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Systemic corruption exists when a corrupt act recurs consistently and is connected to other corrupt acts through an underlying system that enables and encourages the corruption. In designing all types of interventions, from supporting anti-corruption commissions or civil service reform to supporting civil society and education campaigns, practitioners need to consider whether the corruption they seek to address is systemic – and how. In this U4 Issue, we consider how the design of one common integrity-building intervention, capacity building for politicians, can respond effectively to systemic forms of corruption.

We explore this question in the context of Jordan, where systemic corruption is often bound up in the concept known as wasta. We mainly consider female parliamentarians, who are a common target of capacity building in many countries. Based on our findings, we suggest a markedly different approach to systemic corruption than those that are typically pursued.

In the last few years Jordanians have taken to the streets to protest against corruption. While the new government has pursued anti-corruption initiatives, there appears to be a widespread perception that these efforts do not adequately address a form of systemic corruption that many Jordanians consider to be the crux of the corruption problem. Doughan shows that when Jordanians protest entrenched corruption, they are usually referring not to conventional forms such as bribery, embezzlement, or extortion, but rather to wasta, a form of reciprocal exchange.6f94dfc267c2 So while public surveys show that Jordanians believe corruption is one of the country’s most serious problems, it is wasta that tends to be identified as the essence of that corruption challenge.

Wasta, in basic terms, is about pulling strings. Using, invoking, or calling in wasta means asking someone to intervene or mediate for you to obtain some kind of advantage from a third party. That ‘someone’ might be a relative, friend, or colleague, but it could also be your elected representative. This occurs in public administration, schools, hospitals, businesses, or any other kind of service.d4b6a3d082f0 While bribery, embezzlement, and fraud generally involve some kind of ‘one-off’ monetary transaction, wasta practices normally involve an exchange not of money but of favours, and typically represent not a single occurrence but many exchanges over time.

The term ‘systemic corruption’ should be accompanied by an understanding of the character of the corrupt system, which in many cases will be multifaceted. From our interviews and from the broader literature, we find that wasta in Jordan has three qualities that make it systemic: it is functionally, normatively, and politically embedded in the society. Like other institutions that allocate resources in society, wasta helps people find work, obtain public documents, solve administrative issues and disputes, and access health and education services. Wasta also persists because it accords with certain expectations in society about what is appropriate – in other words, with certain social norms. These norms can override individual attitudes, so while someone may personally disapprove of wasta, he or she may still engage in the practice because the influence of the broader social rule is stronger. Wasta also persists because it has become entwined in a system of power preservation.

Legal strategies are not sufficient to push collective behaviour away from wasta. Forms of systemic corruption, like wasta, are pernicious and difficult to counter with capacity-building programmes that seek to strengthen conventional anti-corruption frameworks but neglect to address the system underlying the corruption. Addressing the underlying drivers requires alternative strategies that go beyond legal and enforcement tools and instead challenge the incentives and norms of the system.

To address systemic corruption, capacity-building programmes for parliamentarians could focus on supporting them to:

  • Improve the equity and efficiency of public service delivery institutions. This means more than just helping to establish new rules and procedures; it means animating these institutions so they operate day-to-day in an efficient and rule-based way that builds trust. To do this, parliamentarians will need to find a way to articulate the idea of representation in broader terms and to develop programmatic agendas around public, collective services rather than personalised services and favours.
  • Use their leadership positions within social networks to become ‘norm entrepreneurs, who work to build up normative constraints against the most pernicious forms of wasta. This would involve much more than engaging in a public anti-wasta campaign; rather, it is about activating the potential of social change that lies in networks by demonstrating how alternative ways of interacting with public administration can be effective; by acting with integrity and expecting others to do so as well; and by invoking local values to support integrity practices.
  • Build a coalition of parliamentarians that could be the backbone of a movement to oppose the most pernicious forms of wasta and build more impartial and effective public institutions. Such a network could take different forms. It could be composed exclusively of parliamentarians, or it could be a broad-based coalition of a various actors, including those outside parliament, from civil society and the private sector. It might also include elected representatives serving on local, municipal, and governorate councils.
  1. Doughan 2017, 2.
  2. Cunningham and Sarayrah 1993.