Defining corruption where the state is weak: the case of PNG

It is widely recognised that, to be effective, the fight against corruption needs to engage citizens. Donors, NGOs and others working to fight corruption recognise this by funding efforts to empower the grassroots. But, as I (here) and others (here and here [pay-walled]) have shown, citizens in developing countries often have very different understandings about corruption to anti-corruption actors. Which raises the question: How can we start to theorise about the ways citizens think about corruption?

One way is to look at the way the term is defined.

In an article published in the most recent edition of the Journal of Development Studies, I develop a framework that categorises the ways corruption can be defined; I apply this framework to findings from focus group discussions (see details here) and a nine-province household survey conducted in PNG (see details here).

The framework I develop outlines three key ways that corruption is defined in the literature. First, corruption is defined as the ‘abuse of public office for private gain’. This definition focuses on acts of corruption that involve at least one public servant, and suggests that when the public and private spheres mix corruption ensues. As the most popular definition in academia and within the development industry, it frames anti-corruption policies and programs as well as research into corruption.

Acknowledging the increasing role that non-state actors play in corruption, a second definition has risen in popularity: ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain’. By focusing on ‘abuse of entrusted power’ rather than ‘public office’, this definition allows corruption to include improper business-to-business activity within the private sector and civil society. Despite its popularity this definition has done little to shape anti-corruption programs: most focus primarily if not exclusively on government corruption. Nor has it had much influence on the study of corruption, with anti-corruption instruments mostly focusing on the different ways in which the state is corrupt – although Transparency International’s infrequent Bribe Payers Index is a notable exception.

The third way corruption is defined relates the concept to a form of individual or institutional decay. Individual decay is apparent in Ancient Greek conceptions of the term. Peter Bratsis (see PDF here) notes that the term diaphtheirein, the Greek equivalent for the word bribery, referred to: ‘the corruption of the mind by which the ability to make sound judgments and pursue the good has been impaired’ (2003: 12). Institutional decay is apparent in Machiavelli, who associated the term corruption (corruzione) to the deterioration of the quality of government, regardless of the reasons; it is also apparent in the writings of other republican theorists, such as Quentin Skinner, and more recently Mlada Bukovansky.

While the first two definitions of corruption – the public office and abuse of power definitions – feature in development policy documents around the world, the third definition – the decay definition – is nowhere to be seen. Nor has the popularity of the decay definition been assessed through empirical research.

However, when we asked Papua New Guineans what they thought about corruption (korapsen in Tok Pisin) in focus groups, the decay definition featured prominently. Examples of individual decay included lying, gossip, prostitution, womanising, making and drinking homebrew and other morally dubious activities involving citizens (not necessarily someone in an entrusted position of power). Examples of institutional decay included poor government standards in Southern Highlands province, and the wantok system benefiting particular individuals more than the community as a whole.

Respondents also associated corruption with people in positions of power. Reflecting the public office definition, one male respondent from Madang said corruption included public officials ‘breaking government law, [government] leaders misleading people, and public servants misusing government vehicles’. Responses also mirrored the abuse of power definition. For a young man in Madang, corruption was about ‘businessmen thinking of making profits’. Non-profit organisations, like the church, were also seen to engage in corruption. In East New Britain, a few respondents suggested, in hushed tones, that embezzlement of church funds by the local clergy was an example of corruption.

The popularity of each of these definitions was captured by the nine-province survey.  Respondents were asked to evaluate nine scenarios that depicted possible corruption, in terms of the degree to which each was corrupt, unacceptable and harmful. The scenarios were categorised by the definition that they represented and then compared. Figure 1 below shows that the public office and abuse of power definitions were considered similarly corrupt, harmful and unacceptable. The scenario representing the individual decay definition, on the other hand, was considered far more unpalatable

Figure 1: Comparison of responses of ‘totally corrupt’, ‘totally harmful’ and ‘unacceptable’ by definition

Figure 1: Comparison of responses of ‘totally corrupt’, ‘totally harmful’ and ‘unacceptable’ by definitionAnalysis by gender, education, location and education finds that urbanites, men and those with higher levels of education are more likely to use the public office definition. Men and those with higher levels of education were most likely to use the abuse of power definition. On the other hand, women and those on lower incomes used the individual decay definition.

These differences are, in part, due to respondents’ understandings of and experience with the state. In urban locations, where the state is relatively strong, the rules and laws of the state are more likely to be known. In rural locations, where the state is weak, the activities of non-state actors are more likely to be of concern – it is here where churches, logging and mining companies, and communities themselves provide development. Men and those with higher levels of education are more likely to understand the laws and rules of the state, and participate in politics, shaping their view of corruption into something more normative.

In areas where non-state actors are more active than the state, broader definitions of corruption are important for understanding local concerns, and identifying the types of corruption that are likely to prevail. Understanding this is important for anti-corruption efforts. While more research is needed (particularly around the decay definition), these findings suggest that if anti-corruption actors only focus on state representatives, then they misunderstand the nature of corruption, where it emanates from and who is actually involved in the eyes of local people. This could undermine local support for anti-corruption initiatives, particularly where the state is at its weakest. 

Grant Walton is a Research Fellow with the Development Policy Centre.

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Grant Walton

Grant Walton is an associate professor at the Development Policy Centre and the author of Anti-Corruption and its Discontents: Local, National and International Perspectives on Corruption in Papua New Guinea.


  • 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.


    • 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.



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