Published on Africa Can End Poverty

Raising the Volume on 'Quiet Corruption'

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Photo: Arne Hoel

In Uganda, teachers in public primary schools are absent 27 percent of the time. In Chad, less than one percent of the non-wage recurrent expenditures reaches primary health clinics.  In West Africa, about half the fertilizer is diluted before it reaches the farmer. 

These are some of the examples of “quiet corruption” that we document in this year’s Africa Development Indicators Essay.

The Essay received extensive coverage in the media (see, for example, here and here), and the idea seems to have struck a chord with many observers.  We also received exceptionally thoughtful comments from various discussants at seminars.

  • Philippe Montigny of CIAN initially questioned whether we could call these phenomena “corruption,” which was typically an action that someone does for money.  Here we are describing the absence of action for very little money.  He finally concluded that both represented deviations from an ethical, professional or judicial norm, so that the term corruption was justified.
  • Youssou N’Dour (who is referred to by Bono as “maybe the greatest singer on earth” in an article in Sunday’s New York Times) described the power relationships between poor citizens and government officials that lead to quiet corruption.  The citizen refers to the official as “chef’ and puts on his best suit when he goes to see him.  Although the citizen is paying the official’s salary through taxes, it’s always the state that is demanding something from the citizen.  And if the state fails to provide services, the citizen is too afraid to even write a letter of complaint.
  • At Chatham House, Joel Kibazo asked perhaps the most important question:  Now that we have diagnosed the problem, what can be done about quiet corruption?


My response is two-fold.  First, we can try to change incentives, so teachers and doctors will find it in their interest to show up for work.  In Rwanda, a program that pays doctors a bonus based on the number of children they immunize or the number of pregnant mothers they examine is leading to improved health outcomes. 

Furthermore, these outcomes can be linked to the “Results-Based Financing” scheme that introduced the bonuses. 

But this scheme depends on politicians being willing to change incentives (and, sometimes, reduce the rents accruing to absentee service providers).  What if politicians are not so willing?  Then one of the remaining options is to publicize the information on quiet corruption, so that the public can bring pressure to bear on the system for reform. 

This is why we chose to highlight quiet corruption in the Africa Development Indicators, a database of about 1,600 variables covering 53 African countries. Data can be a powerful tool to build consensus for reform, especially reforms that benefit poor people. 

To that end, the World Bank is today making all its databases available free of charge.

May these efforts raise the volume on quiet corruption loud enough to quash it.


Shanta Devarajan

Teaching Professor of the Practice Chair, International Development Concentration, Georgetown University

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