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Why Are the Poor More Vulnerable to Bribery in Africa? The Institutional Effects of Services

01 December 2016

This open access article in The Journal of Development Studies examines why the poor in Africa are more likely than those who are wealthier to pay a bribe to state officials for public services. Current thinking is that it is beacuse the poor are seen as ‘easy targets’ by bribe-seeking bureaucrats. But in a new study Caryn Peiffer (DLP, University of Birmingham) and Richard Rose (University of Strathclyde) find that it is because the poor use state services more than those who can afford private services. Their findings are discussed in The Washington Post.

Empirical research in Africa has consistently found that the poor are more likely than the better off to pay bribes for publicly provided services. Sociological theories have been used to explain this: the poor are more often made to pay bribes, the argument goes, because bureaucrats see them as easy targets who lack the knowledge and resources to resist requests for bribes. Yet previous studies have not appropriately accounted for differences in how often people use these services. Where there is a choice of state or non-state providers, such as in health or education, the poor may use state services more than those who can afford private services.

This new study takes into account the effect of poverty on people’s likelihood of having contact with different kinds of state services – those for which privately provided alternatives are available (‘choice’ services), and those that only the state provides (‘monopoly’ services).

The study analyses Afrobarometer survey responses from 51,605 people across 34 African countries (round five; 2011-2013). It looks at responses to questions about bribes to government officials during the use of state ‘monopoly services’ (the provision of official documents or permits, and policing) and state ‘choice services’ (treatment at a local health clinic or hospital, or a place in a primary school). It estimates how poverty influences an individual’s likelihood of using publicly provided choice services before testing whether poverty has an independent impact on paying a bribe.

It finds that the poor are more likely than the well off to pay a bribe for state choice services because they are more likely to use these services. The poor are just as likely as those who are wealthier to pay a bribe for state monopoly services.

Expanding choice through privatisation has been a common policy response to bribery and inefficiency in public services: profit-making institutions are thought to be both more efficient and more effective in reducing employee bribe-taking. This study does not look at whether or not bribery happens in private service provision. Nor does it examine why those who can afford to do so may choose private over state services. But it highlights that the potential of private services to benefit the poor depends on access.

State-provided vouchers are one means that could enable more poor people to use private services. But if vouchers did not fully meet the charges and higher numbers of better off people used private services, inequality could increase: poorer people would be even more disproportionately vulnerable to corruption in public services.

Read more in The Washington Post.

This research was supported by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council and the Australian Government.

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