Informal networks and anti-corruption
A quick guide by the Public Governance team at the Basel Institute on Governance
Why do many
countries still struggle with high levels of corruption, in spite of years of
investment in anti-corruption programmes and even where the right laws, rules
and institutions are in place?
one reason is that anti-corruption laws and policies are too often focused
narrowly on individuals, rather than networks of individuals. In our research,
we see repeatedly how high levels of corruption are rarely the result of individual
behaviour – some isolated rotten apples transgressing the formal legal order
and leading others astray. Rather, corruption more frequently springs from the social norms and group dynamics of well-articulated
and resilient informal networks.
those networks that have much to lose from integrity and ethics. Their
behaviour as a group entrenches corruption, and they block attempts at reforms.
This quick guide takes a look at what this means and the implications for
What is an “informal
network” in the context of corruption?
By informal network,
we mean networks of individuals and groups that informally mobilise and
redistribute access to public resources or facilitate corrupt and criminal
illustrated by our research on informal governance, the term “informality” comprises a
multitude of social and cultural phenomena. It describes unwritten rules and
hidden practices that members of a particular network tacitly understand and
use to solve problems and achieve specific goals. Criminal networks are a type of informal
network, as they involve individuals and groups coming together in the
“shadows” to achieve criminal goals.
together by strong but flexible bonds and relationships between individuals, informal
networks are adaptable and resilient to changes and
damage. They resist
efforts to break or neutralise them. They evolve quickly to adapt
to new political, economic, social and
technological circumstances. This holds true
whether we are looking at networks of political and business elites or at
Informal networks can
yield benefits – but to whom?
can be found in all societies and in many different spheres. In some
contexts, they can generate positive social interactions and effects,
ranging from increased civil society participation in political life to cooperation
between stakeholders in the field of business.
networks can also have a darker side, whereby the benefits are reserved
exclusively for those within the network:
building informal networks can help them to gain access to public services or
career opportunities from which they would otherwise be excluded. For example, our recent research on the role of
informal networks in East Africa for the Global
Integrity Anti-Corruption Evidence (GI-ACE) programme shows that citizens pay
bribes not only to solve immediate problems (e.g. to obtain a driving licence), but also
to expand and cultivate their networks over a longer period. This amounts to a
significant investment of time and money, and shows that citizens expect to
obtain further benefits or favours from the network in the future.
networks can help win and maintain political power. Cultivating informal
networks helps to reward supporters, demobilise opponents and collect resources
and information, thus promoting regime survival. During elections, links to
business interests can be mobilised to finance campaign costs. Patronage
networks can be activated to secure votes. In addition,
informal networks connect powerful politicians with relatives, friends and
acquaintances, who can help them to more safely manage and launder the illicit proceeds of
corruption. Our analysis of a corruption and money laundering case involving the construction company
Odebrecht and former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo illustrates
this type of informal network vividly.
people, informal networks involving powerful political figures provide access
to profitable government contracts, “special” tax exemptions and other
financial benefits. Sometimes entrepreneurs build their networks by sponsoring
aspiring politicians who, when successful, are obliged to use their decision-making
authority to look after the interests of their benefactors.
interventions should target networks, not just individuals
pervasiveness of social networks helps us understand why conventional
anti-corruption instruments have often limited impact.
anti-corruption instruments mostly address the actions and (monetary) incentives
of individuals. However, informal networks promote and perpetuate behaviour patterns
that transcend the individuals who constitute the network.
Anti-corruption initiatives that focus
purely on adding formal controls to high-risk processes, like audits and
sanctions, can backfire. This is because they add complexity while not addressing
the informal mechanisms underlying the corrupt acts
that informal networks are flexible and resilient structures. This is not least
because they can quickly replace arrested leaders and
key players. In this
way they avoid the destabilising effect of a power vacuum which may follow law
enforcement and judicial activities.
Shifting the focus from
individuals to networks
question that stems from the above considerations is:
would anti-corruption practice look like if we shift the focus from individuals
This is a
central focus of our anti-corruption research, as we seek to improve the
effectiveness of anti-corruption interventions implemented by governments and organisations
around the world.
in focus, from individuals making rational decisions in isolation to dynamic
informal networks, comes across in much of our work:
This new lens
also underpins our work to design interventions that harness the network
concept to promote changes in attitudes and behaviour. This includes in a second GI-ACE project in
Tanzania and Uganda,
and in our research into behaviour change interventions to
reduce the acceptability of wildlife trafficking. The idea is that ideas about
attitudinal and behavioural change have a better chance of being accepted and
adopted when they are disseminated by trusted members from one’s social