The literature on corruption is disputed territory, and one that is full of surprises. On one side, a number of scholars and development practitioners follow the traditional understanding, arguing that corruption is an evil to be eradicated at any cost. On the other, some scholars and practitioners see corruption as an “informal tax” that mediates access to goods and services in contexts of poor institutions and policies, commonly found in the early stages of development. In other words, corruption is a symptom, rather than a problem, with some even arguing that corruption may generate efficiencies in certain contexts: the so-called “greasing-the-wheel hypothesis.”
If these differences in perspective were not enough, a new paper adds more nuance to the debate and challenges conventional wisdom. Launched in 2003, the Brazilian anti-corruption program consists of a series of random audits by the federal government to assess whether municipalities effectively spend earmarked federal transfers according to pre-established guidelines. The results of the audits are then disseminated to the public, with auditors engaging with local councils and civil society to encourage them to monitor tax revenues. The program became famous in development and anti-corruption circles, in great part thanks to an earlier paper by Ferraz and Finan (2008) which found that “the release of the audit outcomes had a significant impact on incumbents’ electoral performance, and that these effects were more pronounced in municipalities where local radio was present to divulge the information.”
But if, when they know about it, citizens are more likely to vote corrupt politicians out of office, what is the effect of these audits on the quality of service delivery? This is the question that Guilherme Lichand, Marcos Lopes and Marcelo Medeiros (2016) try to answer in a new paper entitled “Is Corruption Good For Your Health?.” Below is the abstract of the paper, (highlights are mine):
While corruption crackdowns have been shown to effectively reduce missing government expenditures, their effects on public service delivery have not been credibly documented. This matters because, if corruption generates incentives for bureaucrats to deliver those services, then deterring it might actually hurt downstream outcomes. This paper exploits variation from an anti-corruption program in Brazil, designed by the federal government to enforce guidelines on earmarked transfers to municipalities, to study this question. Combining random audits with a differences-in-differences strategy, we find that the anti-corruption program greatly reduced occurrences of over-invoicing and off-the-record payments, and of procurement manipulation within health transfers. However, health indicators, such as hospital beds and immunization coverage, became worse as a result. Evidence from audited amounts suggests that lower corruption came at a high cost: after the program, public spending fell by so much that corruption per dollar spent actually increased. These findings are consistent with those responsible for procurement dramatically reducing purchases after the program, either because they no longer can capture rents, or because they are afraid of being punished for procurement mistakes.
The paper’s final discussion is no less provocative. An excerpt below:
(…) While the Brazilian anti-corruption program represents a major improvement in monitoring and transparency, the focus of administrative penalties and of public opinion on corruption, instead of on the quality of public services, all seem to have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. These findings suggest that policies that expand the scope of desirable outcomes beyond formal procedures, that differentiate between active and passive waste, and that support local procurement staff in complying with complex guidelines might be important steps towards balancing incentives between procuring and making proper use of public funds.
Given that many other governance/accountability interventions traditionally focus on corruption rather than on the performance of services delivered, practitioners should take note of these findings. In the meantime, the debate on corruption and development gets some good extra fuel.
You can download the paper here [PDF].