When asked why their country is not more developed, or why there is so much poverty, most people in the world blame corruption (see this blog). Corruption is present in every nation, and the struggle against it is never complete. In this post, I’d like to make the case for bringing systems thinking into corruption work.
First, let’s start with an obvious point that is often overlooked. Corruption is defined as the abuse of public office for private gain, but it manifests itself in extraordinarily diverse ways, in terms of the individuals involved, the kind of corrupt act, the potential damage to the public, and the sector in which it takes place, amongst others. Here are a few types of corruption:
- Mid-level officials steal stocks of life-saving drugs and sell them on the black market
- The executive requires a large, fixed monthly payment from the police force, as a means of sharing corrupt earnings
- Passengers pay an intermediary – and indirectly the immigration office manager – to jump to the front of an immigration line
- A local official, at the behest of the MP, adds names of political supporters to a list of safety net beneficiaries
- Various officials take a portion of all construction contracts
- Teachers skip school to work elsewhere, but still earn a salary
One simple conclusion emerges upon describing the various forms of corruption. Because it varies widely, both simple explanatory theories and broad generalizations about the effect of corruption tend to be inaccurate. Corruption is not just cultural, or only the result of a lack of supervision. Similarly, not all forms of corruption are horribly damaging for the public.
Some have tried to argue that corruption is either good for development, or not a top priority (Huntington, 1968; or other blogs cited here). These arguments fail to acknowledge the variety of forms of corruption. Indeed, some forms could potentially help development under certain conditions. Other forms may be relatively benign. However, one need only conduct a simple exercise to comprehend the pervasiveness of damaging forms of corruption: name a development priority area in which corruption is not the greatest, or among the greatest impediments to advancement. It would be difficult to find such an area in the majority of countries.
Given that reducing some forms of corruption is critical for development, the question is, what can be done about it? Unfortunately, I think that many anti-corruption organizations suffer because they fail to adapt to the dynamic social systems that support corruption. Systems thinking is an essential step in developing, adjusting and executing a strategy to fight corruption.
Systems thinking as an integral part of organizations is not new. It was popularized by Peter Senge in his classic 1990 book, The Fifth Discipline. Its essence is that organizations need to incorporate an understanding of the complex, dynamic systems in the world in order to fulfill their mission. Corruption plays a role in many socio-political systems that must be understood to make corruption efforts effective. (For an excellent study in some such systems, see The Wire, my favorite TV show, which provides an analysis in terms of the interlink between the drug trade, policing, and politics.)
Here is a simple example of a system in corruption. In the majority of countries of the world, patronage is required in the lead up to an election, which usually involves distributing some free items (such as money, rice, or jobs). In order to spread wealth, politicians must raise funds. Most of these funds will be collected through corruption while in power, either in the form of money raised or favors earned. Corruption therefore forms a foundation of power for politicians, via patronage networks; and political power then allows them to use the government apparatus to conduct corrupt acts. Impeding the various forms of corruption that support the patronage networks would therefore threaten the political survival of those who manage them.
Corruption --------> Patronage
Corruption --------> Patronage
This very basic system diagram – which represents systems thinking - has important implications for fighting corruption. One advantage is that it lets you know what you’re up against. In this example, it suggests that political leaders have a strong interest in maintaining some forms of corruption, because their political power – and therefore their ability to be corrupt - depends on it. As a result, an anti-corruption organization that focuses on the forms of corruption that support patronage can expect a strong reaction from political leaders. Activists need to develop a contingency strategy to respond to the various tactics that politicians may take to undermine their activities. Or, if an anti-corruption project seeks to reinforce checks and balances that limit the types of corruption that are needed for patronage, the effort will likely face opposition from politicians and their allies.
The system diagram also indicates that, for many forms of corruption, real reform would require a weakening of the strong, dynamic systems that rely on corruption, such as these patronage networks. In the short or even medium term, this is unlikely. If corruption is reinforced by other elements of the system, then a transformation of the system may be necessary. Therefore, the fight against corruption should be seen as a long-term struggle that requires a multi-pronged strategy.
Similarly, an immediate approach that seeks to grab low hanging fruits should begin with a contextual analysis to determine the precise forms of corruption that are not supported by these strong and dynamic systems. If there are not powerful individuals opposing the anti-corruption effort, the likelihood of progress should increase.
The diagram also suggests that a success in reducing corruption in one area may actually increase the corruption elsewhere. Patronage requires resources, so even if an anti-corruption efforts is successful, the necessity will push those involved to seek out other corruption opportunities. Such an effect is frequently discussed in economics, with the analogy of stepping on a balloon. The net effect may be the same for the public, thus neutralizing any gains won through the successful reduction of corruption in the particular area.
Instilling smart approaches to fight corruption are critical. Too much of this work takes a standard, technocratic approach of ‘capacity building’ for an anti-corruption commission and supreme audit institutions, or generally promoting transparency and open data. More targeted approaches with systems thinking is needed to increase the effectiveness of anti-corruption work.