Silent and lethal: How quiet corruption undermines Africa's development efforts
The World Bank
The corruption that often captures newspaper headlines and provokes worldwide public disapproval is dominated by loud “big-time corruption,” notably administrative and political corruption at the highest government levels. In response to this notoriety, the bulk of anti-corruption measures have been tailored to address this type of corruption. However, recent examinations of the level and quality of service delivery in developing countries, including the World Development Report 2004, have highlighted the need to expand the scope of the standard definition of corruption—the abuse of public office for private gain. While acknowledging the importance of big-time corruption in reducing funding for service delivery, recent research has devoted increasing attention to identifying corrupt practices downstream at the frontline of public service provision.
Following this literature, this essay introduces the term “quiet corruption” to indicate various types of malpractice of frontline providers (teachers, doctors, inspectors, and other government representatives) that do not involve monetary exchange. These behaviors include both potentially observable deviations, such as absenteeism, but also hard to observe deviations from expected conduct, such as a lower level of effort than expected or the deliberate bending of rules for personal advantage. For example, recent findings indicate that primary school teachers in a number of African countries are not in school 15 to 25 percent of the time (absenteeism), but, in addition, a considerable fraction of those in school are not found teaching (low effort). Frontline provider deviations from expected behavior that meet these requirements broaden the scope of corruption.
With this broader definition in mind, the familiar form of big-time corruption is just the “tip of the iceberg”; the quiet corruption, that is the less frequently observed deviations from expected conduct, is below the surface. In addition to capturing the notion that quiet corruption is not as visible, the iceberg analogy provides two additional insights. First, quiet corruption occurs across a much wider set of transactions directly affecting a large number of beneficiaries. Quiet corruption is present in a large share of health-provider–patient or teacher-pupil interactions, for example. Second, quiet corruption very often has deep long-term consequences on households, farms, and firms. The widespread prevalence of big-time and quiet corruption in Africa significantly undermines the impact of investments to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). In the parlance of this essay, the iceberg of corruption is sinking considerable efforts to improve the well-being of Africa’s citizens, particularly the poor who rely predominantly on publicly provided services.
It is important to raise awareness of the profile of quiet corruption because this malpractice has non-negligible long-term consequences. This essay elaborates both the direct consequences, such as the limitation of the productivity potential of households, firms, and farms, and the indirect consequences, such as distrust of public institutions and the notion that frontline provider malpractice is inevitable and omnipresent. As an example of direct consequences, we might think how poor service delivery caused by absenteeism or low effort on the job might hamper a child’s development, with potential permanent effects on adult educational attainment, cognitive skills, and underlying health. As an indirect effect we might think of the withdrawal of children from school because of beliefs about the low quality of education, which shifts the allocation of time and resources away from human capital formation toward home production or labor market participation.
This essay further shows how quiet corruption manifests itself differently according to the nature of service delivery. It focuses on four key sectors (education, health care, agriculture, and the private sector) whose progress and success are crucial for poverty eradication and more generally achieving the MDGs. In presenting examples and outlining the long-term consequences of quiet corruption in these sectors, this essay contends that one of the main reasons Africa is lagging behind is the poor service delivery that is a consequence of quiet corruption.
The good news is that quiet corruption can be tackled. Whenever a government’s determination to deal with quiet corruption has increased, for example, by increasing the availability of information on finances, inputs and expected outputs, then measurable improvements in service delivery have been possible. Although there is no “one size fits all” recommendation that applies to every sector, this essay advocates the need for strong and highly motivated leadership in the fight against corruption, commitment and capacity of the national anti-corruption units to pursue operationally effective responses at the sector level, and adequate policies and institutions. An equally important second pillar is increasing transparency in policy formulation and implementation that empowers citizens to raise the accountability of service providers—bolstering the “demand side” for good governance. Finally, successful implementation of anti-corruption reforms also requires that the preferences and interests of all those involved be aligned with achieving the objectives of the reform. This often involves better working conditions.
Given the complexity of the task, the fight against quiet corruption requires tailoring policies to country circumstances, recognizing that priorities and responses may vary depending on different country conditions. This essay outlines a research agenda to identify interventions to address quiet corruption. Experimenting with various ways to empower beneficiaries and continuing the ongoing efforts to tackle bigtime corruption will go a long way toward this goal. Indeed, although combating loud and visible forms of corruption is necessary, fighting quiet corruption is critical if governments want to reduce poverty and promote sustainable growth.