Causes of corruption

Studying the causes of corruption is so complex that it often ‘opens up a number of intricate problems’, not least how one can understand the concept of‘corruption’, the ‘causality’ in social sciences, and the ‘the basis of human behaviour’.[1] However, corruption in every area of the world can be an outcome of divergent reasons. The causes of corruption may be a spectrum of direct and indirect factors, including individuals, institutions, and societies. In this sense, analyses of corruption’s causes can be broadly classified into two approaches: structural, which focuses on systemic causes related to the structure of a ‘political regime, history, culture, values, norms, and loyalties’, and individualist, which focuses on the incentives which encourage individuals to engage in corruption.

Structural approach

Structural analyses are preoccupied with identifying the systemic causes of corruption with the ‘nature of state development’. While some scholars analyse corruption in the patrimonial states, others analysts attribute corruption’s causes to the legal system of the relevant state. Some political scientists have emphasised that when clientelism (patronage relationships) characterises a political system’s organisation, it becomes the factor which is implicated in corruption. Another analysis provides an explanation which perceives religious traditions as relevant to the phenomenon of corruption, whether people come from hierarchical, egalitarian, or individualistic religions. Teorcll suggests that corruption can be modelled ‘as an institution in itself, whereby corruption may operate through the formal (such as legal contracts) and informal institutions (such as social norms) within a society. Rothstein and Teorcll surveyed the literature’s empirical findings and found that corruption may be explained through institutional causality such as types of democracy and public administration, the size of government, and social norms such as generalised trust and religion. In an empirical study, Treisman also found that corruption may be caused by different determinants; for example, exposure to democracy for decades, long-lived cultural and institutional traditions, colonial heritage, legal

Phenomenon of corruption 31 culture, and economic development.[2] Furthermore, Passas suggested that the corruption problem is systemic and not individual in nature, arguing that the structural roots of corruption reside in the ‘criminogenic asymmetries’, referring to ‘structural disjunctions, mismatches, and inequalities in the spheres of politics, culture, the economy, and the law’.

Some scholars explain corruption in a state on the basis that such a state is designed to be corrupt. In this regard, the state is characterised by a weak institutionalised structure which is unable to constrain and hold corrupt people accountable, such as in a criminal state or kleptocracy. Extrapolating from a state’s characteristics, this type of analysis of corruption’s causes is premised on institutional theory. These analyses are helpful in explaining the causes of a corruption pattern which permeates the institutions of the state: systemic corruption. However, despite the depth of structural analyses and their contribution to understanding the underlying causes of corruption, they have been criticised. Structural literature conveys a ‘daunting’ account of corruption’s causes, in the sense that the literature provides hypotheses which are hardly operationalised and tested in practice, thereby making such hypotheses lose their ‘policy relevance’.

Over time, institutional transformations in the field of economics and political structures in societies have emerged to impose radical patterns on the organisation of states. Privatisation and deregulation have transferred decision-making processes from centralised government authorities to other bodies (quasi-gov-ernmental bodies). This approach has had an impact on producing plentiful opportunities to follow private interest-centred decisions. For example, there has been a radical move among many prevalent discussions on corruption’s causes from focusing on macro-level structural interpretations to micro-level analyses which focus on opportunities and incentives which lie beyond corrupt behaviour. Consequently, faced with criticism directed at structural analyses and historical transformations, the individualist approach provides a contrasting vision of why corruption occurs.

  • [1] Rothstein and Teorcll (2014, p. 79). 2 Klitgaard (1988). 3 Tanzi (1998). 4 Thomas and Meagher (2004, p. 4). 5 Heywood (1997, p. 427). 6 Scott (1972). 7 La Porta et al. (1999). 8 Thomas and Meagher (2004). 9 La Porta et al. (1999). 10 See Teorell (2007, p. 8). 11 See Rothstein and Teorell (2014).
  • [2] See Treisman (2000). 2 Passas (1998, pp. 41-54). 3 Acemoglu, Verdier and Robinson (2004). 4 Stapenhurst, Jacobs and Pelizzo (2014). 5 Thomas and Meagher (2004, p. 12). 6 Heywood (1997). 7 Ibid. 8 Thomas and Meagher (2004).
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