Diagnose governance


The first step towards a successful anti-corruption strategy is understanding the rules of the game. Is corruption the exception or the norm? If corruption is an exception, a repressive strategy will work: help the government build the capacity of law enforcement agencies. However, if corruption is the norm, that is, if it is systemic, a democratisation strategy will have to be adopted, in that those who systematically lose from corruption are identified and granted a voice to demand a change in the rules of the game. Only this way can we disrupt the equilibrium that often characterises systemically corrupt societies.

Where and why do anti-corruption initiatives fail?

While in the last decades an unprecedented number of democracies have emerged, very few, if any, have managed to develop a quality of governance comparable to that of older, Western, liberal countries (see Figure 1). All over the world, legislatures and political parties, the core institutions of democracy, are now perceived by citizens to be among the most corrupt institutions. Despite increased resources directed by international donors to good governance policies and an increase in awareness brought about by international organisations, success stories are scarce. Transparency International’s handbook, for instance, enumerates anti-corruption laws or institutions adopted in various countries, but their effects have yet to be seen or measured2. The Worldwide Governance Indicators published by the World Bank also show very little significant progress globally since their first edition in 19963.


One explanation for this could be the quality of corruption indicators, which are usually time-lagged, composite, and not sensitive enough to capture incremental evolution. According to this argument, progress does exist, but current quantitative indicators fail to notice it. However, even a closer look at individual countries finds only a handful of success stories. Perhaps the evolution towards good governance, being such a lengthy and incremental historical process, is unapparent if studied from within the short time period of fifteen years since which an international monitoring system of good governance has been in place. The second type of explanation seems more substantial: both qualitative and quantitative measurements capture little evolution because there is little change to show. Why it is so difficult to evolve from systemic corruption? When and why does it happen? Quantitative models of good governance invariably attribute considerable weight of explanation to historical factors (La Porta et al, 1999 and Treisman, 2000), with the persistence of corruption being explained historically by many authors by its “stickiness” quality (Rothstein and Uslaner, 2005; Uslaner, 2008). Corrupt societies thus reach an equilibrium that new laws alone cannot disrupt, with repression strategies tending to be highly inefficient in such environments.

Can we build a more successful anti-corruption strategy based on the very few successes we have encountered in recent years? We claim that anti-corruption initiatives focused only on changing a country’s legal and institutional framework fail due to their non-political nature, when most of the corruption in developing and/or post-communist countries is inherently political. In fact, what we call corruption in these countries is not the same that we see in developed countries. In the latter, the term “corruption” usually designates individual cases of infringement of the norm of integrity; in the former, corruption actually means particularism, a mode of social organisation with non-universalistic distribution of public goods on a “normal” day-to-day basis, mirroring a vicious distribution of power within such societies.4 Few anti-corruption campaigns and donors dare to attack the roots of corruption that lie in the distribution of power itself; rather, we like to think that serious anti-corruption measures can be adopted and implemented with predators in control of the government, even in control of the anti-corruption instruments themselves. Based on the experience of a handful of successful anti-corruption campaigns, as well as on researching many failed ones, we believe that electoral revolutions can lead to substantial democracies only if followed by anti-particularism revolutions and that nothing short of “revolution” is useful in countries where particularism is the ruling mode.5

Old Particularism and New Corruption

The Oxford Dictionary defines corruption as the “perversion or destruction of integrity in the discharge of public duties by bribery and favour”. This definition of corruption rests on the presumption that the state operates under some norm of universalism and defines public integrity as the equal treatment of citizens or subjects that can occasionally be infringed upon by favouritism. Even brief historical review shows, however, that those societies where the private and the public spheres are clearly delineated, and where the goal of government is the public welfare of equal subjects, have been scarce until modern times and are still rather few in number.6 Corruption can therefore only be understood in conjunction with the stage of development of a particular state or society.

Only in the modern state described by Max Weber is public office no longer considered a source of income to be exploited for rents “in exchange for the rendering of certain services, as was normally the case in the Middle Ages… Rather the entrance into an office…is considered an acceptance of a specific duty or fealty to the purpose of the office in return for the grant of a secure existence. It is decisive for the modern loyalty of an office that, in the pure type, it does not establish a relationship to a person, like the vassal’s or disciple’s faith under feudal or patrimonial authority, but rather is devoted to impersonal and functional purposes”.7

Whenever the above does not apply, we encounter a specific organisation of a collectivistic and hierarchical society that we call particularism, as opposed to universalism, which is the norm and practice of individualistic societies, where equal treatment applies to everyone regardless of the group to which one belongs. In the latter type of society individuals expect equal treatment from the state. In the former, their treatment depends upon their status or position in society. People do not even expect to be treated fairly by the state, as they expect similar treatment to everybody with the same status. Max Weber originally defined status societies, which are ruled by particularism, as societies dominated by certain groups and governed by convention rather than law: “The firm appropriation of opportunities, especially of opportunities for domination, always tends to result in the formation of status groups. The formation of status groups in turn always results in monopolistic appropriation of powers of domination and sources of income … Hence, a status society always creates … [the] elimination of individuals’ free choice … [and] hinders the formation of a free market”.8 Status can be better understood in terms of power distribution, as it reflects the individual’s distance from the group(s) or network(s) that hold power. In other words, the closer an individual is to the source of power, be it a charismatic leader or a privileged group, the better positioned he or she is to enjoy a superior status and more influence. Individuals who enjoy this privilege are linked in status-based groups and their access to public goods is disproportionately larger than those not included in such networks or groups. A culture of privilege reigns in societies based on particularism, making unequal treatment the accepted norm in society, where individuals struggle to belong to the privileged group rather than change the rules of the game, and there is widespread infringement on the norms of impersonality and fairness. Influence, not cash, is the main currency and the gain of an individual anywhere in the chain is hard to measure: favours are distributed or denied as part of a customary exchange with rules of its own, sometimes not involving direct personal gain for the ‘gatekeeper’. Bribery often occurs as a means of circumventing inequality, and for the many people with little or no power status, bribing an official is the only shortcut to equal treatment.9 Obviously, the real world does not neatly divide into particularism and universalism; societies can rather be placed on an imaginary continuum between these two poles.

Diagnosis, not just ‘anatomy’

It has become fashionable in recent years for governments to invite international corruption assessment missions and at least verbally claim their commitment to curbing corruption. All governments want to look business-friendly. The problem is that both the assessment instrument (which results in a descriptive “anatomy of corruption”) and the resulting anti-corruption strategy seem to be replicated from one country to another, as are the lack of concrete results that follow from these efforts. Donors have also developed a habit of gathering in grand anti-corruption meetings that result in the same stereotypical strategies. Impressive efforts to prepare better theories of corruption10, comprehensive strategies to battle it11, and reviews of anti-corruption efforts around the world do not necessarily imply that we can properly diagnose corruption.12 A proper diagnosis means, however, that we understand the causes of a malady in the context of a given organism. Rather, we have just become better at describing it, as is shown in the length of the list covering various manifestations of corruption (which now includes many other items besides the classic bribery and embezzlement) or the creation of various typologies (administrative, petty, grand, and state capture).

To reach a proper diagnosis of corruption in any given society we suggest a qualitative strategy. Our goal is to understand what the exception and the norm are. Are we dealing with modern corruption, where corruption is the exception to the norm of universalism? Or are we dealing with particularism and a culture of privilege, where corruption itself is the norm? Or rather, as is frequently the case in the post-colonial world, where the modern state was defectively implanted on a traditional society, are we dealing with a combination of both? How can we tell them apart? What function does each fulfil? Is the government in the business of modern governance or is its main task to provide patronage and cater to specific interest groups? Quite a few good direct and indirect indicators exist to help us answer these questions. What are the chances of an excellent company winning a contract under a program such as Oil for Food if it is not networked with either the UN or the Iraqi government? What are the chances of a contractor winning a bid for public works if the owner is not a relative of anybody in the government distributing the funds? How many such companies have managed to win tenders in the past? Even when no domestic watchdog monitors appointments in public service or bids for public money, an analysis of past contracts combined with minor investigatory work can establish the facts. Status groups are usually not hidden, but rather conspicuous. What are the chances of powerful people being unseated through elections? Who owns the main TV networks? Who are the most influential publishers? What do their children and in-laws do? Are they by chance ministers or members of the parliament? Do the same names pop up everywhere when goods are divided? A chart of the most influential people and their connections drawn up by a good investigative journalist is more telling than ten surveys on bribery and can help us understand if corruption is the norm or the exception. Diagnosing particularism requires only minimal anthropological skills. If, regardless of a change of government, the power brokers and gate keepers are always the same, they are probably well-known and local people will be able to identify them. There are several indirect indicators that can contribute to the diagnosis of particularism, such as:

  • Persistence of widespread popular perceptions of government corruption despite changes in government;
  • Real influential jobs held by the same individuals or groups regardless of the outcome of elections;
  • High political migration from opposition parties to the party in government;
  • Widespread perception that politicians are above the law;
  • Access to nearly every resource is intermediated by oligarchic networks; and
  • Not even the most notoriously corrupt members of status groups are ever indicted.

Regimes based on particularism have many similarities, but they also have important differences. Particularism is not totalitarianism, and so it can coexist with some degree of flexibility. Its survival comes directly from its capacity to keep minimal channels open, so that social entrepreneurs are more tempted to use those channels than overthrow the whole system. Marrying into the right family and catering to the right patron are important channels for upward mobility. The next step after establishing whether or not we can diagnose particularism is to establish how open or closed the system is. Closed particularism will generate more frustration and a severe crisis where it is more likely that the whole system can be shaken. A more open and flexible system, in which challengers are included and socialized into the rules of the game, is likely to be more resilient.

Another important step is to identify what is corrupted in the process of corruption. Do we find distortions of the universal pattern that the state should follow when treating its subjects? Do some companies benefit from more tax exemptions than others? Are specific individuals enjoying privileges that are granted by the government? Is the will of the voters, or the destination of public funds, corrupt? A related and important question is: what exactly are the main spoils? Public influence is always a currency, but is it the main currency? Is the state and everything in it, from offices to public works, “privatised” informally by status groups and corrupt networks? In post-communist societies the state entered the transition as the overwhelming actor in all realms of society. Therefore the state is often the principal agent of corruption in these countries and the private sector is a fiction that predatory elites create so as to move to a more refined stage of exploiting public assets to their own advantage. In post-colonial societies, where the state is only one of the actors competing for control of the territory or the economy, the principal actor is found elsewhere, perhaps in the rebellious society, foreign business, or neighbouring countries. There is an important qualitative difference between a state bribed by a firm to provide a tax break, as opposed to a state whose executives are also its main businesspeople and who gradually transfer public assets into their private property (as is found in some post-Soviet states). In the first case, some policing might help. In the second, those who should police are the guardians of the system themselves, if not the shareholders. The system is also very likely organised hierarchically, as a criminal group, in which those at the bottom who collect bribes feed the upper levels of the government.

Another example of how important it is to check the nature of the spoils is to look at electoral corruption. The will of voters can be manipulated in many ways and in traditional systems that one can still see in poor rural societies, resources are released by gatekeepers in exchange for votes. In these societies, the voters have no choice. A vote is a commodity they trade for their life, food, heating, or land. In more modern societies, voters enjoy an autonomous will and the choice rests with them. Funds are needed simply to make the better case to voters in an open game of persuasion, but higher spending is not a guarantee of electoral success. Electoral legislation from the rich and democratic United States, which attempts to regulate and expose private contributions to campaigns, is grossly irrelevant to countries where voters are illiterate and own no TVs, where the main funding for political parties are public, and where the main commodity of the campaign is not private money (still controlled by the state by various means), but rather administrative resources of every kind. Electoral corruption varies greatly from Kazakhstan to Nigeria to the US, and imagining the same solution applies everywhere is a gross and frequent error.

Type of society Power distribution State ‘ownership’ Distribution of public goods Social acceptability / Legitimacy Distinction public/private
Patrimonialism/ Pure particularism Power monopoly/Hierarchy/status society One or few owners Unfair but predictable Moderate /traditional andneo-traditional No
Competitive particularism Top status disputed among groups Up for capture by various groups Unfair and unpredictable Low/Charismatic. bureaucratic Poor
Universalism Equal Autonomous from private interest Fair and predictable Very low/bureaucratic Sharp
Table 1. Types of regimes by corruption


A systematic diagnosis of corruption will roughly follow the categories laid out in Table 1. Freedom House scores offer some initial orientation on whether a country is more likely to be in a stage of competitive pluralism or a stage of polyarchy. Power status can be deducted from electoral history as well as other histories. For instance, was anybody powerful and influential ever sanctioned by a court? The World Bank has developed an instrument to measure state capture versus state autonomy. As it is based on surveys of businesses, it is far from answering all that we need to know about the nature of the state. Treating the state as an autonomous actor prior to establishing its autonomy from private interests, or treating it as a commodity that is passively moved from one to another can both be equally misleading. We need to look at the relations between government executives with civil servants, political parties, and other areas of society. Can we find networks of power and privilege? If so, how thick, how closed, and how influential are they? A more systematic analysis of corruption allegations in the media is likely to clarify the issue of what the main spoils are. How much of the public goods are distributed through networks of privilege and how much is done randomly? This will lead us to the next important question: if anybody stands to lose from corruption, and if the losers are always the same, is there anybody to speak on their behalf? And, importantly, are there credible actors to denounce corruption?

Polls can usually be trusted on the issue of the social acceptability of corruption. An analysis of institutions of accountability is also helpful. Do people indicate in surveys that politicians, judges, and policemen stand above the law? The distinction between public and private is a more subtle category, but indicators can be easily found. Is there a practice of executives in the public sector hiring one’s relatives? Do subordinates in the public sector tend to be used for the domestic affairs of their bosses?

These are some of the questions that can guide and assist actors engaged in anti-corruption to better understand their setting, before elaborating and implementing anti-corruption strategies that can tackle the true roots of the problem.


1 Website http://www.transparency.org/policy_research/surveys_indices/gcb/2009, Last Accessed 7 October 2009; Website http://www.gallup.com/consulting/worldpoll/108073/Performance-Indexes.aspx, Last Accessed 7 October 2009
2 World Bank Governance Indicators, http://info.worldbank.org/governance/wgi/index.asp, Last Accessed 7 October 2009.
3 Website http://www.transparency.org/policy_research/ach, Last Accessed 7 October 2009
4 See Guillermo O’Donnell, ‘Illusions about Consolidation’, in Larry Diamond, Marc F. Palltner, Yun-han Chu, and Hung-mao Tien (eds), Consolidating the Third Wave Democracies. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997): 46-47
5 See Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, ‘The story of the Romanian Coalition for a Clean Parliament’ in Journal of Democracy 16.2 (2005): 154-155
6 For a comprehensive account on this, see Seppo Tiihonen ‘Central Government Corruption in Historical Perspective” in Tiihonen, S. (ed). The History of Corruption in Central Government. (IOS Press: Amsterdam 2003); 5-42.
7 Max Weber, Economy and Society III, (New York: Bedminster Press, 1969): 159
8 Max Weber, On Charisma and Instaitution Building (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968): 177–80.
9 See Jean-François Médard, “Corruption in the Patrimonial States of sub-Saharan Africa,” in Arnold J. Heidenheimer and Michael Jonhston, eds. Political CorruptionConcepts and Contexts (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2002): 379-402.
10 World Bank. (2000). Anticorruption in Transition: A Contribution to the Policy Debate; Arnold J. Heidenheimer and Michael Jonhston, eds. Political CorruptionConcepts and Contexts (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2002)
11 The most quoted are World Bank, Helping Countries Combat Corruption (Washington, 2000), and Jeremy Pope, TI Source Book: Confronting Corruption: the Elements of a National Integrity System (Berlin: 200) available.http://ww1.transparency.org/sourcebook/index.html
12 Bertram I. Spector, ed. Fighting Corruption in Developing Countries: Strategies and analysis (Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian Press, 2005)