You are here: Home / Latest Research / Blogs and Articles / ACRN Blog: "Corruption Drives the Emergence of Civil Society"

ACRN Blog: "Corruption Drives the Emergence of Civil Society"

ACRN Research Correspondent Lucía Ixtacuy reviews a new article about how citizens' concern about the misappropriation of common resources can lead them to assume the role of overseer of public authorities. Thus, corruption, or rather the fear of corruption, helps citizens to overcome the anticipated costs of collective action problems.

ACRN Blog: "Corruption Drives the Emergence of Civil Society"

© A.M.Ahad / Flickr



Abdallah S, Sayed R, Rahwan I, LeVeck BL, Cebrian M, Rutherford A, Fowler JH. 2014.  “Corruption Drives the Emergence of Civil Society”. J. R. Soc. Interface 11: 20131044.


Centralized sanctioning institutions have been shown to emerge naturally through social learning, displace all other forms of punishment and lead to stable cooperation. However, this result provokes a number of questions. If centralized sanctioning is so successful, then why do many highly authoritarian states suffer from low levels of cooperation? Why do states with high levels of public good provision tend to rely more on citizen-driven peer punishment? Here, we consider how corruption influences the evolution of cooperation and punishment. Our model shows that the effectiveness of centralized punishment in promoting cooperation breaks down when some actors in the model are allowed to bribe centralized authorities. Counterintuitively, a weaker centralized authority is actually more effective because it allows peer punishment to restore cooperation in the presence of corruption. Our results provide an evolutionary rationale for why public goods provision rarely flourishes in polities that rely only on strong centralized institutions. Instead, cooperation requires both decentralized and centralized enforcement. These results help to explain why citizen participation is a fundamental necessity for policing the commons.


 The article’s title, Corruption drives the emergence of civil society, seems to suggest that corruption is somehow needed for civil society to develop. However, the authors rather highlight the fact that civil society is willing to engage in the oversight of governmental activity given the risk of corruption.

 The article presents a public good game (PGG) that besides considering the role of punishment as a mean to enforce cooperation, also takes into account the presence of corruption, in order to analyze if it has some effect on cooperation levels. Broadly, the model works on the assumptions that 1) punishment mechanisms exist as means to enforce cooperation among individuals, and 2) penalties to non-cooperators can be executed either by a centralized authority (that manages pool resources to punish defectors), or by individual agents (via behavioral reciprocity as in the tit-for-tat strategy or via costly punishment).

 By running a numerical simulation of their PGG model, they find that without corruption, centralized authority (pool punishment) is the best way to foster cooperation. However, cooperation pays only when those who free ride on the work and resources of others are actually punished (Ernst and Gächter, 2002:137). Hence, by adding the risk of corruption to the PPG game (i.e. if corrupt agents are taken into account), the fact that corrupt players can bribe the central authority to avoid punishment is acknowledged.

 The simulation’s results show that in the presence of corruption, individuals that play what the authors call a hybrid peer-pool strategy (i.e. individuals who are both willing to cooperate with the central authority as well as eager to individually punish defectors) will emerge as a stable strategy that restores cooperation.

 Thus, taking corruption into consideration confirms that the mere existence of a centralized authority in charge of sanctioning non-cooperators a not a sufficient condition to guarantee high cooperation levels or a better provision of public goods (Abdallah et. al., 2014:3). Instead, it may be the risk of corruption is what drives certain individuals to assume the costs of engaging in costly actions such as “acts of protest against agents who harm the public good” (Abdallah et al., 2014:2).

 The authors conclude that, given the risk of corruption, central authorities can promote cooperation, but only if they also allow citizens to take action against actors who harm the public good. Thus, “cooperation rests on an authority that protects a fundamental aspect of civil society, citizen participation in policing the commons” (ibid).

 In spite of the limitations of the game (p. 5), the results are noteworthy since they show that there could be a “natural” tendency for civil society to assume the role of overseer of authorities given the possibility that they become corrupt. In other words, individuals may have an intrinsic interest in overseeing governmental activity since they are concerned about the good use of common resources.

This result is thought-provoking since it may help us to understand if, when it comes to government oversight, individuals are usually eager to assume certain costs to punish non-cooperators. If this is indeed the case, then perhaps society suffers to a lesser degree than assumed from so-called collective action problems- i.e. individuals refraining from organizing when the costs of articulating their demands are higher than the benefits they will receive (Ostrom, 1998).

 Regarding the fight against corruption, the results complement previous research which argues that top-down measures to prevent corruption stand a better chance of success in the presence of an empowered civil society (Mungiu-Pippidi, 2013a, 2013b), and that citizens’ participation is needed to demand information to better hold the government to account (Besley: 2006; World Bank: 2004; Malena and McNeil: 2010). Thus, in a permissive environment with scope for civil society cooperation with central authorities, anticorruption measurements should seek to maximize the number of individual agents participating in the oversight and punishment of defectors. This should, in turn, increase the overall levels of cooperation and foster the better provision of public goods.



 Abdallah S, Sayed R, Rahwan I, LeVeck BL, Cebrian M, Rutherford A, Fowler JH. 2014.  “Corruption Drives the Emergence of Civil Society”. J. R. Soc. Interface 11: 20131044.

Besley, T. (2006). Principled Agents: The Political Economy of Good Government. . Oxford: Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fehr, Ernst, and Simon Gächter. 2002. “Altruistic Punishment in Humans.” Nature 415(6868):137–40.

McNeil, M., & Malena, C. (2010). : Demanding Good Governance: Lessons from Social Accountability Initiatives in Africa. . Washington DC: World Bank Publications, Ch 1.

Mungiu-Pippidi, A. 2013a. The good, the bad and the ugly: controlling corruption in the European Union. Berlin: Advance Policy Paper for Discussion in the European Parliament.

Mungiu-Pippidi, A. 2013b. FOIA as an Anti-corruption tool. ERCAS European Research Center for Anti-Corruption and State Building, 1-20.

Ostrom, Elinor. 1998. A Behavioral Approach to the Rational‐Choice Theory of Collective Action”, American Political Science Review, 92(1):  1-22.

World Bank. (2014, June). Social Accountability Sourcebook Homepage. Retrieved from Social Accountability Sourcebook Homepage:

Author : Abdallah S, Sayed R, Rahwan I, LeVeck BL, Cebrian M, Rutherford A, Fowler JH.

04 Jun 2014

Bookmark and Share

Document Actions

Our partner