Date01 September 2016
Published date01 September 2016
doi: 10.1111/padm.12242
Explanations of bureaucrats’ decisions to take bribes include accounts of incentives as well as expec-
tations. However, there are further considerations in violent contexts, where refusal of bribes may
have dire consequences. Yet, insight into this topic is limited. This article investigates how violence
upholds bribery,through interviews with South African ofcials who enforce regulations in commu-
nities where gangs operate. The investigation shows that when citizens offer bribes to enable rule
violations, this is a process of both temptation and threats: ofcials who refuse bribes face intimi-
dation by both citizens and colluding colleagues. This illustrates how violence may function as a
mechanism to enforce corrupt contracts between bureaucrats and criminal citizens. Through reduc-
ing costs in such settings, bribe-taking is partly a strategy of social protection. This has implications
for policy and suggests that, besides incentives and expectations, administrative reforms may benet
from ‘xing the security’ of bureaucrats in violent contexts.
In a large number of countries, bureaucratic or petty corruption remains relatively
widespread. Such behaviour occurs, for instance, when citizens have to bribe ofcials for
services they are entitled to or when they pay enforcement ofcers to make law violations
go unnoticed. Yet, there is nothing petty about this problem. Corruption in a country’s
civil service is widely believed to result in numerous negative outcomes, social as well as
economic (Treisman2007). However, there is no such consensus over what drives bureau-
cratic corruption and especially a bureaucrat’s choice to engage in bribery. Keeping in
mind the point that the treatment of corruption is closely related to its diagnosis (Dong
and Torgler 2012), this is a crucial issue for social scientists that seek to advance reforms
of public administrations.
Rationalist explanations for bureaucrats’ decisions to take bribes (or not) focus on incen-
tives, stressing factors of gains in relation to the probability of getting caught and the
potency of sanctions (Becker and Stigler 1974). This reasoning makes scholars propose
that bribe-taking may be reduced by reforms such as raising civil servants’ salaries or
increasing monitoring and punishment (Ades and Di Tella 1999). This approach may be
contrasted to a conceptualization of a bureaucrat’s choice to engage in bribery as a social
dilemma (Rothstein 2011). This thinking puts expectations into focus as bribe-taking is
the logical strategy when most others in the bureaucracy are believed to be corrupt (Pers-
son et al. 2013). This article proposes that these two depictions, regardless of whether one
believes that they contradict or in fact complement each other, may be in need of supple-
ments. Rather than presenting a third line of explanation, this article builds on previous
approaches to craft an argument holding that prior research has not focused sufciently
on the costs of honesty – the consequences facing non-corrupt bureaucrats in contexts of
widespread violence.
Aksel Sundström is afliated to the Quality of Government Institute, Department of Political Science, at the University
of Gothenburg, Sweden.
Public Administration Vol.94, No. 3, 2016 (593–608)
© 2016 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.
Many nation states do not hold a monopoly over violence. In such areas, the ofcials’
task of enforcing laws may be characterized by tensions. For example, policemen in the
Afghan countryside have to adapt to militias that do not conform to laws. Such ofcials
will often be bribed so that law violations can proceed as usual. But what are the reasons
for an ofcial in such a context to take a bribe? It seems obvious that incentives matter: a
miniscule salary and the low risk of getting caught must be important. And surely,expec-
tations should matter: when most other colleagues take bribes, it must feel pointless to
be honest (cf. Dong et al. 2012). However, these explanations do not consider the role of
security for such ofcials. In these contexts criminal actors may enforce their will by vio-
lent threats. And it is plausible that, if it is dangerous to deny such actors the possibility
of paying their way around the law, this will affect the choice to take bribes.1
This reasoning echoes the saying ‘plata o plomo’ – silver or lead – meaning that one can
accept a bribe or face a bullet. The expression refers to the political inuence gained by
Latin American drug lords through the use of extortion (Thachuk 1997). In this sense, the
article extends the scope of models on criminals’ bargaining power through temptation
and threats targeting politicians (Dal Bó and Di Tella2003; Dal Bó et al.2006; Sberna 2014) to
focus on bureaucrats and, more explicitly, on their choice to take bribes. Yet,while intuitive,
research has rarely explored this reasoning in detail.
The aim of this research endeavour is to gain further insight into how violence and
intimidation may affect bureaucrats’ choosing to take bribes and, therefore, corroborate
with administrative corruption. The article asks the following question: In what way does
violence and intimidation affect bureaucrats’ choices to take bribes? By exploring this
question in a thorough analysis of original empirical material, the article seeks to arrive at
both theoretical and empirical insights. It reports the results from interviews with ofcials
in the South African Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF). These of-
cials enforce regulations on resources in rural areas, threatening the income of gangs that
run lucrative poaching operations. Focusing on bureaucrats who implement policy in a
context where violence and bribery is widespread, this case study has rich potential to
offer important insights into this relationship.
Through this investigation, the article contributes theoretically in two ways: rst, it
shows that there are direct costs for a bureaucrat who remains honest in a context where
non-state actors use violence to carry out their law violations. Second, it illustrates that
in such contexts, violence may be seen as a mechanism of corrupt contract enforcement
between bureaucrats and criminal citizens. These ndings have policy implications and
suggest that anti-corruption reforms may benet from ‘xing the security’ of bureaucrats
working in violent contexts.
Incentives matter
The work of Becker and Stigler (1974, p. 7) outlines a model where the choice of enforce-
ment ofcers to engage in bribery, or not, is understood through a cost–benet analysis:
the gain from bribery is weighed against the probability of the state detecting malfeasance
and, given that exposure could mean loss of employment, the minimum salary that would
discourage enforcers from taking bribes. Scholars following this tradition of analysing
the ‘market of enforcement’ have often focused on modelling the likelihood of detection,
penalty rates and the relative size of salaries (e.g. Besley and McLaren 1993; Ades and Di
Tella 1999).
Public Administration Vol.94, No. 3, 2016 (593–608)
© 2016 John Wiley& Sons Ltd.

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