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Basic guide to how informal contexts relate to corruption and anti-corruption efforts

Basic guide to how informal contexts relate to corruption and anti-corruption efforts

One of the central lessons emerging from research into anti-corruption interventions is that implementation is inevitably conditioned and compromised by context. Therefore, to produce sustainable results, interventions must be designed according to the social and political reality of aid-receiving states rather than synthetically grafted on to it. How can anti-corruption interventions be better contextualised?

Contextualisation is about working with reality

Contextualisation is less about transferring best-practice programmes from one ‘similar’ type of state to another. Rather, it is about crafting interventions according to what is there – those most important frameworks that define social and political behaviour and how power is exercised. In many developing settings, these frameworks can only be partially understood with reference to the formal institutional order and the structures of government. This is because a significant proportion of the prevailing social and political reality is rooted in non-state frameworks. Of particular importance are:

  1. Non-state forms of authority, normally embodied in forms of customary authority, such as tribal leaders, chiefs, heads of clans, and village elders, which are important because they exercise governance functions beyond the realm of the state. 
  2. Patron-client dynamics, which focus on how decision making and public policy is influenced by informal structures and networks that are important because they define how policies play out in reality and shape what is possible in governance reform.
  3. Social norms, which are expectations and beliefs that shape regularised patterns of behaviour and are important because they represent an alternative reference point to the formal rules and practices prescribed by the state.

Corruption itself is often a product of these informal systems, but incorporating them can be part of fashioning effective anti-corruption policy, too. Either way, understanding these three dimensions of the informal contexts can lead to donor interventions that are better prioritised, more effectively designed and more robust against implementation risks. 

Crafting interventions in response to this informal context means becoming realistic about the challenges and opportunities of anti-corruption, and dismantling some of the assumptions upon which standard systemic anti-corruption is based in aid-receiving states, for example that:

  • There is a reliable distinction between private and public spheres.
  • The state’s rules of the games are hegemonic.
  • There is a consensus about what constitutes corruption.
  • Political incentives encourage anti-corruption efforts.

Customary authority

Standard strategies to address corruption often overlook the potential role of customary governance – that is, non-state forms of governance based on longstanding social practice, tradition or religion. These can take many diverse forms, from tribal chiefs in Sierra Leone to indigenous communities in Mexico, and egalitarian structures in Afghanistan.

Customary authority remains an important feature of the prevailing social and political reality of many countries. Sixty-one countries – primarily developing ones and as diverse as Ghana, Mexico and Indonesia – explicitly recognise some form of customary authority. This type of authority is present in every continent. It can be regarded as more legitimate, trustworthy and responsive than state structures. Afrobarometer data from across Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, shows that Africans believe customary leaders play an important role in their societies and that this is desirable. As an illustration, in Sierra Leone taxes imposed by non-state actors in some African countries are generally seen as being fairer than those imposed by the state.

Customary authority can contribute to anti-corruption and governance building in various ways. For example, in the context of a corrupt and dysfunctional state, customary authority can provide public goods and services, such as security, property rights, basic health and infrastructure. In Afghanistan, the integrity of property rights is often secured through the involvement of customary leaders. 

When customary authority has high levels of legitimacy, it can help persuade citizens to change their attitudes towards anti-corruption initiatives. Afrobarometer surveys, for example, show that citizens trust the judgement and information they receive from customary leaders. Customary leaders may also work to protect communities from predatory government officials, but cooperate with officials they believe can work on behalf of communities. In Somalia, customary leaders serve to mediate state institutions with societal needs.

Clearly, there are risks associated with customary authority. They can be exclusive and discriminatory towards women. Customary leaders may be out of touch with the people they claim to represent and they can capture aid projects or other government benefits that are intended to serve a broader population.

Even so, customary authority can contribute to important anti-corruption goals.

Social norms

Social norms represent the unwritten rules of society that define acceptable forms of behaviour. These are important because they shape how people behave as members of a society and have a strong influence on how they choose to act in different situations, indicating what actions are appropriate or disapproved of. Social norms influence how ordinary citizens may respond to corruption or anti-corruption efforts.

For example, in Melanesian societies it may be considered legitimate that a public official favours a particular member of their family or village (wantok) over other citizens in the exercise of duties. From this expectation, corrupt acts such as favouritism, collusion or fraud may follow, but as long as they comply to a social norm, these acts may not always be considered as corrupt. 

Anti-corruption policies that are designed without social norms in mind are unlikely to be effective. For example, one anti-corruption measure has been to increase the wages of public officials to make them less susceptible to bribes and informal payments. However, if these public officials are part of a broader system of unwritten rules in which obligations to family are particularly important, then higher wages may not deter corruption. Instead, higher wages may serve to increase expectations about the extent of these obligations with the result that public officials may have a net loss once these social demands of distribution had been fulfilled. To make up for such a loss, public officials may seek to extract even more bribes. 

Patron-client structures

Patron-client structures tend to dominate development settings. This encourages a model of politics in which election campaigns are mostly based on clientelist appeals: you vote for me, I provide a particular good for you in return. This kind of electoral campaigning helps structure the broader relationship between the state and citizens. Ordinary citizens become clients "trading" votes. Political-office holders become patrons, prioritising the disbursing of goods to those who gave them the vote.

Patron-client politics offers a barren environment for anti-corruption. Requiring the flexibility and discretion to provide for clients, it is not in the immediate interest of politicians to develop administrate integrity and ensure rule-following behaviour. State machinery that provides for checks and balances and transparency also restrict the extent to which a patron could deliver to clients. Instead, what emerges is a deliberate structure of informal institutions and practices, often beset with corruption. Witness the corruption of social programmes in Latin America, or the high levels of nepotism dominating bureaucracies in sub-Saharan Africa.

In many countries, the formal channels of accountability set out in the formal rules of the state are distorted by patron–client politics. This creates what the World Bank Development Report of 2017 has described as "informal policy arenas" in which political decision making is captured by political elites. Patron-client politics is different in every country. Comprehending how patron-client dynamics operate can help understand whether enforcement institutions are likely to be effective, and to prioritise the sectors in which anti-corruption may be effective.

    About the author

    Dr. David Jackson leads U4’s thematic work on informal contexts of corruption. His research explores how an understanding of social norms, patron-client politics, and nonstate actors can lead to anti-corruption interventions that are better suited to context. He is the author of various book chapters and journal articles on governance issues and holds degrees from Oxford University, the Hertie School of Governance, and the Freie Universität Berlin.


    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)