Why Are the Poor More Vulnerable to Bribery in Africa? The Institutional Effects of Services

Caryn Peiffer, Richard Rose

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Whereas most studies find the poor in Africa to be more vulnerable to bribery because of their lower socio-economic status, this paper proposes institutional differences as an alternative explanation. Because poor people are unable to afford privately provided services, they must use public services. In relying on the state more often, the poor become more vulnerable to bribery. Analyses of Afrobarometer data show that the poor are not more likely to pay bribes for state monopolised services. The poor’s disproportionate vulnerability to bribery for choice services is a function of their greater likelihood to have contact with the state. Corruption imposes political, economic and social costs on societies where it is widespread and the costs are unequally distributed (see Heywood, 2015 Heywood, P. M. (2015). Routledge handbook of political corruption. Abingdon: Routledge. , part IV). In the words of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan (2004 Annan, K. (2004). ‘Forward’ UN convention against corruption. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. , p. iii), ‘Corruption hurts the poor disproportionately diverting funds intended for development, undermining a government’s ability to provide basic services, and feeding inequality and injustice’. Empirical research in Africa has consistently found that the impoverished are more likely to pay bribes than those who are well off (Justesen & Bjornskov, 2012 Justesen, M., & Bjornskov, C. (2012). Exploiting the poor: Bureaucratic corruption and poverty in Africa. Cape Town: Afrobarometer. , 2014 Justesen, M., & Bjornskov, C. (2014). Exploiting the poor: Bureaucratic corruption and poverty in Africa. World Development, 58, 106–115. doi:10.1016/j.worlddev.2014.01.002 [CrossRef], [Web of Science ®] ; Kaffenberger, 2012 Kaffenberger, M. (2012). The effect of educational attainment on corruption participation in sub Saharan Africa. Nashville: Graduate School of Vanderbilt University. ; Peiffer & Rose, 2014 Peiffer, C., & Rose, R. (2014). Why do some Africans pay bribes while other Africans don’t? Cape Town: Afrobarometer. ; Razafindrakoto & Roubaud, 2007 Razafindrakoto, M., & Roubaud, F. (2007). Corruption, institutional discredit, and exclusion of the poor: A poverty trap. Cape Town: Afrobarometer. ). From a rational choice economic perspective, this appears the opposite of what might be expected. Bribe-seeking officials should target better off people because they have more money to pay bribes, the marginal cost of a bribe is less, and the marginal utility of the time saved in getting services is greater (compare with Becker, 1968 Becker, G. (1968). Crime and punishment: An economic approach. The Journal of Political Economy, 76, 169–217. doi:10.1086/259394 [CrossRef], [Web of Science ®] ). That the poor may be more likely to be bribe payers has worrying consequences. Corrupt exchanges with state bureaucracy can be instrumental in shaping trust in and perceived legitimacy of governments and the broader national governance frameworks in which they are located (Lavelle, Razafindrakoto, & Roubaud, 2008 Lavelle, E., Razafindrakoto, M., & Roubaud, F. (2008) Corruption and trust in political institutions in sub-Saharan Africa (DIAL Working paper). Paris: DIAL. ; Seligson, 2002 Seligson, M. (2002). The impact of corruption on regime legitimacy: A Comparative study of four Latin American countries. The Journal of Politics, 64, 408–433. doi:10.1111/1468-2508.00132 [CrossRef], [Web of Science ®], [CSA] ). Insofar as the poor are more likely bribe payers, we should also expect to observe state legitimacy and trust crises acutely experienced within those communities, as well. An effective policy response to the issue requires an understanding of the persisting relationship between poverty and bribery. Sociological theories of differences in life chances (Weber, 1958 Weber, M. (1958). From Max Weber: Essays in sociology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. ) have been used to explain the association. This perspective posits that the poor are more often made to pay bribes because bureaucrats view them as being easy targets, believing that they will lack the knowledge, financial resources and social connections to resist requests for bribes. In effect, poverty is an indicator of inequality in power (see for example Rothstein, 2011 Rothstein, B. (2011). The quality of government. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [CrossRef] , p. 68ff; Uslaner, 2015 Uslaner, E. M. (2015). The consequences of corruption. In P. M. Heywood (Ed.), The Routledge handbook of political corruption (pp. 199–211). Abingdon: Routledge. , p. 200ff). Thus, in Hunt’s (2007 Hunt, J. (2007). How corruption hits people when they are down. Journal of Development Economics, 84, 574–589. doi:10.1016/j.jdeveco.2007.02.003 [CrossRef], [Web of Science ®] ) phrase, ‘Corruption hits people when they are down’ (p. 574). An institutional theory offers an alternative explanation. It explains who pays bribes as a function of differences in the public services that people contact. Public services can be distinguished between those that are a state monopoly such as law enforcement, and services for which a choice may be offered between state and non-state providers, such as education and health care. Regardless of income, everyone must contact public officials to make use of state monopoly services (Klitgaard, 1988 Klitgaard, R. (1988). Controlling corruption. Berkeley: University of California Press. ). However, where there is a choice of providers, better off people may avoid contact with a corrupt institution by paying for services from a non-state provider while the poor lack the money to exit from the state service (Hirschman, 1970 Hirschman, A. (1970). Exit, voice and loyalty: Responses to decline in firms, organizations and states. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ). For this reason, the poor are more vulnerable to bribery insofar as they are more likely than the better off to have contact with the state to get choice services. If the institutional theory is more accurate, there are significant policy implications. Promoting privatisation, for example, may help those able to afford privately provided services to avoid bureaucratic corruption, but still leave poorer citizens disproportionately more vulnerable. Such a consequence would increase inequality, rather than reduce it. The innovative contribution of this paper is to provide a theoretically grounded empirical test of whether the correlation between poverty and the payment of bribes for public services in Africa is influenced more by the sociological vulnerability of poor people to exploitation by public officials or by having more contact with public services from which better off people can exit.11. Our focus is on public sector bribery, not bribes made to non-state actors. View all notes Testing these alternative explanations requires going beyond the association between poverty and public services in general. It requires comparing the effect of poverty on the payment of bribes for two different types of public services, those for which the state has a monopoly and services for which there is a choice between state and non-state providers. In strong contrast to the findings of other studies on bribery in Africa, we find that poverty is not a uniformly significant determinant of bribery. Instead, statistical analysis of the freshly released 34-country Afrobarometer survey shows that institutional differences between services matter; the poor are not more likely to be bribe payers to state monopoly services. A further two-step analysis demonstrates that poor people are disproportionately vulnerable to paying bribes for choice services because they are more likely to contact those services than the better off.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)18-29
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Development Studies
Issue number1
Early online date5 Dec 2016
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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