To give or not to give: Why do some Africans pay bribes and others don't?

The 'least corrupt' African is a rich, old lady living in the village. Also, being a former British, rather than French, colony helps. Here's why.

A FEW days ago AfriLeaks, a secure and anonymous website aimed at exposing thieving African politicians and business people was launched.

Inspired by Wikileaks, it seeks to make whistle-blowing and spilling the beans about powerful people who abuse their power safer. One question it will not answer, is why is there corruption in Africa?

Indeed there is a perception that corruption Africa go together like bread and butter. The official rankings say so – five out of the bottom ten countries with the highest levels of perceived corruption in the public sector are African, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2014, and it has been so in previous rankings.

The scale ranks countries from 0 to 100, with zero being extremely corrupt and 100 being extremely clean. Sub-Saharan Africa’s regional average is just 33, while Western Europe is the least corrupt region at a score of 65.

Still, some might take comfort in the fact that Africa’s score of 33 ties with Eastern Europe and Central Asia’s, so at least Africa is not the most corrupt region outright.

That said, corruption is apparently such a pervasive feature of ordinary African life that it is almost banal. One researcher declared that “corruption is not just endemic but an integral part of the social fabric of life [in Africa].

But one paper from regional research project Afrobarometer reveals that corruption – and especially in its most salient form, bribery – is not this inescapable, all-encompassing aspect of Africanness.

Among 25,397 Afrobarometer respondents in 18 countries, 26% reported paying a bribe in the past one year, while 74% did not. So people who actually pay bribes are in the clear minority.

Contradiction of Africanness

The report digs deep into why some Africans pay bribes, and others don’t, and the results are very revealing about the contradictions and conflicts that shape Africanness.

Anyone who has had a bribery encounter knows that the whole thing is an exercise of psychological arm-wrestling, where each person is waiting to see “who blinks first” - whether an individual pays a bribe if it is demanded by a public official depends on his cost-benefit calculation of the cost of the bribe for a service, in comparison to the utility of obtaining or doing without the service.

It’s also determined by whether people expect public officials to act according to bureaucratic rules or to flout them.

The survey revealed that living in a former British colony slightly reduces your likelihood of paying a bribe, because the British common-law tradition places a great emphasis on the procedural aspect of the law – on following the laid down procedure -  compared to the French and Portugal Napoleonic tradition that gave greater scope for leaders to use their hierarchical power to achieve their goals with less regard for procedure.

Educated, or not, doesn’t matter

But being educated, or not, had no impact on whether someone would pay a bribe or not - which throws into a spin the argument that education in itself bestows any significant deterrence against corruption.

The researchers found it was poverty – not education – that had a greater influence on bribery. Poor people were more likely to pay bribes, not because they are “more corrupt” in that blunt sense, or because they were ignorant of the law, but simply because they have more contact with the state – they take their children to public schools, seek treatment in public hospitals, and walk on foot past corrupt local government police sitting under a mango tree who will shake them down for the potatoes they are carrying to the market in the rural areas.

Wealthier people, on the other hand, use their money to opt out of the public system; their children learn in private schools and they see private doctors. Even when they seek public services – such as getting a birth certificate or business license – they can send an employee or relative to run the errand for them. And the junior official is afraid that the rich man is friends with the boss.

So, in absolute terms, they just don’t interact with the state as often as poor people do, and are therefore “less corrupt” simply as a matter of fewer opportunities to be so.

Odds of bribe payment

Holding all other effects constant, each one-unit increase in the degree of poverty on the five-point scale increases the odds of paying a bribe by 15%, the research indicates.

But the great equaliser is the African road. Wealthy people are far more likely to drive private cars, and so are frequently targeted for bribes on the road because the police know that they can afford to pay them.

Living in a country with ethnic fractionalisation greatly increases the likelihood that you will pay a bribe. The survey analyses an index of politically relevant ethnic groups that reflects the degree to which a society is ethnically fragmented along politically significant lines.

For the Afrobarometer sample, it ranges from zero in Botswana, Lesotho, and Madagascar to a high of 0.66 in Nigeria and 0.71 in Zambia. Higher fractionalisation can create a division between ethnic insiders, who receive benefits because of the ethnic solidarity of the group in power, and ethnic outsiders, who are excluded from power and must pay bribes for services or do without.

Reducing corruption

Holding fixed the effect of all other variables, for each 10% increase in the degree of ethnic fractionalisation, the odds of paying a bribe rise by 20%.

An increase in public provision reduces the likelihood of paying a bribe by reducing the scarcity of services. So one way of reducing corruption is just by building more schools, hospitals and public infrastructure, to “crowd out” the bribery.

But these forces act in various countries in different ways. For example, Botswana is not only advantaged by being a former British colony with low ethnic fractionalisation but also by its high provision of public services. 

But Nigeria, also a former British colony, has very high politically salient ethnic fractionalisation, and poor provision of public services, so corruption goes in the other direction.

Women are slightly less likely to bribe than men are, again, not because of any moral imperative, but because they tend to have less contact with the state – dealing with the police and getting permits is usually left to men.

Sex and age help

But there is no significant difference between the sexes in paying bribes in the education and health sectors, as women are more in contact with these places insofar as they are traditionally more responsible for looking after children.

Old people too, are less likely to pay a bribe because they seek out social services less than younger people do, and in the event that they do, African society tends to treat older people with more deference, and so even corrupt public officials are embarrassed to ask them for a bribe, the study shows.

The most intriguing finding was that Africans simultaneously have these two contradictory beliefs – that paying a bribe is wrong, which then reduces their likelihood of paying a bribe, and a belief that all public officials are corrupt and everyone is bribing, which then increases their likelihood of paying a bribe.

What is intriguing is not that the contradictory beliefs are held, it’s that Africans don’t seem to try to intellectually convince themselves that bribery is, in fact, not so wrong if everyone is doing it. There is no attempt to bridge this cognitive dissonance – either by mentally making bribing “less wrong”, or not bribing, since it is wrong.

There could be some endogenous effect at work here: that people who pay bribes are more likely to see public officials as corrupt as well as vice versa. But the study actually found this was not the case: an interaction term testing whether bribes are more often paid by people who see officials as corrupt and do not think bribery is wrong had no significant effect.

So why the comfortable contradiction? It’s back to the cost-benefit analysis. Ethical judgments of bribery appear to be contextual, the study reveals.

If it is a discussion about bribery in the abstract, like in a conversation in a bar among friends, bribery can be labeled wrong.

However, when confronted by a public official who wants to be paid in exchange for providing prompt medical treatment or a place in a good school for their child, people can behave in accord with simple cost-benefit analysis showing that the benefit received is worth the money demanded.

By being relatively excluded from contact with public officials, women and old people are significantly less likely to pay bribes, while urban residents are more likely to do so as a consequence of their social inclusion.

In the end, the “most corrupt” African is the one who is most in contact with the state – they are likely to be male, young, urban and poor, while the “least corrupt” African is the opposite – a rich, old lady living in the countryside.

But we all know there aren’t many of them around.


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