Section outline

    • Unwritten rules, special favours, “reaching an understanding”. Informality is what happens outside the formal, rules-based system - and the study of informality has big implications for the fight against corruption. 

      From 2016-2018, the Basel Institute on Governance, in partnership with University College London and SOAS researched informality and its relationship with corruption and governance. A multidisciplinary team of researchers explored how corruption really works in seven countries in East Africa and Eurasia.

      Their findings shed light on why "conventional" anti-corruption practices have been so unsuccessful to date, and on the kinds of policies and interventions that could have a bigger impact in the fight against corruption. 

      Feel free to explore the research and watch our short videos below.

    • In many of the countries most affected by high levels of corruption it is often the case that formal laws and structures of governance found in developed countries exist but with little of their function. In contrast, other rules and practices (that are mostly unwritten and rarely openly articulated) are widely adhered to and the social penalties for breaking them can be severe.

      Corruption often takes place according to these informal, unwritten rules. Whether it involves giving or soliciting a bribe, exchanging favours, or persecuting one's opponents through selective application of the law, informality dictates how power is exercised and who gains access to public resources. 

      Adopting the informality lens helps us transcend some assumptions that have not proven helpful in advancing our understanding of the conditions and motivations that fuel corruption. An example is the presumption about the existence of a clear distinction between the public and the private spheres that influences the manner in which individuals behave in different contexts.

      The picture emerging from the research challenges conventional wisdoms and invites us to move away from stereotypes such as those of the abusive public official and the citizens as helpless victims.

  • About informality

    What is informality? It is an umbrella term for the social and cultural complexity that comes on the way of top-down policies and reforms.

    Through our comparative and ethnographic investigations, the project explores the existence of informal governance regimes, anchored on the resilience of informal practices, multiple moralities, legitimacy of the informal ways of getting things done and institutional arrangements that enable them.

    • Why is it so difficult to work with informality?

      Informal practices are not only omnipresent and amorphous. They are often invisible, resist articulation and measurement, and hide behind paradoxes, unwritten rules and open secrets. The insiders are not too keen to articulate, while the outsiders might not even realise what’s at play.

      Informal practices are context-bound and complex, but the greatest challenge for researchers is their ambivalence. Like a quantum particle, we find them in two modalities at once: informal practices are one thing for participants and another for observers. For example, patron-client relations can be seen as a means of leveling the playing field and giving an underdog a chance (see kula in Tanzania). On the other hand, the same practices can be easily bound up with chains of illicit exchanges for votes and other resources (see agashka and rushyldyq in Kazakhstan). The moral complexities surrounding connections and recommendations in Kazakhstan embrace the reliance on formal hierarchies, as well as family, friendship, solidarity and reciprocity. At the same time they are denounced as illegality, associated with slyness, and slighted as a poor man’s survival strategies.

    • Top-down vs. bottom-up perspectives

      The open secret about informality is the gap between colonial, ideological or global official discourses (top-down) and the ways in which things are done or viewed in practice (bottom-up). Exploring that gap between the declared principles (say, the principles of accountability, equality, fairness, zero tolerance) and the pragmatic shifts the emphasis to the ways this gap is bridged in specific domains (see practices of camouflage such as Potemkin villages).

      Highlighting grey zones and blurred boundaries between top-down and bottom-up perspectives points to the key challenges for both researchers and policy-makers. Commonplaces and micro-practices can sometimes reveal profound features of societies that elude us when tackled directly. Stigmatisation of informality is counterproductive in policy - integrating complexity into policy will work.

      Learn more about informality through the short video below – then read more about the informal view of the world here.

    • What is informality and why does it matter?

    • Downloads and links

      For more on the world’s open secrets, unwritten rules and hidden practices from around the world, please browse the database compiled by the Global Informality Project. You can also download The Global Encyclopaedia of Informality: a major multi-disciplinary research project documenting hundreds of examples of informal practices from across the world.

  • About informal governance

    Informal governance regimes are enacted by networks of actors at all levels. The practices of these networks are associated with high levels of corruption because they entail an informal redistribution of resources.

    This research project looked at informality, and its relationship with governance and corruption, in seven countries in Africa and Eurasia:

    • Georgia
    • Kazakhstan
    • Kenya
    • Kyrgyzstan 
    • Rwanda
    • Tanzania
    • Uganda

    It sought to understand how corruption works in practice, and to establish a framework for understanding informal governance and identifying patterns in which it operates.

    The research found a number of key concepts that tend to recur in informal governance regimes. Watch the short video to learn more – or read on to learn more and access the research publications.

    • Network-based governance

      The research uncovered the centrality of informal social networks that operate at all levels, linking up political elites, business interests and ordinary citizens. The practices of the networks are associated with the prevalence of high levels of corruption but are also useful to “get things done” and as a result become entrenched.

      From the perspective of citizens – in contexts where resources are scarce and the state is weak – building strong personal connections helps gain access to public services or career opportunities. For example, the research shows that citizens resort to bribery to solve immediate problems – e.g. get medical treatment – but also as a means to grow and cultivate their social networks. The reason for this is that the bribe is not intended as a one-off transaction; rather, it is about building relationships, for instance, with a useful health worker.

      For political elites, networks can help win and maintain political power. Cultivating informal networks helps to reward supporters, sanction dissidents, and demobilise opponents, thus promoting regime survival. The usefulness of networks is evident, for example, during elections, when links to business interests can be mobilised to finance campaign costs and patronage networks activated to secure votes.

      For business interests, 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.

      Adopting an informality lens helps to shed light upon the resilience of corruption. Network-based behaviours are persistent because they tend to outlive any particular individual member. In this regard, the research has identified three distinct informal governance practices that networks use to pursue their goals namely Co-optation, Control and Camouflage (or “the 3 Cs”). These patterns, with particular context-related peculiarities, can be found across the seven countries studied. To learn more about the 3Cs click here.

    • What distinguishes network from rule-based governance? 

      In contexts where formal rules are consistently enforced, the criteria for allocating public resources are universalistic and impersonal, whereas where informal networks prevail, the criteria are particularistic and personal. This means that informal governance typically generates networks of “insiders” who benefit unduly at the expense of network “outsiders”, who invariably bear the costs of corruption.

      An experiment conducted in the course of the research explored how network insiders and outsiders make decisions involving ethical standards differently. To learn more click here.

      Networks operate on the basis of particular norms, such as the obligation to share with one’s group (identified on the basis of considerations such as ethnicity, lineage or political affiliation) and to reciprocate favours or gifts received. Therefore, aspects such as trust and loyalty become the main criteria for inclusion into informal networks rather than competence, merit or skills.

    • Informal governance regimes

      How does it work? Are there similarities across cultures and borders? Watch this video to find out:

    • Further reading

  • Country findings

    The comparative analysis of the seven cases sheds light on common patterns and local variations in the exercise of informal governance. It also suggests why tensions within networks arise, thereby opening up opportunities for reform.

    This research focused on seven countries, of which five – Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Tanzania and Uganda are considered “challenging” cases, where high levels of corruption prevail in spite of having adopted adequate legal and institutional anti-corruption frameworks. The other two cases – Georgia and Rwanda – are considered examples of “success” in that they have achieved remarkable control of corruption outcomes.

    Find out more about the research findings in our short video, or explore comparative patterns and insights from individual countries below​.

    • Drivers of informal governance

      The mechanisms of informal governance - co-optation, control and camouflage - exist in each of the countries analysed, albeit in different forms. However, across the cases there are macro level processes that seem to generate substantial incentives to the construction of informal governance regimes. These are:

      Political reform

      Political reform involving changes in the manner in which power is contested. In particular, events such as transitions to multi-party elections, which increase contestation and generate incentives to build informal networks as a means to enhance the incumbent’s ability to stay in power. In fact, the research suggests that across the seven cases multi-party elections, even if moderately contested, exacerbate the resort to informal governance practices that fuel corruption.

      Economic reform

      Transitions from a development model based on state dominance over the economy to a neoliberal paradigm also reinforce the proclivity to build informal networks. Processes of economic liberalisation, including the privatisation of state owned enterprises, generate rent seeking opportunities which motivate private sector actors to seek informal links to political figures in order to accrue privileged treatment vis-à-vis the state.

    • Ambivalence and network collapse

      Network-based governance operates under the shadow of formal rules and laws. This means that where informality is widespread, hybrid regimes emerge, which are characterised by the disjunction between the formal (a democratic institutional façade, commitment to good governance) and the informal (real practice with authoritarian bents, impunity for allies for their corrupt crimes).

      This co-existence of the formal and the informal confers ambivalence to roles and behaviours and generates tensions, which are often resolved through the regular application of double standards.

      Thus, informal networks that co-opt strategically to win elections must, thereafter, tend to and balance the particularistic interests of their members while simultaneously performing formal government functions. The seven cases confirm that informal networks can become unstable, and even collapse, because of this constant tension.

      Informal networks may collapse when:

      • Their abuses become so rampant that they trigger a popular upheaval. Excessive corruption can give rise to social movements that drive ruling elites out of power as in the cases of the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan.
      • They become too exclusive and repressive. Excessive authoritarianism can generate incentives to reconfiguring the networks to oust the dictator, as was the case in the demise of Daniel Arap Moi in Kenya.
      • They become too large and complex to manage.  Networks that are particularly successful at co-opting can also become internally too difficult to manage, as was the case of the Wanamtandao in Tanzania. In that case, the demands of the different network members were so extensive and difficult to reconcile with available resources that the tensions led to unresolvable elite fractures.
      • Violent conflict leads to complete elite renewal. This was the case in Rwanda after the genocide and Uganda after the fall of  Idi Amin. In those cases, President Paul Kagame and Yoweri Museveni superseded the previous ruling networks by virtue of their unequivocal military victories.  

      The breakup of informal ruling networks generates windows of opportunity to rebuild governance regimes that promote better anti-corruption outcomes but can also simply lead to the reconfiguration of new networks that continue to rule on the basis of similar practices of co-optation, control and camouflage.

      In fact, the evidence suggests that unless measures are taken explicitly to ensure and institutionalise the autonomy of the state from vested interests, backsliding into informal governance practices and the ensuing escalation of corruption, will be the most likely outcome. This is evidenced in the cases of Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Uganda, but also of Georgia, where reformist elites ultimately yielded to co-opting (and being co-opted) by special interests.

    • Importance of leadership

      The cases of Georgia, Rwanda and, more recently Tanzania, suggest that success in promoting anti-corruption reforms is associated to the coming to power of a leadership that is independent of the previously dominant networks. This autonomy seems to be essential in order to break with patronage and clientelistic chains, confront vested interests and implement far reaching reforms to the public sector.

      Conversely, the research in Kenya, Kyrgyzstan and Uganda describes how leaders who rely heavily on practices of informal governance to establish and nurture their support bases ultimately become hostage to the vested interests of their allies. The evidence thus illustrates that, while building networks is an effective strategy for political survival, networks also lock in because leaders who co-opt are also co-opted back and bound by the responsibilities of ensuring network cohesion.

      In this manner, adopting the informality lens is useful to unravel the constraints that underpin the lack of political will of government authorities that is often blamed for the lack of effectiveness of conventional anti-corruption prescriptions.

    • Country findings

      This video summarises the key findings from the seven countries studied.

  • Practical implications

    How do we counter informal systems of governance that generate corruption but are essential to the ruling elites for staying in power?

    The field of anti-corruption needs new and effective approaches. What can this research on informal governance tell us?

    Insights into the workings of informal governance regimes suggest there are at least two things formal anti-corruption strategies don’t do: uncover hidden agendas and tackle the habits of corruption.

    • Some implications

      1. Formal approaches to corruption will likely fail

      An institutional or legalistic approach to tackling corruption – i.e. one aimed at the formal level – carries a significant risk of failure, because the informal system is highly effective at manipulating the formal system.

      This means transplanting “best practice” reforms from one context to another may not be effective. However, the formal rules of the game play a key role for informal governance because they provide camouflage and define room to manoeuvre.

      Thus, formal rules can be entry point for change, but identifying which rules can be game changers hinges on understanding the system. This is one of the areas where we are deepening our research in the ongoing Phase 2 project, so stay tuned for more on this.

      2. Informal networks explain why corruption persists

      The centrality of informal networks goes a long way in explaining why corrupt practices persist beyond particular leaders.

      Functional practices involving the prebendal use of public office and resources are upheld by multiple actors who are embedded in symbiotic relationships. Informal networks are resilient but they can also break down. Major changes in leadership, or democratic structure of a country, can result in powerful networks being swept away.

      Thus, practitioners should be sensitive to identifying windows of opportunity for change where their efforts to promote anti-corruption may be more effective.

      3. Social networks influence behaviour

      Social networks are known to be powerful influences for setting and redefining social norms and expectations and therefore influencing behaviours and decision making.

      Harnessing strategically the power of the networks for purposes of advancing anti-corruption goals could involve cultivating support for networks of anti-corruption champions (typically the “outsiders”) and piloting innovative anti-corruption interventions whereby positive messages and behavioural change are promoted through informal social networks.

      4. Informal governance can be harnessed for good governance outcomes

      When crimes incur enforcing not only a legal penalty, but also a social penalty (such as loss of status) can result in more effective incentives to avoid corruption.

      Providing positive, constructive incentives towards behaving without corruption is another way of harnessing informality for positive ends. Integrity Action’s approach, in which citizens constructively solve governance problems at the community level, and publish these solutions openly, is an example of this.

    • So, what does this mean for anti-corruption?

      Watch this video to find out.