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Blog: Corruption and Governance in Sub-Saharan Africa

In this blog post ACRN Contributing Editor Paul Lagunes and his colleagues from Yale University share their insights from a workshop on corruption and governance which took place in Cape Town this summer. The workshop helped shed light on some critical insights about the state of research on corruption and governance in Sub-Saharan Africa. In particular, the participants examined the gap between academic research and the needs of activists and practitioners and developed some suggestions on what a future research agenda could look like.

Please note that views expressed in this blog post are those of the authors and do not represent the position of The Anti-Corruption Research Network, Transparency International, or any of its affiliates. To comment on this post please log into ACRN. 

Corruption and Governance in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Emerging Research Agenda

By Paul Lagunes, Malte Lierl, Itumeleng Makgetla, Lucy Martin, Pia Raffler and Rory Truex, Yale University

“If you want to walk fast, walk alone. If you want to walk far, walk together." - African proverb

The World Bank estimates that, in a year, total bribes worldwide add up to approximately one trillion US dollars.[i] This impressive amount is about as large as the combined GDP of two of Africa’s most powerful economies, South Africa and Nigeria.[ii] Not only does corruption whittle away the resources that the government allocates towards development, studies have found that the negative economic effects of corruption include market uncertainty and excessive regulation. Corruption also erodes citizen trust in government and state-society relations.

Corruption poses a particularly serious challenge in Sub-Saharan Africa. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, six of the world’s ten countries most burdened by corruption are located in the continent.[iii] Even South Africa has witnessed a number of serious and on-going corruption scandals. One such scandal involves a multi-million dollar bribe scheme related to an arms procurement deal.[iv] Several other cases concern abuse of the black economic empowerment (BEE) system originally meant to redress the disadvantages caused by apartheid.[v] Over 40 per cent of South Africa’s cabinet ministers have been implicated in conflicts of interest because of their relationships to private companies.[vi]

Given the pervasiveness of corruption in many African countries,[vii] and a desire to better understand the challenges that corruption presents, three institutions—Global Integrity, Yale University’s MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies, and the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice—collaborated in organising a research agenda-setting workshop, funded by The Stephen and Ruth Hendel Fund for Africa at Yale University. This workshop, entitled “Corruption and Governance in Africa,” offered participants an opportunity to reconsider the use of analytic instruments in research and advocacy to improve governance in the African context.

The workshop took place at Global Integrity’s offices in Woodstock, Cape Town on the 16th and 17th of May 2012. A total of 25 individuals were in attendance. The group comprised nine foreign scholars (most of whom were from Yale University), eight faculty members from the University of Cape Town, seven local activists (from five distinct organizations), and one policymaker.[viii] During the two days, workshop participants addressed a variety of topics related to the subject of corruption. The discussion focused on one core question: what should the future research agenda on corruption and governance in Africa be?


Written Contributions

In preparation for the workshop, a select number of participants were asked to prepare short essays outlining what they see as the priorities for future work on corruption. The following authors contributed essays: Karin Alexander (Institute for Democracy in Africa), Marianne Camerer (Global Integrity), Elizabeth Harrison (University of Sussex), Brian Levy (University of Cape Town), David Lewis (Corruption Watch), Tabeth Masengu (University of Cape Town), Robert Mattes (University of Cape Town), Nkosana Moyo (Mandela Institute for Development Studies), Vinothan Naidoo (University of Cape Town), Erica Penfold (Global Integrity), Dadisai Taderera (Global Integrity), and Hennie van Vuuren (Institute for Security Studies). These essays provide valuable insights; thus, we encourage readers who are interested in readings these to request a copy from the authors directly. In this blog post we highlight four of the eleven memos in order to give readers a sense of what the workshop’s written contributions were about.

In their essay entitled “Contested Moralities of Corruption,” Elizabeth Harrison, Dinah Rajak, and Anthony Butler argue that anti-corruption programs designed to incorporate the best practices identified by international actors often have a judgmental tone and are seldom effective in combating corruption. Importantly, Harrison et al. also suggest conducting ethnographic research that explores the relationships between local level accounts of petty corruption and national and international discourses on corruption prevention. They showcase Daniel Jordan Smith’s “A Culture of Corruption” as a prime example of this kind of work.

Vinothan Naidoo’s essay draws attention to the dangers posed not by corruption, but by anti-corruption monitoring. Naidoo argues that nations trying to stem malfeasance through oversight must be careful not to generate institutional rigidity. In his concise essay, Naidoo also describes how South African civil servants and politicians have tended to collude to undermine anti-corruption efforts which indicates a lack of incentives and political will to fight corruption at the highest levels. Anecdotal evidence from Uganda (and even from the more distant country of Mexico) suggests that lower-level politicians often lack the ability to control civil servants because of the former’s more limited experience with the administrative system.

In his short essay entitled “Economic Crimes and Transitional Justice in Africa,” Hennie Van Vuuren argues that countries often fail to successfully prosecute corrupt elites at the time of democratic transition. This, he adds, impacts the ability of newly open societies to control corruption and promote accountability.

Finally, Global Integrity’s essay examined the role of technology in promoting transparency and accountability. Specifically, it questioned whether technology could serve as a “5th estate” by helping citizens to monitor their governments. Global Integrity pointed out ways that technology could support transparency, such as the use of Ushahidi, a crowd sourced reporting tool that was first used in Kenya to track post-election violence. However, Global Integrity also stressed the need to understand the socio-political context of proposed initiatives for technology to succeed in promoting transparency. A key argument in the memo was that technology only works to achieve transparency when used by an active and engaged citizenry with the capacity to make use of the data it generates.

Spoken Contributions

The subsequent discussion of the essays in the workshop provided further insights. For instance, Nkosana Moyo emphasized that corruption provokes waste at the system level and suggested that activists and scholars adopt “a solution-based perspective on corruption.” Moyo proposed that people move away from a values debate towards an efficiency debate about the problem of corruption. When it comes to framing anti-corruption efforts rhetorically, pairing values (e.g., probity, honesty, etc.) with particular players (e.g., the US, the UK, etc.) risks tarnishing those values for some African governments. On a related topic, Moyo argued that too often the discourse on corruption is one-sided. African governments are frequently the sole object of blame, an analysis that fails to recognize that corruption requires two parties, one of whom is often a foreign actor.

In the interest of brevity, we limit ourselves to highlighting a statement by Ian Shapiro that usefully guided the discussion. Shapiro suggested that corruption researchers should approach the problem as one of regulatory politics. In other words, he argued that corruption must be understood as another form of “state protection for sale.” Once scholars adopt this perspective, then they may ask themselves: “Which lobbies would need to be better organised to fight particular patterns of rent extraction?” This insight connects the study of corruption to the study of law and governance more broadly.


Reflections for Future Research

Our three primary takeaways from the workshop are:

1.      Closer collaboration is needed between activists and academics.

Over the course of the workshop, we observed a certain disconnect between those participants involved in policy and activism and the academic participants. Part of the problem is explained by semantics—the terminology used by the two groups often differed, which made communication somewhat difficult. The disconnect may also stem from a difference in priorities. The topics that are easiest to study in an academically rigorous fashion are not always those that are most pressing for communities.

Yet, there are crucial opportunities for practitioners and academics to work together. For example, academics often have knowledge of a broad range of countries, whereas activists have richer expertise on their region, country or sub-national context. This creates the opportunity for academics to help connect practitioners to global findings and best practices. Activists are also ideally positioned to identify areas where academic knowledge could be improved, and to shed more light on the intricacies of corruption. Creating a shared framework for talking about issues of corruption and governance is a critical first step in moving the anti-corruption effort forward.

2.      Future research should focus on how anti-corruption can become part of a country’s policy-making agenda.

Researchers may need to redirect their attention toward the determinants of anti-corruption. Scholars have placed a great deal of attention on the causes and consequences of corruption and on the procedural antidotes to corruption, while not enough effort has gone toward understanding the factors that incentivise the political will to fight corruption. As Moyo noted, in many countries on the continent, corruption is usually transparent or evident to the public eye. If this is true, then the main issue is not whether a country provides access to government documents, or whether it should adopt this or that kind of monitoring mechanism. Rather, the main issue is that a number of governments simply do not want anti-corruption efforts to work. If a regime’s level of corruption is, at its core, driven by political will, then the outstanding problem is to figure out the determinants of anti-corruption within corrupt environments.

3.      There remain numerous gaps in our knowledge on corruption.

The conference also identified some other areas for potential research. We know very little about effective methods for encouraging citizen demand for government accountability and the efficacy of citizen empowerment channels. Organizations such as Corruption Watch and Transparency International’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centers (ALACs) provide citizens with both information about the extent of corruption and channels through which to voice their concerns. However, to date, we do not know how to make such interventions more effective, or whether they are effective at all. Corruption also takes many forms, and we do not yet know whether each form may have a different dynamic, and potentially even demand different solution. These unknowns are a call for further research.


Concluding Thoughts

One crucial principle of democracy is that politicians are answerable to citizens. In theory, elections serve as a powerful incentive to ensure that politicians advance the public’s interests while they are in office. However, for this democratic ideal to be fulfilled, and for it to result in low levels of corruption, certain conditions must be met. First, citizens must have information about politicians’ performance. Second, voters must care about said performance more than other factors (e.g., ethnicity or clientelistic gains) and oppose corrupt behaviour. Third, they must have alternative political parties and politicians to choose from. Fourth, citizens must live in a regime that guarantees that elections are relatively free and fair. Fifth, politicians must have an interest in being re-elected or running for higher office. Finally, elected officials must have the ability to monitor and control the civil servants who implement programs for service delivery. If any of these conditions are not met, political accountability may break down.

            In many African countries, political systems do not produce strong electoral accountability and politicians do not have an incentive to fight corruption or avoid corrupt behavior. Improving on the status quo may demand deep political reforms. That said, a crucial takeaway point from the workshop is that anti-corruption research can have the greatest impact if it shifts its attention away from ideal conceptions of democratic accountability, and investigates specific ways of how, given the realities of state-society relations in Africa, activists, decision-makers, and ordinary citizens can make a positive difference. The workshop “Corruption and Governance in Africa” provided a unique forum for some of that reflection to occur in the form of a rich, honest, and lively discussion.

[ii] The calculation is based on 2010 data obtained from the CIA’s World Factbook. For more information please visit: <>.

[iii] The specific countries are Somalia, Sudan, Chad, Burundi, and Equatorial Guinea. See: Fisher, Daniel. "The Most Corrupt Countries." November 1. 2010, sec. Investing: Nation Building.

[vi] Ibíd.

[vii]  Only recently, Transparency International accused Teodorin Nguema Obiang Mangue, the 43-year-old son of Equatorial Guinea’s President, of using state assets to acquire property in France. The property in question is a Paris villa thought to be worth 100 million and 150 million euros. The home contains a movie theater, nightclub, a beauty parlor, and a bathroom with gold-plated faucets. Teodorin is trying to evade prosecution on the grounds that he enjoys judicial immunity, given his title as the vice president of Equatoria Guinea. For more information see the BBC or the WSJ’s reports, or TI’s website.

[viii] The participants were (in alphabetical order): Karin Alexander (Institute for Democracy in Africa), Anthony Butler (University of Cape Town), Marianne Camerer (Global Integrity), Kamari Clarke (Yale University), Judith Cornell (University of Cape Town), Elizabeth Harrison (University of Sussex), Brian Levy (University of Cape Town), David Lewis (Corruption Watch), Tabeth Masengu (University of Cape Town), Robert Mattes (University of Cape Town), Nkosana Moyo (Mandela Institute for Development Studies), Vinothan Naidoo (University of Cape Town), Erica Penfold (Global Integrity), Jeremy Seekings (University of Cape Town and Yale University), Ian Shapiro (Yale University), Dadisai Taderera (Global Integrity), Raenette Taljaard (University of Cape Town), Hennie van Vuuren (Institute for Security Studies), Daniel Weeks (Open Society Foundation), and the authors of this report.


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10 Oct 2012

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