How to talk about Corruption when it’s everywhere, but invisible?

Just got back from 10 days in Goma in DR Congo. No, this post won’t be about Ebola (which mercifully hasn’t taken hold in the city) or conflict (ditto). I was there to interview dozens of officials and NGOs about public services, especially water.

And the topic of this post is the difficulty of talking about an omnipresent, but highly elusive issue: corruption. Ask any Congolese, (or consult the political economy analyses) and they’ll all agree that everyone is on the take.

But how do you bring that up when you’re chatting to an official in offices ranging from smart air-conditioned suites to tin-roofed plank huts, and all the conversation is being conducted in the formal world of laws, procedures and contracts? It’s a bit like an iceberg, where you can only see the visible bit, not the vast chunk of ice below the surface.

Right hand side, by the lake….

I tried 3 different strategies, none with any great success:

1. Indirect: don’t use the ‘C’ word, talk about ‘informal payments’ with a knowing look. No-one seemed keen to go there

2. Ask the interviewee whether other people are corrupt, which is a green light for any number of unsubstantiated (and untestable) accusations against their enemies in the bureaucracy (‘everyone knows….’)

3. Find someone senior to vouch for you and say, even though you’re a mzungu (whitey), they should ‘give him the Pakistani version’ (as my colleague Tom Kirk once heard).

But as the days wore on, I started to question the way I was even thinking about all this.

Firstly, I realized that I’ve been living in a rather crass binary: sitting across the table from a state employee, I’m thinking ‘are they on the take, or do they want to serve the public?’ But in many cases I started to think the answer is ‘probably both’. Why can’t you want to provide public services but also feather your own nest? Isn’t that in some ways the same as asking for a pay rise for a job that you like doing?

Secondly, ‘corruption’ began to sound like a word imposed from outside – it didn’t seem to describe the way Congolese talk about ‘informal payments’. Sure, there is grand corruption – the former dictator Mobutu is quoted as saying ‘we don’t steal, we displace to unknown destinations’. But in more day-to-day interactions what an outsider would call corruption blurs into the general transactions of what we started to call ‘respect and reciprocity’, which are such a feature of Congolese society (turbocharged by the arrival of mobile phones – the level of constant networking is stunning).

Examples: paying a policeman to do their job; giving money to a public official for recommending you for a post; a civil servant using their position to help out people in her family/community.

Corruption is deadly, stop it
That simple?

And just to give you a sense of the complexity of all this, over a beer we asked local LSE researchers to come up with some of the words used to describe what outsiders call ‘corruption’. Here’s what they put together in 20 minutes, but I suspect it’s only the, erm, tip of the iceberg. The list starts with the small stuff, and then gets to the larger scale, and has lots of overlap between the different categories. French originals in italics.

  • Facilitation’: a commission in return for brokering a financial transaction (eg a contract)
  • Motivation’: incentive to someone to do their job, determined by what the person asking for the ‘favour’ can afford
  • Tercasserie’, literally ‘small annoyances’: the day to day hassle of paying people off
  • Thank yous (remerciaments): a gift after the service has been completed
  • Water (maji in Swahili): cops asking for a little something in exchange for letting you go after they’ve stopped you in the street
  • Beans for the kids (haricots des enfants): see ‘water’
  • Expenses (frais de mission): price paid for an official visit
  • Bread of the way (pain de la route): The way a Big Man sprinkles money and gifts during his visits, which of course he has to recoup through other channels, like…..
  • Collection (colacion/cotizacion): You have to fork out $ for the honour of a visit by the Big Man – minister, director, whatever
  • The boss’ slice (la partie du chef): in Swahili, the euphemism is ‘where is the part of me that is missing?’
  • Return operation (operation retour): If the senior official or politician brings in the project, what comes back to them? Easy to add this in to the costs of the project through false invoicing.

What’s the best thing to read on all this? And has anyone done any good research on the extent to which corruption is gendered, for men and women in the same positions?

Previous musings on the state of the Anti-Corruption movement here

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19 Responses to “How to talk about Corruption when it’s everywhere, but invisible?”
  1. Nice take, and important to explore further to actually get somewhere. The view of corruption in the “How China Escaped the Poverty Trap” comes also to mind. The worst way however, might be to declare zero tolerance for corruption, and be obliged to look the other way…

  2. TT

    Your reflection resonates here in Vietnam. My friends & acquaintances explain that in most cases, they pay to ‘line their pockets’ and don’t see it as a matter of compromising their principle or integrity, but as an annoying fact-of-life to make things happen, otherwise, they can’t achieve bigger goals for their business or community work.
    The euphemisms are “money for coffee” (say for a traffic cop), “drinking money”, “Tet (Lunar New Year) money” or “price of networking” depending on context or the ask. It can also be asked openly & frankly, as a local friend just recently experienced, where she was informed outright it would cost her $2M VND to get a stamp (for papers for a NGO), and this cost is on top of the official admin fees (she didn’t pay the $2M). In office settings, it would be broached as “Let’s discuss what are you need of me, and what can you give me?” Or a more round-about way is a story about them and that the main source of income to make a living (in order to look after their families) is not from the salary of their position; or that a public servant must have a second job or business or secondary income in order to survive.

  3. Narayan Manandhar

    Here is my collection on colourful corruption, hope readers will enjoy it:
    Colorful Corruption
    White Corruption
    Misuse funds, by exaggerating salaries and (inventing) costs, without justification.
    Black Corruption
    Re-allocate or transfer of money under threat. Not always the person himself is to blame.
    Orange Corruption
    Transfer funds to own bank accounts, direct or via friends or companies.
    Red Corruption
    To supply counterfeit and low quality products and shift the ‗savings‘ to managers and decision makers.
    Yellow Corruption
    Also called “commission”, rather innocent, but can easily slip into the Red C-bug.
    Purple Corruption
    Straight forward, simply don’t pay for contracted services, materials or equipment.
    Green Corruption
    Deliver service to friends or institutes without asking payment.
    Brown Corruption
    Similar to Purple corruption, but now done by the beneficiaries of the service, high in number, so the effect is large.
    Source: Transparency, Honesty and Corruption in the Water and Sanitation Sector by Laurent Stravanto, Kathleen Shordt and Marielle Snel

    • Andrew Wells-Dang

      The black and white version of the same, as told to me by someone in SE Asia (I don’t recall who or when):
      White corruption: Payment produces the desired results (if you pay the 2 million dong to the authority who asks, your NGO gets registered)
      Grey corruption: Payment to the person who asks may or may not produce desired results, or you may have to pay more than once
      Black corruption: You don’t know who to pay to get results, so you have to pay multiple people and hope.

  4. Abdifatah

    I am from Africa and I belive that what makes the continent poor is not lack of resource, but lack of system. And I also believe that the solutions for its current problem lies within and that any solution imported from the outside will do any good.

    Until then, my advice to whoever want to do something for people in need is: always never share the whole content of the project you are doing i.e. the vision, value it will generate and the positive impact it will make on the lives of those in need. Worst still and same applies if you have a brilliant idea that will make a tremendous impact, if supported.

    Either way whoever you are dealing with will assume that you have all the finance needed to make everything happen and they expect being paid upfront, without them moving a finger.

    That said, Africa or otherwise, corruption is everywhere and the people in many parts of the world use different terms to describe it. For example, whereas Africans use the terms listed above and many others like “HANDSHAKE”, in Britain they say “TEA WITH THE MINISTER”.


  5. Cheyanne Scharbatke-Church

    Hi Duncan – we try our best not to use the word corruption when we are doing our research on corruption (Corruption, Justice and Legitimacy project at Fletcher). We first ask folks what does it mean in this context, what are the various labels/types and which matter to you and from there reframe our research questions with that in mind. We actually have had a lot of luck getting citizens to talk to us about corruption – and a decent show with some state officials/police/judges (while others sit there and do impressive performances of denial of course). Our research teams are also balanced with folks from the country and then we strategically discuss who should talk to who – using status, citizen/foreigner, age, gender and safety to think it through. Finally you asked about gender – we did some work on gender and corruption through our DRC work. It was sparked by Congolese women in the justice system telling us that their discrimination they experience as female lawyers, judges etc is corruption and then it continued from there. We have 8 blog posts on the Corruption in Fragile States blog on what we came out with. [ — scroll to the bottom to see the header The Gender Lens for a full list.] For a variety of reasons we didn’t formally publish our results, though we did do some pretty substantial data collection.

  6. Interesting post. Within the sector, I wonder if the way we talk about corruption is designed to draw a binary that insulates our own actions from scrutiny. Corruption thus appears as an act of unambiguous immorality. Did the project pharmacist pocket a box of ACT for his malarial toddler son? Diversion of aid! The expat team that uses the Landcruiser for a trip to the suburban supermarket to buy a brie and imported wine? The travel and purchase are recorded and come with receipts.
    This seems to relate to development, to the modernization of influence and the sophistication of transactions. ‘Development’ as the degree to which corruption becomes legalized to the benefit of the powerful? How do we explain the moral difference between giving a bag of money to a politician who will then vote for X, as opposed to making donations through a network of political action committees, with the result that the politician votes for X?

    • ken smith

      For me the key difference in those examples is transparency , the ex pats will have an expenses policy that is hopefully clear and publicly available. The tax payers and donors can expect them to be held to that policy and disciplined if not. The project pharmacist could have a reward scheme as part of their contract that included the provision of drugs. The project accountant is often dismissed as an “overhead” but transparent accounts are ultimately the answer.

  7. Heather Marquette

    Didn’t you once say that sitting around talking about definitions of corruption wasn’t useful? 😉

    There’s a lot of good research out on this, and there has been for years, especially but not exclusively from anthropologists. It doesn’t always (often?) make it into policy discussions (even NGOs), partly because the ‘zero tolerance’ rule shuts down a lot of discussion and debate, and partly because organisations subscribe to international norms when it comes to definitions. And there are a lot of academics out there who also aren’t interested in what different definitions might mean.

    But there’s just so much good research on this out there. Davide Torsello is one of my favourites –, and there’s this great update from Sarah Muir & Akhil Gupta –

    This recent paper from Grant Walton on PNG builds on a lot of excellent research he’s done over the years –

    Blundo, de Sardan & Arifari’s ‘Everyday corruption and the state’ should be required reading –, as should Daniel Jordan Smith’s ‘A culture of corruption’ –

    This paper of mine on religion & attitudes towards corruption includes a section on different definitions coming through in India and Nigeria & why this matters – The India team published this paper that pulls out the data from there in much more depth –

    I could go on…as I said, there’s a lot out there.

    On gender, my favourite is still Namawu Alhassan-Alolo’s work on Ghana –

    I was part of a workshop recently at the University of Newcastle about corruption and African ‘moral economies’, which included keynotes from John Githongo and Ebenezer Babatunde Obadare, among many other really impressive participants, and one conclusion we all came to is that ‘theft’ is one word that resonates everywhere, even in countries and cultures where there is no easily translation for the word ‘corruption’. We talked about how if we could start using ‘theft’ it could help to galvanise public opinion, because no one agrees with theft, and it would help differentiate it against other forms of corruption that people are more ambivalent about (eg, speed money, tipping, helping a family member get a job or a service etc).

  8. Hi Duncan- great post. Jonathan Fox is looking into language around these issues in useful ways- see his most recent here: although it is more broadly around accountability than corruption specifically. On the gendered nature of corruption- there is a dearth of research on this, it seems- it is something we at the Accountability Lab are beginning to look into- not just on the gendering of corruption but also the extent to which aid-driven governance projects do not take into account the gendered nature of challenges that honest civil servants may face (as women for example) when trying to build integrity within bureaucratic systems.

  9. The topic of corruption in the water sector has always been near and dear to me. I’ve seen it in my local government back home here in the Boston area and, heck, I did a PhD on it in Dar es Salaam a decade ago.
    I’ve also seen a major unwillingness to call out corruption from donors and NGOs, as even bringing the topic up can fracture relationships in the sector. Additionally, NGOs, who often compete for donor money, are hesitant to admit failure. It’s a ‘beauty contest’ for donor funds. Only recently has there been some change in this regard.

    Even donor programs that explicitly focus on good governance can face big challenges in living up to their own standards. Furthermore, as you rightly highlight, there is both macro-level (ministerial level) corruption and that every day, local corruption within local government. Also, let’s not give the private sector a pass, either, as these actors are also part of the mix.

    What I think the international water sector is only now slowly figuring out is that political economy analysis matters. How many more decades of obscenely high water project failure rates will there have to be for people to think about context and governance? Donors and NGOs should be asking themselves, “how many of our projects will be functional and self-sustaining 5-10 years after the project ends?”

    There is no shortage of talk of sustainability, but it’s often just nicety-nice pablum. There isn’t enough talk of affordability and accountability. These are the two tenets of public service delivery, in my humble opinion…and all of this is preconditioned upon effective public administration, economic wherewithal and growth in the poorest of households, and a functional and fair private sector.

    Thankfully now, in the form of “systems” (IRC WASH) is part of the rhetoric in the water sector going in this direction.

    Having said all of this, I think it’s important to step back and acknowledge that sector change is not what outsiders should be doing. That should be driven by locals and the countries themselves. Also, while changes in political economy are extraordinarily difficult, business as usual in the sector will keep resulting in the awful WASH project failure rares that you can peruse at and elsewhere.

  10. This entire conversation is a rich resource however I feel it’s missing something. Where is the research and discussion of corruption in US politics, or in other Western countries? If someone has done some research, please add links. I plan to add a link to this entire article in a web library I host.

  11. David Booth

    A late addition to the suggestions on literature: don’t leave out Making sense of corruption, by Bo Rothstein and Aiysha Varraich, CUP 2017. Argues that the opposite of corruption is impartiality (or unfairness), not impersonality; and that seen in these terms, there is a core normative opposition to corruption that is universal. If true, this must have implications for how to talk about it.

  12. Mark

    Some interesting points here. Just adding a few comments into the mix.
    1. After 20 years in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, I fully support Andrew Wells-Dang’s response to comment 3.
    2. It is easier for petty corruption to arise when systems do not exist or are not documented. If I wanted to renew my visa in Cambodia, there was a standard list of prices, depending on the speed of the service. In Laos, there was no schedule and I had to negotiate a price with the immigration office each time.
    3. On the other hand, documentation can be meaningless. When Vietnam required all purchases to have an official invoice, Hanoi had a “Street of Invoices”, where you could buy any invoice you needed (date, description, amount all customized – and with the official stamp).
    4. Sometimes corruption depends on perspective. There was a story in Hanoi that, when the USSR offered to pay for a bridge to connect Hanoi with its airport (the Thanh Long bridge), the Vietnamese government decided that what they really wanted was a bridge connecting Hanoi with Hai Phong; the chief engineer was therefore instructed to inflate the specifications to provide enough material for this second bridge (the Chuong Duong bridge). I’ve no idea if the story is true. In any case, both bridges were built properly and completed on time; both remain in use today, more than 30 years later. Was that corruption?