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Why Anticorruption Reforms Fail—Systemic Corruption as a Collective Action Problem

This paper, ‘Why Anticorruption Reforms Fail—Systemic Corruption as a Collective Action Problem’ by Anna Persson, Bo Rothstein & Jan Teorell, asks one of the most important questions in anti-corruption research: why does corruption in countries plagued by systemic corruption prevail despite a large number of efforts to fight it? The authors provide a new and compelling answer, one which should redefine how anti-corruption research and programmes are undertaken in future.

Their answer is that most existing Anti-Corruption Programmes fail because they conceptualise corruption as a principal-agent problem, when in fact, in situations of systemic corruption, it is actually a collective action problem.  Principal-agent problems arise when principals have different incentives and levels of information to agents, those they delegate tasks to. While principals are assumed to embody the public interest, agents have incentives to engage in corruption because they can personally benefit from it.  The problem is that the principals don’t have the information they need, or the enforcement mechanisms, to monitor agents and prevent corrupt behavior.  On the basis of this understanding of corruption, anti-corruption programmes have taken the form of institutional reforms aimed at increasing oversight by principals and reducing the opportunities and incentives of the agents for corruption: reducing the discretion of bureaucrats, improving their salaries, improving transparency and information flows, etc.

The main problem with seeing corruption as a principal-agent problem, these authors argue, is that it assumes that the principals, are ‘principled’, committed to the public good, and determined to reduce corruption.  However, in a context of systemic corruption, this is unlikely to be the case: where most people expect everyone else to be corrupt, the benefits of corruption are likely to outweigh the costs. Consequently, there are no ‘principled principals’ and the anticorruption framework—that is, monitoring devices and punishment regimes—are largely ineffective since there are simply no actors that have an incentive to enforce them.

Using data from interviews with a wide range of actors in two countries that suffer from endemic corruption, Kenya and Uganda, they show how corruption is more accurately viewed as a collective action problem: although in the long-term everyone would benefit from a corruption-free environment, in the short-term no-one has immediate incentives to change their behavior.  As one respondent says ‘It is that feeling that if I don’t take it, it is going to be taken by somebody else’.  In this kind of context, society is trapped in a corrupt equilibrium where no one has an incentive to change, and there a few reasons to expect any change.

Seeing corruption as a collective action problem, rather than a principal-agent one, is a major breakthrough in our understanding of the problem.  It explains why anti-corruption programmes have to date failed, and focuses attention on the key research challenge that lies ahead in the field: trying to understand how the countries that have managed to escape from the corrupt equilibrium trap did so.  This paper has broken new ground in anti-corruption research, and laid the foundation upon which future research can build.


Citation: A. Persson, B. Rothstein & J. Teorell, "Why Anticorruption Reforms Fail—Systemic Corruption as a Collective Action Problem", Governance 25(4), 2012



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08 Oct 2012

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