Anti-corruption reforms should pay more attention to threats of violence

December 15, 2015

In low-income countries, government officials who refuse to be bribed to turn a blind eye to crimes are often threatened with violence. Up until now, not enough attention has been paid to this problem when anti-corruption reforms have been developed. Moreover, systems with merit-based salaries can even increase corruption. This has been shown in a doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg.

It is difficult to find measures that will reduce small-scale corruption in, for instance, countries where the police often accept bribes in order to turn a blind eye to crimes. One explanation for this is the social expectations within these bureaucracies: few officials stand to gain anything personally by being the first person to refuse a bribe and therefore the most effective measure would be to change the whole system at once if possible. Another frequently used explanatory model states that corruption can best be counteracted by changing the incentives for the officials, i.e. more monitoring and heavier penalties for those who commit irregularities, and higher pay for those who stick to the rule book.

In his thesis, political scientist Aksel Sundström has studied why corruption continues to exist in government administrations and what could change these particular systems. In his study, he has interviewed the inspectors who monitor the fishing done along the coast of South Africa and the officials in the organisation to which the inspectors belong. This is an administration with major corruption problems. Sundström's results confirm earlier research but he has also found that threats of violence is an aspect that researchers and policy-makers have not taken sufficiently seriously.

"Both of the regular explanatory models have overlooked the fact that many seriously corrupt societies have been set up in such a way that it can actually be dangerous not to accept a bribe and instead implement legislation," says Aksel Sundström.

"Not accepting a bribe can mean that you obstruct criminal networks," he continues.

Threats of violence is a more important aspect of corrupt environments than researchers and policy-makers have previously believed and that should have consequences," says Aksel Sundström.

"The people who plan anti-corruption measures should be more aware that there is a social cost to not accepting bribes. This is why policy planners must include protective measures for the people who are expected to change their behaviour," says Aksel Sundström.

Aksel Sundström has also studied to what extent merit-based salaries for individual officials is an effective instrument for preventing corruption. Merit-based salaries means managers reward those who take steps to reduce corruption. It is an instrument commonly found in reform packages and in international aid. But Aksel Sundström has found that these systems can be abused and, at worst, lead to increased corruption.

"Since the managers themselves have often had time to become part of the corrupt system, they tend to give salary bonuses to those who help to maintain the system rather than to those who want to abolish it. A strict monitoring system is necessary if merit-based salaries are to work as an anti-corruption instrument," he says.
More information

The thesis is based on a survey experiment among fishermen in South Africa and anonymous in-depth interviews with a number of different players including the government inspectors whose job is to ensure the fishermen follow the rules.

The title of the thesis: Corruption in Governance of the Commons: Consequences and Reform Challenges.

University of Gothenburg

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