The Role of Civil Servants in Reducing Corruption

Project: Research project

Project Details


Addressing corruption in a durable manner requires drawing lessons from several different scholarly traditions. At present, three traditions of research exist on corruption. Each on its own presents weaknesses and blind spots, but we propose to draw the three together into a framework that offers a reliable path forward for practitioners. Within the disciplines of economics and political science, an experimental tradition has emerged in recent years. Scholars in this tradition use lab experiments, field experiments, and natural experiments to rigorously establish causal relationships between variables of interest and corruption. For establishing causation, experiments are the gold standard, as they allow researchers to address questions of omitted variable bias and endogeneity that bedevil other approaches. Assessing the insights generated from this tradition is therefore a core component of our proposed literature review. Nevertheless, experiments have also been criticized from many angles: most prominently, it is not clear that carefully controlled experiments have “external validity”—that is, whether the results from the experiment apply to the world at large. Moreover, experiments on their own, conducted without an overarching theoretical framework, can lead to a proliferation of low-level results that are difficult to aggregate into overarching lessons. And experiments focus on short-term factors and ignore the broader social context, and this may lead to a situation in which practices adopted from this tradition will be undermined in the longer term. These weaknesses can be addressed by drawing on the second tradition of research on corruption, the historical tradition. This tradition examines how corruption has been overcome in the developed countries, which up until the early twentieth century witnessed levels of corruption that are similar to what we see in developing countries today. This tradition features rich contributions from history, historical sociology, and comparative politics that give exhaustive pictures of the results of various reforms in reducing corruption. This tradition complements the experimental tradition by focusing on reforms that have been successful at a society-wide level, and over the long term, and historical work can shed light on the mechanisms through which independent variables have their effects. But this tradition also has weaknesses, the main one being that this work has not been distilled in a format that would be useful for those looking for lessons for today. Much of the work is focused on describing historical events in detail rather than in generating theories of how to combat corruption. And not all of the lessons of history can be translated into contemporary contexts. A third tradition, the ethnographic tradition, found most prominently in anthropology and sociology, helps to overcome these weaknesses. This tradition, in which researchers spend long periods of time embedded in the communities they are studying, uses ethnographic techniques such as interviews and participant observation to attempt to understand corruption from the point of view of those who are behaving in corrupt ways. An important insight from this tradition is that corruption may not be a result simply of absence of morals, or venality: corruption can be difficult to combat partly because those who are behaving in corrupt ways may not believe that they are behaving immorally, or may be enmeshed in larger networks of power and patronage that make it hard to resist behaving in corrupt ways. For ex
Effective start/end date6/15/1612/15/16


  • Institute of International Education, Inc. (DFG-20-LAQ1-NWU//AID-0AA-A-12-00039)
  • Agency for International Development (DFG-20-LAQ1-NWU//AID-0AA-A-12-00039)


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