Making sense of corruption and how to reduce it

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Aug 20, 2019

In 2011, someone broke into my sister’s office at the university where she teaches in Nigeria. Thankfully, the person was caught, arrested, and charged. When she arrived at court, the clerks assigned to my sister’s case informed her that they would not process the paperwork necessary to move the case forward unless she paid a bribe. She was surprised, angry, and confused. Think about it. Here she was, the recent victim of a crime and the people who were supposed to help her get justice were demanding she paid a bribe. That’s just one of the many examples of how corruption affects the lives of people in Nigeria. 

But corruption and its negative effects aren’t limited to Nigeria or Africa alone.

In most low- and middle-income countries, corruption permeates virtually every element of society, where 76% of people identify it as the top problem, according to a PEW Research study. Transparency International, which defines corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain, revealed that most countries are failing in the fight against corruption in their 2018 Corruption Perception Index. This failure is not only costing the global economy more than $2.6 trillion annually, but it’s also “contributing to a crisis in democracy around the world,” according to the global anti-corruption watchdog. As such, governments and development organizations must figure out a way to extinguish corruption.

One of the most cited approaches to solve the corruption problem is to improve governance and strengthen the institutions in a country. However, most institutional reform projects fail because they don’t tackle the root cause of the problem. This ends up deepening the lack of trust that already exists among different stakeholders in a country.

What if we looked at the problem differently?

Understanding corruption

Corruption isn’t limited to the powerful elected officials who often make headlines; corruption exists on a spectrum. In fact, low-grade corruption—the kind that establishes a power balance in a local community and keeps the economic wheels of daily life greased—is just as problematic in low- and middle-income countries where people do what they must to get by. The people who engage in this type of corruption aren’t somehow missing a fundamental moral fiber, nor are they simply ignorant that there’s a better way to get by and get ahead. Corruption, for many living in poverty, is the “better” way. It’s a utility—a workaround—in a place where there are few good options to solve their problems. Corruption, as we describe, is being hired to help people make progress in a particular circumstance. As a result, it’s essential that governments and development organizations understand the forces that compel people to hire corruption to help them solve a problem.

The Forces of Progress 

As we go about our day we make countless decisions—whether consciously or subconsciously—with the goal of making progress, according to our priorities. Should I hire this school to educate my children? Should I purchase this new product? Should I check out this new parish? As we consider whether to hire a given solution, there are forces compelling us towards it, and those that oppose it. 

The Forces Compelling Change include the “push of the situation” and the “pull of the new idea”. The former can be thought of as the frustration or problem that we’re trying to solve—and it has to be substantial enough to cause us to want to take action. Secondly, the “pull of the new idea”—whatever it is that makes a solution enticing—has to be pretty strong, too. The new solution must help us make progress in a particular circumstance. 

For example, a poorly paid police officer who needs money to pay his rent might find himself in a situation that demands a new solution (his salary no longer provides enough income to cover his rent and other expenses). This is when collecting a bribe might seem like a viable solution to him, especially if it is common in his society and law enforcement is weak.

There are also two Forces Opposing Change. First, the “habits of the present” weigh heavily on people, especially if we’re used to living with the problem. Second, the “anxiety of a new solution” is equally powerful; questions such as, how can I trust this new solution and what if it doesn’t work, cause anxiety before a different solution is adopted.

But going back to the poorly paid police officer, you can see how, in many low- and middle-income countries, the habits of the present might not be that strong—while he may have previously relied solely on his paycheck for income, bribery is the way many of his colleagues might solve their problem. Likewise, corruption being the norm also causes a reduction in the anxiety he feels when considering bribery as a potential solution. For this officer, the forces compelling him towards corruption are stronger than those opposing it.

Analyzing corruption through the Forces of Progress framework helps uncover an important insight. Unless people have a better solution for solving their problems, programs attempting to combat corruption, such as investments in stronger law enforcement, might temporarily help, but they won’t deliver permanent results. It’s the reason many governments, especially in low- and middle-income countries like Nigeria, Liberia, South Africa, only succeed in combating corruption for a short while, without lasting change. 

Instead, governments and development organizations working hard to reduce corruption must give people an alternative means of solving their most pressing problems, like well-paying jobs. In other words, a complementary, robust job-creation/wage-boosting program should accompany most corruption-fighting efforts as average wages, especially for public officials most susceptible to corruption in low- and middle-income countries,  are low.

Governments serious about combating corruption should take a page out of Singapore’s anti-corruption playbook. Not only did the late Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s visionary leader, crackdown on corrupt public officials, but he also increased their salaries to reduce their incentive to steal, embezzle, or demand bribes. He understood that to truly eliminate corruption as a solution, his government had to provide a viable alternative. It’s the classic carrot and stick approach.

Efosa Ojomo is a senior research fellow at the Christensen Institute, and co-author of The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty. Efosa’s work focuses on using Disruptive Innovation theory to fundamentally change the discourse in the global development community, thus enabling nations to engender their own path to long-term growth and prosperity.