PublicationsThe U4 Blog

Corruption and anti-corruption research frontiers – where is the debate going?

Corruption became an important concern for development around 1990. Academic and operational-level research has evolved constantly since then. These authors give good summaries of the current anti-corruption debate:

Rethinking corruption: Hocus-pocus, locus and focus 
Heywood, P.M. 2017. The Slavonic and East European Review 95, no. 1 (2017): 21–48.

The anti-politics of development: Donor agencies and the political economy of governance
Hout, W. 2012. Third World Quarterly 33, no. 3.

Understanding what drives corruption – finding better theoretical explanations for corruption – remains a major challenge. Defining a useable theoretical framework for corruption is not merely an academic quest. We hope that understanding how corruption occurs will help us create and implement anti-corruption strategies and initiatives that work.

From principal-agent theory to collective action

Anti-corruption reform agendas took their earliest inspiration from analyses of corruption in bureaucracies. Robert Klitgaard came up with the most influential of these formulas:

Corruption = Monopoly + Discretion – Accountability

It is based on an economic concept called the principal-agent problem. Bureaucrats’ monopoly power and discretionary freedom – or lacking accountability – increases the likelihood of corruption. The opposite also applies: more accountability, and less monopoly and discretion, should equal less corruption.  For many years, this model has underpinned the way in which donors have approached anti-corruption assistance. They geared support towards technical assistance interventions – believed to increase accountability, and to decrease monopoly and discretion.

However, interventions based on this model have had a modest success rate at best. This has led researchers and practitioners to explore theoretical explanations that go beyond the above principle-agent based formula. One newer track of work has instead focused on collective action theory.

Collective action theory starts by stating that low corruption is in everybody’s interest, but that we can only achieve it if people believe that everyone else will act honestly. This theory assumes other drivers than mere self-interested utility-maximisation. It sees people’s actions as strategic, in that they depend on what they think other people will do. Belief in such reciprocity – rather than pure self-interest – as the most common driver of corruption has considerable support in human behaviour studies. Individuals are prepared to act honestly if they feel they can trust that others in their situation will also be honest.

Academics and practitioners are currently exploring the implications of corruption as a collective action problem for anti-corruption reforms.

Explore U4's anti-corruption resources by topics.

Learn more about why corruption happens

To tackle corruption, we need to understand it
Rothstein, B. 2017. CapX, 9 March.

Corruption and collective action
Marquette, H. and Peiffer, C. 2015. Developmental Leadership Programme Research Paper. (University of Birmingham, UK).

Development as a collective action problem: Addressing the real challenges of African governance
Booth, D. 2012. (London: ODI, 2012).

Approaches to influence effective anti-corruption work in development cooperation

Theory of change thinking in practice
Guijit, I., van Es, M. and Vogel, I. 2015. (The Hague: HIVOS).

World Development Report 2017: Governance and the law  pages 65–71, 196–224.
World Bank 2017. (Washington, DC: World Bank).

Systems concepts in action
Hummelbrunner, R. and Williams, B. 2010. (Stanford: Stanford University Press).

The case for thinking and working politically: The implications of ‘doing development differently'
Akmeemana, S., et. al. 2015. DCD/DAC/GOVNET/RD(2015)3/RDI (Paris: OECD).

Do trustworthy institutions matter for development? Corruption, trust, and government performance in Africa
Bratton, M. and Gyimah-Boadi, E. 2016. Afrobarometer Round 6, Dispatch No. 112.

Impact of anti-corruption reform efforts funded by development cooperation budgets

The academic and practitioner communities have long debated how to measure impact of anti-corruption reform efforts funded by development cooperation budgets. This links to taxpayers parliaments' desire to know aid funding leads to.

Tackling corruption overseas inquiry – a session in the UK Parliament where U4 gave evidence.

Taking the blinders off: Questioning how development assistance is used to combat corruption.
Sharbatke-Church, C. & D. Chigas, 2016. Institute for Human Security Occasional Paper.


    All views in this text are the author(s)’, and may differ from the U4 partner agencies’ policies.

    This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)