a rational decisionmaking individual. However, the informal networks we have studied often are bound together by culture-bound social norms such as loyalty, reciprocity, or solidarity, and the behaviours and expectations of members are very much shaped by the sense of belonging to the group. Furthermore, in a networked environment, the practices of the group tend to outlive individual members. This may be associated with the persistence of corruption in some countries.
In our current project, we adopt two perspectives to explore the following question: What would anti-corruption practice look like if we shift the unit of analysis from individuals to networks? In the next blog instalments, my colleague and co-investigator Scott Newton and I will describe the details of the work we are currently conducting in East Africa and Central Asia within the scope of our research project.