This paper sets out lessons from a mixed-methods study that identified and explored ‘positive outlier’ cases of bribery reduction in challenging governance environments. It discusses the two cases the research examined in depth: a 50 percent reduction in bribery in Uganda’s health sector while in other sectors bribery rates increased (2010-2015); and an almost 15 percent reduction in police-related bribery in South Africa’s Limpopo province while in other provinces it reduced by less than four percent (2011-2015). The findings suggest the importance of disrupting corruption patterns and of unintended consequences for anti-corruption policy and practice.
Most studies of exceptional development progress select cases to examine based on their positive reputations. This study identified previously unrecognised positive results by scrutinising quantitative sector-specific bribery patterns. It used statistical analysis to identify 18 potential ‘positive outliers’, desk research to eliminate false positives, and then fieldwork to verify and explore two selected cases.
The research found that in South Africa, the impressive reduction in police-related bribery appears to have been localised to Limpopo province as a ‘benign side effect’ of a wider anti-corruption intervention and work to improve service delivery. Limpopo police were unsure if they were among the targets of the high-profile anti-corruption activities, so probably avoided asking for bribes for fear of being caught. In Uganda, a targeted anti-bribery intervention seems to have reduced bribery in the health sector: bribery patterns were directly affected by the Health Monitoring Unit’s push to name and shame offenders.
In both these cases, interventions disrupted corruption patterns by making it more difficult, unacceptable or undesirable for front-line workers to seek bribes. While the research covers only two cases and two sectors, it suggests that anti-corruption approaches that disrupt corruption patterns and networks can work up to a point. Neither of these cases seems to have been a complete ‘success’, and it is unclear how long the lower bribery rates will last.
Unintended consequences were found in both cases. In Uganda, these consequences were negative: lower morale among health workers, lower citizen trust in the sector, and arguably less capacity for informal payments to provide workarounds for structural flaws in the health system like chronic lack of supplies. In South Africa, the bribery reduction was itself an unintended or unanticipated outcome of a seemingly unrelated policy.
However, unintended consequences – welcome or unwelcome – receive little attention in anti-corruption academic and policy debates. This is a significant gap. For example, without knowing much about when and why benign side effects may have occurred, policy-makers cannot learn how they might be able to support them in future.
This study’s three-step method could be used to find more ‘positive outliers’. But the research and policy community will need to grapple with some difficult and potentially politically challenging questions to understand better what may work in anti-corruption.