Could Corruption Be Good For Your Health? (or Side Effects of Anti-Corruption Efforts)

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].

Additional resources:

Ferraz, C., & Finan, F. (2007). Exposing corrupt politicians: the effects of Brazil’s publicly released audits on electoral outcomes. Quarterly Journal of Economics. (ungated version) 

Avis, E., Ferraz, C., & Finan, F. (2016). Do Government Audits Reduce Corruption? Estimating the Impacts of Exposing Corrupt Politicians (No. w22443). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Dreher, A., & Gassebner, M. (2013). Greasing the wheels? The impact of regulations and corruption on firm entry. Public Choice, 155(3-4), 413-432.

Aidt, T. S. (2009). Corruption, institutions, and economic development.Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 25(2), 271-291.

Méon, P. G., & Weill, L. (2010). Is corruption an efficient grease?. World development, 38(3), 244-259.

Development Drums Podcast: Daniel Kaufmann and Mushtaq Khan debate the role and importance of tackling corruption as part of a development strategy.

Education, Information Credibility, and Control of Corruption

Cartoon by Winsor McCay (1930), archived by Alan Light on Flickr.

Here’s an interesting paper by Weitz-Shapiro and Winters (2014)  on the role of education in political control of corruption, which should be of interest to those working in the open government/transparency domains.

When are citizens most likely to hold politicians to account for wrongdoing? In a crowded information environment, political accountability can be achieved only if credible information is available and citizens are able to identify that information. In this paper, we argue that the ability to discern more from less credible information is increasing in citizen sophistication. Using data from an original survey experiment in Brazil, we show that all citizens react negatively to corruption allegations, but that highly educated respondents are more likely to punish credible accusations and to overlook less credible accusations. We then show, using municipal-level audit data, that voters are more likely to punish credible accusations of corruption in municipalities with high literacy rates. Our findings suggest a novel mechanism that may link increasing education with control of political corruption: educated citizens are better able to discern and therefore act on credible accusations.

And, from the conclusion, an important message on the credibility of institutions:

Our findings have interesting implications for our understanding of the relationship between education and political accountability. They suggest a new mechanism through which high educational attainment might decrease corruption—not through changes in preferences that may be associated with different education levels, but rather because more educated individuals are better able to discern more from less credible information and therefore are more likely to act on the former. These results should be heartening to governments, like Brazil’s, that have invested in the creation of reputable independent auditing and control units. As long as these agencies are able to maintain their reputation for high quality, we should expect their influence to grow as the population becomes increasingly educated.

Finally, I couldn’t help but notice that, indirectly, this paper is a good reminder of the validity of the principal-agent model of accountability. Even though it is now fashionable to criticize the model, despite its limitations, it is far from obsolete.

You can download the full paper here [PDF].

How effective are whistleblower laws in combating corruption?

A new discussion paper by Rajeev Goel and Michael Nelson looks at the effectiveness of US whistleblower laws in combating corruption. The abstract is below:

Whistleblower laws are becoming important governance tools in both the public and private sectors. To examine the effectiveness of whistleblower laws and their awareness, this study creates a unique internet-based measure of awareness about whistleblower laws and provisions, focusing on the United States. Placing the analysis within the larger corruption literature, our results show that greater whistleblower awareness results in more observed corruption and this holds across specifications. Internet awareness of whistleblower laws appears to be more effective at exposing corruption than the quantity and quality of whistleblower laws themselves.

And a few excerpts from the conclusion, which highlights the role of the internet:

Couching the empirical analysis within the extant literature on the causes of corruption, our results show that greater internet awareness about whistleblower laws results in more corruption coming to light and being successfully prosecuted. In terms of magnitude, an increase in whistleblower hits by one sample standard deviation would increase average corruption convictions per million population by nearly thirty over a decade-long period. Interestingly, the internet awareness about corruption seems relatively more effective at exposing corruption than the quantity and quality of whistleblower laws themselves. Further, the direct government resources allocated to controlling crime and the indirect efforts via whistleblower awareness are found to be complementary. These findings are generally robust to alternate specifications, including an allowance for potential endogeneity of whistleblower awareness, and to broader measures of internet whistleblower awareness. (…)

The results for the United States in terms of the effectiveness of whistleblower laws in exposing corruption should be of interest to policy makers everywhere, especially in other nations that do not have adequate protections for whistleblowers. As internet diffusion grows and the digital divide narrows, it would be interesting to see a further impact of whistleblower awareness and, more generally, of the internet.

Read the full paper here [PDF].

Does access to information enhance accountability?

This paper [PDF] examines whether access to information enhances political accountability. Based upon the results of Brazil’s recent anti-corruption program that randomly audits municipal expenditures of federally-transferred funds, it estimates the effects of the disclosure of local government corruption practices upon the re-election success of incumbent mayors. Comparing municipalities audited before and after the elections, we show that the audit policy reduced the incumbent’s likelihood of re-election by approximately 20 percent, and was more pronounced in municipalities with radio stations. These findings highlight the value of information and the role of the media in reducing informational asymmetries in the political process. 

Ferraz, Claudio, and Frederico Finan. 2008. “Exposing Corrupt Politicians: The Effects of Brazil’s Publicly Released Audits on Electoral Outcomes.” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 123(2): 703–45.

I Paid a Bribe. So What?

I Paid a Bribe

As is often the case for many people these days, the first time I saw the Indian version of “I Paid a Bribe” I was quite excited about it. The overarching principle is simple: if you paid a bribe, you report it (it’s more than that, but you can check it out on the website for yourself).

I find these websites particularly interesting in the sense that anger and frustration (in that case having to pay a bribe) may be good drivers of action, as suggested by some political behavior research (see for instance here and here).

This morning I was pleasantly surprised to discover through the website that there are already four other websites of this kind (in Kenya, Indonesia, Zimbabwe and Pakistan) and two others are to be launched soon (in Philippines and Mongolia). Although scalability has very little to do with impact – a point that is often ignored – it is always good to find out that people in other places are trying to actually do something to tackle corruption.



Nevertheless, it is still not clear for me what the working hypothesis of these websites is (let alone their actual impact). Or, as pseudo-intellectuals nowadays put it, I am not sure what their “theory of change” is. Below is a non-comprehensive list of how these websites may be – hypothetically – efficient in the reduction of corruption:

1) By giving visibility to corruption, governments are more likely to take effective measures to reduce corruption.

2) Public agents will be less likely to ask for bribes given the possibility that their act may be publicly reported.

3) Individuals and societal agents themselves will mobilize against corruption as they realize that corruption is an endemic problem in their country.

The different hypotheses are by no means mutually exclusive. However, singling out each one of them is important for at least three reasons.

First, clarifying the mechanism through which one expects to address an issue facilitates the development of a more efficient strategy. For instance, if what you expect is that government will be more likely to take action once corruption is publicized, you should deploy specific actions towards governmental actors who are in positions to make a difference.

Second, understanding the underlying mechanisms by which change is expected to happen provides us with a reality check of how effective these initiatives may actually be. Will politicians and government officials become more inclined to combat corruption once they “find out” that there is too much corruption in the country? Will public officials be less likely to engage in corrupt activities due to the fact that it can be reported on a third party website? The answers to these questions are not as straightforward as they might appear to be, and identifying any change on that front may be particularly challenging.

This brings us to a third and particularly important issue, which refers to assessing the impact of these initiatives. Surely, measuring the effect that such websites may have on the overall level of corruption in a country is a complicated task. For instance, supposing such websites gain significant popularity in their countries, the increased visibility of corruption may have a seemingly paradoxical effect: while the actual number of corruption cases may decrease as the risk of publicization becomes a real one, citizens may come to perceive increases in levels of corruption as cases that previously would have been undisclosed come to their attention. In that case, for example, the use of the corruption perception index would be of little utility to assess variance in corruption levels across countries.

Nevertheless, finding alternative methods to track the impact of these initiatives is only possible if one has a clear understanding of the ways in which these innovations are supposed to operate in order to have an impact on corruption. For example, if we expect government to take action as the issue gains visibility, tracking the real number of administrative procedures (e.g. investigations, sanctions) related to corruption might be a start (although more would be needed to infer any causality).

The difficulty of assessment is clear, particularly for organizations that are in many cases under-resourced and struggling to keep their operations going. But not doing it will always be counter-productive in the long term. Without any evidence of impact, as sexy as these initiatives may seem, they will not survive the “so what” question.