Quiet Corruption: Not Just an African Problem

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Corruption, quiet and invisible / Photo: xiaming, flickr

The World Bank is pouring old wine into new bottles in a publication on corruption in Africa. The insight that everyday corruption is detrimental to Africa’s development is old wine. The new bottle is “quiet corruption,” a term created “to indicate various types of malpractice of frontline providers (teachers, doctors, inspectors and other government representatives) that do not involve monetary exchange.”

To be fair, the World Bank’s communication strategy is to redirect the media focus from high-profile corruption involving politicians and business leaders to small corruption by civil servants. Such ‘quiet’ forms of corruption includes “absenteeism,” “lower level of effort than expected or the deliberate bending of rules.” However, the claim that “one of the main reasons Africa is lagging behind is the poor service delivery that is a consequence of quiet corruption” is hardly surprising.

Power and Moral Hypocrisy

When it comes to corruption, I find more insightful a recent research article entitled “Power Increases Hypocrisy.” Joris Lammers and Diedrik A Stapel (Tilburg University) along with Adam D Galinsky (Northwestern University) conducted a series of experiments in political psychology. They found that powerful people impose strict moral standards on others but practice less strict moral behavior themselves – a phenomena they call moral hypocrisy (note that the experiments were not conducted in Africa, but with students at a Dutch university).

The experiments also show that, on the other hand, the powerful become more strict in judging their own behavior if they perceive their power as illegitimate. The phenomenon, which the authors call “hypercrisis” can also be observed with less powerful people: They are more strict in judging their own behavior than the behavior of others.

In the discussion of their results, the researchers provide an answer to one of the fundamental questions of social science: How do human societies, which are by definition unequal, sustain this inequality? The experiments provide further evidence to the claim that the powerless accept their fate and help reproduce social inequality. The research also shows, however, “that the spiral of inequality can be broken, if the illegitimacy of the power-distribution is revealed.” That can be done by either open revolt or gossiping, so the authors.

This research leads me to the following conclusion: First, quiet corruption is not only an African, but a human problem. Second, if quiet corruption by African civil servants is to be curbed, the citizens need to show them how illegitimate they think their power is – if they think it illegitimate at all.

Explore the ISN’s resources on political and other forms of corruption.

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