In all countries, informal systems of reciprocity (ISRs) play an important role in shaping societal norms and state functions. ISRs are informal social networks underpinned by reciprocal obligations linking families, friends, colleagues, and associates. During times of crisis these networks can provide critical support, ensuring that people have somewhere to sleep, food to eat, and access to other essential resources. However, ISRs can also present significant challenges for practitioners, particularly when public servants and other elites direct state resources to their own ISR networks and exclude people outside these cliques. In countries where the state is weak, ISRs can present an even greater dilemma, as they can undermine state laws and rules and lead to various forms of corruption that inhibit reliable and impartial service delivery.

This U4 Issue addresses the important policy question of how practitioners can best engage with ISRs, building on their strengths while mitigating the threats they can pose to good governance and service delivery and their potential for encouraging corruption. We note that ISRs should not be thought of in dichotomous terms: that is, they are not to be considered either good or bad. Rather, the role they can play in shaping state-society relations falls along a continuum, ranging from providing potentially lifesaving benefits, at one end, to encouraging corruption, at the other. In the former circumstances, finding ways to accommodate ISRs is wise, while the latter situations demand pro-active and targeted initiatives

In Papua New Guinea (PNG) social networks are rooted in the wantok system. Wantok means ‘same language’ or ‘one talk’ in Tok Pisin (the country’s lingua franca) and refers to a reciprocal relationship of favours between kin and community members. In Papua New Guinea, given the fragmented and often weak nature of the state, the wantok system has significantly shaped public administration and resource allocation. This means that service delivery, particularly at the subnational level, can be particularistic, with resources funnelled to the family, friends, and supporters of bureaucrats and politicians. This situation presents corruption risks for service delivery. 

Responding to these challenges with one-size-fits-all responses and standardised toolkits will likely cause more problems than they solve. Good governance reform in such a context requires understanding and responding to both the positive and negative aspects of the wantok system that manifest across and within subnational administrations.

To develop programmes and policies that can contribute to reducing corruption in public service delivery programmes, practitioners need to understand (1) the broader environment of accountability, (2) how the wantok system is structured, and (3) how individual public officials relate to pressures from wantok networks. This tripartite model could be applied to understand how ISRs disrupt service delivery in a variety of settings. This does not lead to easy solutions, but it does encourage practitioners to be more strategic in deploying resources and interventions aimed at improving service delivery at the subnational level.

Policy choices that can flow from this analysis revolve around responding to individual and structural causes of particular ISRs. In some cases this will mean creating and nurturing ‘impartiality-enhancing institutions’ that reduce the possibility or attraction of favouritism and encourage officials to act in the general public interest. In other cases it will require interventions that respond to more difficult challenges, such as building trust between citizens to reduce corruption rooted in collective action problems. The broader implication is that practitioners should embrace diverse approaches even within the same country or region.

To address corruption-related problems associated with the wantok system (and ISRs in general), practitioners could: 

  • Develop trust-building measures between different ISRs such as building roads, improving access to quality educational services, and strengthening communication networks, as well as proactively bringing different ethnic groups together.
  • Promote dialogue between leaders and citizens because practitioners will need to balance the advantages of pushing for impartial leadership qualities against the disadvantages of promoting leaders who are viewed as disconnected from their communities.
  • Demonstrate that impartiality leads to improved services as citizens often support the patronage relations that underpin big man politics because it is the only way to ensure they benefit from state resources. 
  • Support grassroots action because it is important to seek out and engage with citizens who, in their own way, are addressing corruption and poor governance.
  • Shift staff because public servants who said they refused their wantoks’ requests said it was easier to do so when their wantok networks were located far from their job posting. 
  • Support champions of impartiality because in subnational administrations, some individuals are better able than others to resist the pressures associated with the wantok system. 
  • Support the most vulnerable public servants because it is important to support those who find it most difficult to refuse requests for unofficial favours. 
  • Support female officials because when wantok pressures give rise to corruption, women are less likely to report it. 

Addressing the problems associated with PNG’s wantok system and with ISRs in other contexts will not be straightforward. Indeed, practitioners will undoubtedly face dilemmas and trade-offs that will need to be navigated. We hope that we have persuaded readers that the first step in addressing these dilemmas is to try to understand the situation in a given context.