Why some anti-corruption campaigns make people more likely to pay a bribe

The reason may be that the messages reinforce popular perceptions that corruption is pervasive and insurmountable.
Image: Jean Chung/Bloomberg

Donors and civil society groups spend tens of millions of dollars every year trying to combat corruption. They do it because corruption has been shown to increase poverty and inequality while undermining trust in the government. Reducing corruption is essential to improve public services and strengthen the social contract between citizens and the state.

But what if anti-corruption efforts actually make the situation worse?

Our research in Lagos, Nigeria, found that anti-corruption messages often have an unintended effect. Instead of building public resolve to reject corrupt acts, the messages we tested either had no effect or actually made people more likely to offer a bribe.

The reason may be that the messages reinforce popular perceptions that corruption is pervasive and insurmountable. In doing so, they encourage apathy and acceptance rather than inspire activism.

Fighting corruption

Efforts to combat corruption in “developing countries” initially focused on law enforcement by political leaders and bureaucrats. But these strategies met with limited success and so efforts switched to raising public awareness of the dangers of corruption.

This change of approach made sense. One reason that leaders don’t deliver on reforms is that they benefit from the way things are. Encouraging citizens to reject corrupt leaders would give those in power an incentive to act.

The last 20 years therefore saw a vast array of campaigns, from newspaper and radio advertisements to Twitter messages. Short films, theatre productions and signs that proclaim that government institutions are “corruption free zones” were also included.

These messages are seen by large numbers of people, but until recently there had been remarkably little systematic research on whether they actually work.

Researching corruption

To test the impact of anti-corruption messages we developed five short narratives like those promoted by civil society organisations and international donors. One message focused on explaining that corruption is widespread and damaging. Others emphasised the local impact of graft and the way it wasted citizens’ taxes.

To test the effect of more positive messages, one narrative talked about recent successes that political leaders had in curbing corruption. Another detailed the role that religious leaders played in promoting clean government.

We read the messages to 2,400 randomly selected people in Lagos. While corruption has often been identified as a major challenge in Nigeria, the Lagos State government has made some progress towards reducing government waste, ensuring all citizens pay taxes and delivering better services. It was therefore plausible that both positive and negative messages about corruption would resonate with Lagosians. The state is also ethnically diverse, with considerable poverty and inequality, and so reflects the kind of context in which anti-corruption messaging is often deployed.

Each person we interviewed was given one of the narratives. A control group was not given any anti-corruption information. This was to enable us to compare the impact of different messages. We then asked everyone a number of questions about their attitudes towards corruption.

In an advance on previous studies, we also invited 1,200 people to play a game in which they had an opportunity to win real money. In the game, players could take away more money if they were willing to pay a small bribe to the “banker” who determined the pay-outs. The game tested players’ commitment to rejecting corruption in a more demanding way than simply asking them if they believed corruption was wrong.

We were then able to evaluate whether anti-corruption messages were effective by looking at whether those who received them were more likely to demand clean government and less willing to pay a bribe.

More harm than good

In line with prior research, our findings suggest that anti-corruption campaigns may be doing more harm than good. None of the narratives we used had a positive effect overall. Many of them actually made Lagosians more likely to pay a bribe.

Put another way, the good news is that public relations campaigns can change citizens’ minds. But the bad news is that they often do so in unintended and counterproductive ways.

The reason for this seems to be that anti-corruption messages encourage citizens to think more about corruption, emphasising the extent of the problem. This contributes to “corruption fatigue”: the belief that the problem is simply too big for any one person to make a difference generates despondency. It makes individuals more likely to go with the flow than to stand against it.

This interpretation is supported by another finding that the negative effect of anti-corruption messaging was far more powerful among individuals who believed that corruption was pervasive. This reveals that the problematic consequences of anti-corruption messages are not universal. Among less pessimistic people, messages did not have a negative effect. And one message had the desired effect of reducing the probability of paying a bribe. This was the narrative that emphasised the relationship between corruption and citizens’ tax payments.

Our study therefore suggests that if we can target anti-corruption messages more effectively at specific audiences, we may be able to enhance their positive effects while minimising the risks.

What next?

Other studies have come to similar conclusions in Indonesia, Costa Rica and to some extent Papua New Guinea.

We therefore need to take the lessons of these studies seriously. Anti-corruption campaigns that send untargeted messages should be halted until we work out how to target them more effectively. The most logical response is to embrace new ways of working.

This might mean identifying messages that persuade citizens that corruption is fallin and so “nudge” them to believe it is a problem that can be overcome.

Where that’s not possible, it is also worth considering a more radical break with the past. As others working within the Anti-Corruption Evidence Consortium have argued, the most promising approach may be to abandon traditional anti-corruption messaging in favour of working more indirectly. This would involve building public demand for greater political accountability and transparency without always talking directly about corruption.

Such an approach would be less high profile, but is far more likely to be effective.The Conversation

Nic Cheeseman is professor of Democracy, University of Birmingham and Caryn Peiffer, lecturer in International Public Policy and Governance, University of Bristol

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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Here’s an idea, to stop corruption just implement the law.

There’s a three-way stop street close to where I live. On any given day (or night), as far as I have seen, the majority of motorists don’t stop at this stop street. I see a similar thing at traffic lights – hardly anyone stops at amber anymore.

The popular thing to do has become the wrong thing to do, and if one does the small things wrong, one does the bigger things wrong as well. I see this all the time.

So where does that leave the people with integrity? Each one of us can make a positive difference to this world, and the choice is yours. It takes courage to stand up for what is right when it’s not the most popular thing to do – one is either part of the solution or one is part of the problem.

Good comment, Reader. When an official I know reported to his municipal council that people are stealing manhole covers and electrical cable to sell to scrap dealers, the councilors, who are supposed to act on behalf of the town, made a joke of it, saying the people are just busy to “delf” (mining) to make a living. When a taxi driver drives recklessly, it is a nice story to tell in conversation. I personally heard how a former provincial Premier bragged with how quick his people can slaughter a stolen sheep. When a man beats up another man, he is such a “strong” guy. That is why we will not stop corruption and theft, because the “leadership” don’t see it as crime. We will not stop violence against women and children if we do not stop that “strong” guy’s violence against other men. We will not stop lawlessness as long as one of the largest industries are allowed to daily break the law.

Its facilitated.

Like CR knowing well before they started spending covid relive money most of it will probably be stolen.

Now he waits till it is stolen then promise they will get it back?


This guy has a lot of “gifts” but I am afraid being sharp and honest are not counted among these “gifts”.

Here’s how our Dear Leader can start fighting corruption and instantly remove the organized crime bosses from society:

1. Call a cabinet meeting.
2. Let the cops arrest all the attendees.

The foundation for Corruption starts in childhood with the acceptance of dishonesty and lying in one’s everyday interactions by one’s parents and surrounding family and neighbors.

Children do what the adults do!

And then they become adults too, and teach their children the same.

Almost impossible to intervene at a later (and even worse, external level) and expect to change what has become by then ingrained social behavior!

Another reason why change must FIRST begin by focusing on creating small, strong nuclear families where “personal integrity and responsibility” is the watchword.

I agree with you Jonnoxx and also agree with Moneyweb Reader’s comment above. To add to this, I believe firmly that we must stop looking at corruption as only a government / ruling party problem. It is pervasive across all sectors – both public and private. Morally, I think the onus is on the private sector to clean up its act first and to show the way. Further, ANY corrupt act HAS TO lead to CONSEQUENCES, regardless of where or how it happens. Finally, the person or company that pays the bribe should be more severely dealt with than the person that asks for the bribe.

To keep things simple, take Moneyweb Readers example of the stop street and how often it is ignored. Imagine if the traffic police monitor the intersection and start imposing fines, then consider how many of those people would either offer or be willing to pay a bribe to get off? Corruption is a 2-way street, it can only exist if people are willing to either offer the ‘bribe’ or if they are willing to accept payment of the ‘bribe’. From my experience, refusing to pay a bribe is the only way to go – if I’ve been speeding, then I must ‘man-up’ and pay for flouting the law. Too many people I know would pay a bribe (sometimes even offer a bribe) and yet complain lustily to all and sundry about how bad corruption is.

Corruption is an incredibly huge problem. It can only be stamped out or reduced to insignificant levels if every person is willing to take a stand and say NO MORE! It starts with each one of us and not with the other person or with government!!!

It’s like the pot calling the kettle black. I’ve heard of people complaining about government corruption while at the same time inviting friends around for lunch during the current lockdown! Seems like some people have lost their moral compasses.

The ANC reigning in corruption is like Pablo Escobar leading an anti-drug campaign

End of comments.





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