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This is a crosspost from the Basel Institute on Governance, written by GI-ACE researcher Claudia Baez Camargo on her project on harnessing informality.


Bila watu hufiki popote. “Without people or connections you won’t reach anywhere,” said a Tanzanian businessman participating in our recently completed research project on informal networks and corruption.

His words encapsulate something we see time and again in our research on corruption: that bribery is far more than just a brute monetary transaction.

Often more important, and far less studied, are the informal social networks that connect private individuals and public officials.

Exploring informal networks and corruption

Our two-year research project, part of the UK Aid-funded Global Integrity Anti-Corruption Evidence Programme (GI-ACE), builds on our previous extensive research project on informal governance across seven countries.

The evidence from this project highlighted that corruption is usually not the result of individual “rotten apples” acting in isolation to abuse their entrusted power for private gain. Rather, corrupt behaviour takes place according to unwritten rules and through informal social networks that connect the public and private sectors.

It is becoming increasingly clear that anti-corruption practitioners need to pay more attention to networks, not only individuals.

But a lot of questions still remained to be answered.

  • Are distinct types of informal networks associated with particular types of corruption?
  • How, why and by whom are these networks built?
  • What roles and functions do different individuals have within the networks?
  • What unwritten expectations, understandings and norms govern such networks?
  • What are the implications for anti-corruption practice?

Case studies: snapshots of corruption from a network lens

With my colleague at the Basel Institute, Senior Research Fellow Jacopo Costa, and Lucy Koechlin, Senior Lecturer at the University of Basel, we set about answering these questions with the help our local researchers Danstan Mukono and Robert Lugolobi in Tanzania and Uganda.

What emerged were 10 short case studies (six from Tanzania and four from Uganda) that illustrate ways in which citizens and business people invest significant efforts in building informal social networks to overcome shortcomings in public service delivery and to access business opportunities.

The case studies give life to the research report, which show how monetary bribes and associated benefits are essential to developing informal networks, especially in societies with strong norms around reciprocity and gift-giving. In turn, these networks enable and perpetuate corruption in public service delivery.

Importantly, informal networks may go beyond simply friends and acquaintances. In many cases, citizens and business people must use “brokers” – individuals with existing strong connections with relevant public officials – to act as door-openers.

How do informal networks help to “get things done”?

The stories we heard illustrate how informal networks help citizens and business people to gain benefits in three main areas:

1 – Ease access to public services

At a basic level, this can mean someone using personal connections to skip red tape or speed up a service to which they are officially entitled but may otherwise be delayed. As one research participant said, for example: “For those who don’t have ‘jamaa’ (a social connection) and sometimes ability to provide money, it takes time to get a business license.”

Highly bureaucratic procedures such as land transactions are especially vulnerable to this type of behaviour.

At a more pernicious level, social networks can help users to obtain services they are not entitled to, or manipulate processes to their advantage. Examples include obtaining a driver’s licence despite not having the right documents, and influencing land valuations to minimise tax.

2 – Secure business opportunities with government

The case studies illustrate that informal networks play a vital role in facilitating fraud and corruption in public procurement.

Business people with the right connections need only pay the requested “fee” to be awarded a public tender, said one participant, referring to a bribe or kickback. Informal networks can also facilitate privileged access to information about tenders.

To build those connections, said participants in both countries, business people may secretly collect information on public officials’ tastes and habits, or develop sophisticated strategies to cultivate links with them.

3 – Help businesses run smoothly

Informal networks help entrepreneurs to leapfrog the many bureaucratic hurdles they face when establishing and running businesses.

As one of the Tanzanian case studies shows, numerous informal connections have to be established with various public agencies (and the officials that work there) to get the business off the ground. These connections then form the basis for a network that will allow the business to run smoothly going forward.

Complex networks can be built to solve seemingly simple problems. Another Tanzanian case study illustrates how a transport company owner built a “bribery network” involving drivers, conductors, traffic police, bus agents and the transportation regulatory authority. The network ensures that the company’s vehicles can provide a faster and more reliable service compared to competitors by avoiding roadblocks and speeding fines.

What else does the research show?

The research report also details, using examples from the case studies:

  • The six functional roles that different individuals play in informal networks – from the “seekers” (citizens seeking connections to public officials) to the “doers” – those who have the ability to “make things happen”.
  • How entry to these informal networks is controlled to make them exclusive for insiders.
  • Social dimensions, including how people invest time and effort in developing their networks and cultivating trust.

The case studies offer a wealth of qualitative information and evidence on informal networks, corruption and the links between them.

So, what does this mean?

In our analysis, we emphasise that anti-corruption practitioners should consider how to save the positive aspects of these informal networks (which, in effect, act as efficient mutual support mechanisms in challenging contexts) while eliminating their negative effects.

Understanding how these informal networks work can help to understand, and target, the motivations of those who engage in bribery and other illicit practices.

Addressing the hurdles that individuals experience while accessing public services and competing in public tenders should be a central element of an informed anti-corruption approach. Otherwise, the case studies show how adding formal control mechanisms to prevent corruption (for example in competitive public bidding processes) can actually generate more corruption than would have occurred otherwise – if only because of the fact that more people need to be bribed to obtain the desired result.

The evidence from this research can also point the way to alternative approaches to tackling corruption in such contexts. These include harnessing social norms (the topic of our second GI-ACE project) and/or introducing efficient ways to resolve business-related disputes between the public and private sectors, such as Ukraine’s Business Ombudsman Council.

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