2 Responses

  1. Seini O'Connor
    Seini O'Connor April 15, 2015 at 12:02 am

    Hi Grant

    Thanks for sharing this very interesting research. It’s always great to read work that provides local insights into complex social issues – especially issues like corruption, which so often enters into development discussions with the baggage of external judgment. It’s helpful to understand the ways in which we can use the same words with very different intended meanings, and to consider the implications of this divide when designing development initiatives.

    I agree with your introductory observation that much of the literature on corruption focuses on ‘abuse of power’ definitions, but I was a little surprised at your finding that no policy documentation considers corruption as a form of individual or institutional ‘decay’. Although that term may not have been widely used, both individual psychological / values-related corruption and institutional ‘culture’ are areas in which I think some interesting research has been undertaken. I’ll provide some examples from my limited personal experience.

    Some years ago I worked with a team developing World Bank source books on corruption in the water and electricity sectors, which attempted to understand why and how whole sectors can ‘decay’ to the point where corruption is rife (e.g. kick backs in procurement, cost-cutting in infrastructure work, bribe-taking in making connections, extra ‘taxes’ collected with monthly payments, etc.) – and also how these problems can be avoided through better design and functioning accountability loops. Interested in discussions around the development of a ‘culture’ of corruption (and mindful not to be labeling any particular culture as inherently corrupt, as has been discussed elsewhere on this blog), I then conducted some research into the links between socio-cultural values and corruption, across countries and across time – a little too ‘macro’ level to really be getting into individual psychology, but still connecting the way individuals act to the prevailing norms (and incentives) in their social context. Importantly, as you point out, this context extends far beyond the boundaries of government—all who have power and access to resources have opportunities to be corrupt.

    With that said, however, I do feel that care needs to be taken in promoting a view of corruption as (solely) individual decay or failing—which doesn’t mean, of course, that we shouldn’t engage with this view to the extent that it’s already held by communities. I’d be interested in your further thoughts about how to work commonly-held local definitions of corruption into the public debate around how corruption can be effectively and systematically addressed. Perhaps one starting consideration is that, as has been found elsewhere, there’s no point in importing foreign anti-corruption institutions and exhorting people to ‘punish the corrupt’ if they feel powerless to do so, or are genuinely benefitting in other ways from the system being as it is.


    1. Grant Walton
      Grant Walton April 17, 2015 at 5:45 am

      Hi Seini,

      Thanks for your comments and the references – I look forward to reading the latter soon.

      You are right to say that there has been some research shining a light on institutional and individual decay. In the full article, I discuss focus groups in Solomon Islands that provide glimpses of this (although the researchers don’t label these findings as an example of the decay definition per se). But aside from research in reports and academic papers, I have yet to see a policy document that seriously discusses corruption as decay (or something like it) and then uses this definition to frame responses to corruption. Let me know if you’ve come across policy documents that do this.

      Also, I argue that institutional/individual decay is a form of corruption. Your example (“whole sectors can ‘decay’ to the point where corruption is rife”) is different because it suggests that the institutional decay causes corruption.

      I agree with you that the decay definition should not be considered the only (or even the best) definition of corruption. It is just another way to understand local perceptions. In the paper I show that, as a whole, Papua New Guineans hold a wide variety of perceptions about what corruption is, which includes the public office definition. So we shouldn’t throw out this definition and anticorruption programs that emanate from it; rather I think anti-corruption agencies need to acknowledge the shortcomings of this definition and think more critically about alternative definitions.

      In terms of what this means for addressing corruption: I agree with you that it may be counter productive to exhort people to punish the corrupt when they can not do so, or are benefitting from corrupt transactions where the state is weak– as I outline in this article. But, even more importantly, there needs to be more focus on powerful non-state actors. Currently corruption involving the private sector, not for profits (including the church) and citizens is largely ignored by the anti-corruption industry. The global financial crisis is a cautionary example about what can go wrong when we think of corruption as only/mostly involving the state. While that crisis showed that a web of private firms can perpetuate massive fraud, there was little real response from the anti-corruption industry. If corruption is only seen to involve the state, such private sector corruption can be overlooked, or downplayed.

      I think it is crucial to start the conversation about corruption in terms of how it is defined. It’s equally important that our analysis and conversation about what drives corruption doesn’t just end there. To this end, a colleague, Caryn Peiffer, and I are working on further analysis of the PNG data, and are analysing what factors drive citizen reporting. We hope to have a paper out later in the year. Look forward to getting your feedback on that.



Leave a Reply