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The poor are more vulnerable to bribery in Africa. Here’s why.

10 Dec 2016

Image: A Ugandan anti-corruption sign, pictured in November 2005. (Future Atlas/Flickr CC)


Repost from Monkey Cage Blog.

This post is part of our Friday Afrobarometer series, which highlights findings from the pan-African, nonpartisan research network that conducts public-attitude surveys on democracy, governance, economic conditions and related issues in more than 35 countries in Africa.

New research finds that in Africa, the poor are more likely to pay bribes than those who are well off. But shouldn’t we expect that officials seeking bribes wouldn’t target poor people because they don’t have much money?

Caryn Peiffer and Richard Rose, authors of the recent study (ungated), show that the poor are more likely to pay bribes because they are more vulnerable to bribery. They argue that poor people are vulnerable because they rely on the government for public services.

Peiffer and Rose’s study corroborate results from an earlier study by Mogens Justesen and Christian Bjørnskov. Justesen and Bjørnskov found that poor people were almost three times as likely to pay bribes compared to wealthier people. In the same study, Justesen and Bjørnskov also found that poverty increases the frequency with which Africans face demands for bribes in return for obtaining services from government officials.

Both studies use data from Afrobarometer, a cross-national public opinion survey that asks questions on democracy, governance, economic conditions and related issues in more than 30 African countries. Justesen and Bjørnskov’s study looks at poverty and bribery in 18 African countries surveyed by Afrobarometer between 2008 and 2009, and the Peiffer and Rose study uses newer data that covers 34 African countries surveyed between 2011 and 2013.

How do the researchers measure poverty and bribery?

Poverty and bribery can be difficult to measure. While many scholars studying poverty in industrialized countries would rely on income, political scientist Michael Bratton has argued (ungated) that income is a poor measure of poverty in Africa because many people have limited interactions with the formal cash economy, and those who do usually have seasonal (and thus less regular) cash income.

To measure poverty, both studies use responses to Afrobarometer questions about how often during the past year people had to go without basic necessities. These included going without food, water, medical care, cooking fuel and a cash income. In Peiffer and Rose’s study, 84 percent said they or a family member had gone without at least one of these necessities at some point in the year before the survey.

To measure bribery, the studies use responses to five Afrobarometer questions about whether survey participants paid a bribe, gave a gift or did a favor for government officials in the past year to get a document or permit, water or sanitation services, treatment at a local health clinic or hospital, a place in a primary school, or to avoid a problem with the police like passing a checkpoint or avoiding a fine or arrest. In Peiffer and Rose’s study, 29 percent of Afrobarometer respondents reported paying a bribe for at least one of these services in the past year.

Bribery is also difficult to measure, however, because of what survey researchers call “social desirability bias.” Because paying a bribe is socially unacceptable, survey respondents may be less likely to report having paid a bribe. Both studies relied on survey participants to truthfully report whether they paid bribes, but Justesen and Bjørnskov conducted additional analysis in light of this potential bias and found the bias did not seem to influence how poverty affected one’s experience with bribery. (Regression nerds can read Justesen and Bjørnskov’s appendix for more detail.)

Why are the poor more vulnerable to bribery?

Peiffer and Rose argue the poor are more vulnerable to bribery because the poor are more likely than the wealthy to have contact with the state. More specifically, their study compares how poverty affects bribery in two types of publicly provided services — what they call choice services and monopoly services.

Choice services include services in the health and education sectors, where the government provides services but also faces competition from the private sector. Monopoly services are those government-provided services that do not face competition from the private sector, like law enforcement. While the better off have some “choice” in health and education service providers, they cannot use their wealth to seek alternative provision of law enforcement.

Africans who are better off can avoid contact with corrupt state institutions by paying for services from a private provider. The poor, however, lack the money to make that choice. Peiffer and Rose find that the poorest Africans are 11 percent more likely than the better off to have contact with publicly provided health or education services. Because the poor must rely on the state for provision of education and health care, they have greater contact with the state, making them more vulnerable to bribery.


Kim Yi Dionne is Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.