Corruption: an enduring challenge

22nd June 2023

Author: Dr. Richard Oloruntoba

Dr. Richard Oloruntoba photo

1. Background and introduction

Several harrowing tales of political and corporate corruption have been exposed in the media in the last three decades, and the scandals have rocked governments and the corporate world alike (DW, 2022; Transparency International, 2022; Zyglidopoulos, 2009; Leiken, 1996).

In fact, the World Economic Forum in 2018 estimated the global cost of corruption as US$2.6 trillion, or 5 per cent of global gross domestic product (GDP) (United Nations, 2018). Similarly, the World Bank estimated that businesses and individuals pay more than $1 trillion in bribes every year (United Nations, 2018). In 2019, the World Economic Forum estimated that corruption, bribery, theft and other illicit financial flows cost developing countries US$1.26 trillion per year (World Economic Forum, 2019).

In a similar vein, Transparency International, the global anti-corruption organisation in 2019 compiled a shortlist of some of the biggest corruption scandals over the past 25 years (Transparency International, 2019). The scandals inspired widespread public condemnation, toppled governments and sent perpetrators to jail (Transparency International, 2019). The list included scandals such as: the 2017 Paradise Paper scandal where leaked documents from the Bermuda-based legal firm, Appleby exposed the widespread use of secretive tax havens by corporate giants, politicians, royals and oligarchs (Transparency International, 2019); the 2015 racketeering and money-laundering scandal of former senior football officials at Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA); the 2016 Panama Papers leak from the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca exposing the secrets of the financial secrecy industry;  US$4 billion embezzled in 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB)’s development fund corruption schemes; and the 2006 Siemens AG corporate bribery of government officials and civil servants around the world amounting to approximately US$1.4 billion to mention a few from Transparency International’s shortlist. Here in Australia as well as the UK, Brazil, Ukraine, the US and around the world, debate about political corruption and anti-corruption has increased significantly in the last three decades (Brown, 2020; Clarke, 2019; Leiken, 1996; Dela Rama et al., 2022; Graycar, 2022; Pasculli, 2019; Barrington, 2016).

As a result of the flood of proven public and private sector corruption scandals worldwide, there seems to be growing interest in corruption and anti-corruption activities by scholars, members of the public, governments and the media around the world. There is an extensive range of ongoing discourses on corruption in the media, in multi-lateral organisations such as the World Economic Forum of the United Nations and in international non-government organisations such as the Political Risk Services Group and Transparency International. These discourses focus on a range of interrelated themes such as how corruption relates to good governance and bad governance in nation states, and how corruption relates to organised crime, economic performance and sustainable development goals (SDGs).

There are also ongoing discourses on corruption in various activist group forums, and the scholarly academy through various corruption research activities and academic conferences. These cut across different fields and disciplines such as law, finance, economics, trade, accounting, psychology, criminology, management, anthropology, procurement, politics, and international business (Bahoo et al., 2020; Torsello & Venard, 2016).

2. Aims

In pursuit of the SDG goals of contributing to a more ethical, responsible and sustainable way of working and managing, I am pleased to introduce the Emerald SDG mission on corruption. In this introduction, I focus broadly on providing a high level bird’s eye synthesis of scholarly academic corruption studies from a cross-disciplinary and cross-area perspective in order to accommodate the context-bound nature of corruption and its enormous diversity and complexity.

First, I provide a broad conceptual definition of corruption and its features to set a boundary around the concept. Second, I provide a brief summary overview of the costs of corruption. Third, I discuss major corruption literature themes and trends. Fourth, I highlight key challenges within existing perspectives, approaches and explanations of corruption. Fifth and last, I conclude by highlighting gaps in our understanding of corruption and highlighting areas requiring further research.

3. Definitions and features of corruption

An early definition of corruption is that it is ‘the intentional mis-performance or neglect of a recognized duty, or the unwarranted exercise of power, with the motive of gaining some advantage more or less personal’ (Brooks, 1970ab). However, the context-bound multi-faceted nature and practice of corruption ensures that corrupt activities and practices are unable to be captured in a universal definition (Ledeneva et al., 2017). Thus, the term ‘corruption’ tends to be used only as an overarching umbrella construct for a wide range of complex phenomena. The more precision we seek in defining corruption – such as ‘abuse of public office for private gain’ – the further we get from understanding its enormous complexity, and the fluid and specific context-bound nature of corrupt practices (Ledeneva et al., 2017). However, the contextual complexity of corrupt practices is often narrowed down and downplayed by scholars to enable research and some form of measurement to be conducted. Measuring corruption which is inherently a set of illicit activities which perpetrators are actively trying to hide, is a difficult task for scholars, investigators and journalists (Armand et al., 2023). As a result, like the definition, there is no universal agreement on how to measure it (Zimelis, 2020).

That said, the commonest definitions of corruption revolves around the rules guiding public officials in their public duties (Zimelis, 2020). Behaviour becomes corrupt when it deviates from the official rules in order to further private interests or monetary gains (Zimelis, 2020). Corruption may in this regard be defined in terms of ‘misuse of public power for private gain’ (Johnston, 2005; Karklins, 2005; LaPalombara, 1994; Philp, 2016; Philp, 2017; Scott, 1972; Transparency International, 2009, 2015) (Table 1).

Corruption comes in many shapes, sizes and shades, and with various levels of tolerability, a common feature however – is the inappropriate mix of private and public as it is generally seen to be corrupt for office holders to profit personally from public office. (Johnson & Sharma, 2004). The general logic being officials entrusted with overseeing public goods should not exploit their public positions for private and/or selfish goals which is often at the expense of the common good (Kurer & Jain, 2001) (Table 1).  Public officials, bureaucrats, legislators and politicians are most often imbued with publicly delegated powers and so are often the focus of corruption-related enquiries. However, corrupt practices also thrive in the corporate and not for profit sectors.

This concept of corruption sees corrupt practices as a deviation from behaviour that is in the public’s best interest (Lancaster and Montinola, 1997). Within this conceptual definition and boundary, examples of public corruption (or political corruption) includes deviant practices such as non-universal allocation of public goods due to abuse of influence, patronage, bribery, nepotism, clientelism, cronyism, extortion, dishonest public administration, misappropriation, embezzlement and theft taking place within the public domain and involving at least one public official (Langseth, 2016) (Table 1). Some scholars extend ‘private gains’ to include pecuniary influence and status gains (Nye, 1967) such as job reservations in recruitment and employment practices, ‘favour-for-favour practices’, trading in influence, ‘pay to play’, secret party funding in political campaign financing and suspiciously close ties between politics and business (Ellis & Whyte, 2016; Graycar & Monagham, 2015; Kaufmann, 1997; Horak et al., 2020).

The explicit reference to public versus private and inappropriate mix of private and public constitutes the basis of virtually all definitions of corruption (Zimelis, 2020). Similarly, conceptualisations of corruption are often typically based on three constituents: a public official (A), acting for personal gain (G), violates the norms of public office and harms the interests of the public (P) in order to benefit a third party (C) who rewards (A) for access to goods or services that C would not otherwise have (Ledeneva et al., 2017).

The enormous variation in forms of corrupt practices is often grasped only through recognition of its key features and characteristics when you see or come across them in the public or private sector.  In addition, corruption may be grasped through the insights and perception of perpetrators and participants such as repentant/convicted officials and other actors (Liu et al., 2022). Corruption may also be understood through the perception of corruption experts such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (TI CPI) (Clark, 2017), or through public opinion surveys such as the Global Corruption Barometer (GCB). The range of corrupt practices may also be perceived through aggregated indices such as the Political Risk Services’ International Country Risk Guide (ICRG). Aggregated indices such as the CPI often focus on proxy indicators of actual or potential corruption such as the business environment and/or the number of prosecutions or convictions of public officials (Cordis & Milyo, 2016; Glaeser & Saks, 2006; Simpson et al., 2015; Zhang & Kim, 2018).

Betrayal Public Office/duty Private Gain
Diversion Common Good/trust Personal Interest
Ab(mis)use Communal Funds/resources Individual Benefit
Manipulation Administrative Barriers/influence Unauthorized Advantage
Exploitation Institutional Position/power Group Profit
Bending Formal Rules/regulations Informal Goal

Table 1: Range of definitions and features of corruption- (Source: Ledeneva et al., 2017)

4. Costs of corruption

The adverse effects of corruption on economic growth, income and development across countries have been well documented and this has raised concerns among the public, researchers, and policymakers (Transparency International, 2019). Although some scholars argue that corruption may be useful for “greasing the wheels” of bureaucracies and getting things done (Huntington, 2006; Leff, 1964; Leys, 1965; Leys,1970; Nguyen et al., 2016; Rose-Ackerman, 1978), the general consensus amongst corruption scholars and policy analysts is that the consequences of corruption are harmful to the economy, to the government, and to public trust and society as a whole  (Dimant & Tosato, 2018; Liu, 2016; Mauro, 1995,1996; Oji & Oji, 2010; Pedersen and Johannsen, 2018; Rose-Ackerman & Palifka, 2016; Rose-Ackerman & Kornai, 2004; Rothstein, 2005; Rothstein & Uslaner, 2005).

Several scholars have compellingly demonstrated the adverse impacts of corruption on economic growth and growth rates through decreasing private investment, distortion of international trade and investment flows (Glynn et al., 1997; Mauro, 1996; Pinto & Zhu, 2016; Qian & Sandoval-Hernandez, 2016), erosion of social capital and trust (Banerjee, 2016; López & Santos, 2014; Nix et al., 2017; Rothstein & Uslaner, 2005), distortion of public priorities (Karklins, 2005; Tickner, 2017; Wang & You, 2016), and frequent diversion of benefits to a select few instead of to the many (Borcan et al., 2017; Newell, 2018). Transparency International claims that corruption exacerbates undemocratic practices, inequality, poverty, social division and the environmental and climate crisis.

Furthermore, corruption encourages rent-seeking behaviour and a system of perverse incentives among public officials and collaborators. It affects public (re)distribution programmes distorting market conditions (Rose-Ackerman, 2004; Shleifer & Vishny, 1993). Corruption also adversely affects the societal benefits of natural resources in resource-rich countries (Williams & Le Billon, 2017). Corruption misuses human talent as a result of nepotism, and corrupt dealings result in substandard workmanship (Ariely & Uslaner, 2017; Kaufmann, 1997). Corruption is considered dangerous because it “reduces the effective domain of public action by reducing public agencies of collective action to instruments of private benefit” (Warren, 2004:328).  In short, corruption is widely proven and rightly seen as one of the most serious obstacles to growth, development, equitable distribution of public goods and services and overall welfare of any nation state and citizens including achievement of SDGs. Nonetheless, in spite of such enormous harm and efforts at anti-corruption with more than ten (10) international anti-corruption conventions and treaties in operation, corruption seems to have remained entrenched, endemic and sustained in many countries including Western democracies (Azeez, 2011; Johnston, 1998; Onwujekwe et al., 2019).

5. Literature themes and trends

Political corruption has been studied by scholars and writers for a long time. According to Zimelis (2020), a Google Ngram search for the keyword “corruption” shows that corruption has been investigated in books since around 1550, and the popularity of the word “corruption” in English language books grew in the latter part of the 1700s and the 1800s and has grown since the late 1990s. Corruption studies have focused broadly on how official policies and laws affect corruption (Zimelis, 2020). However, contemporary academic studies of corruption and explanations of corruption phenomena may be categorised into two broad streams (1) the agency (micro-level) or (2) structure (macro-level) approaches:

(i)Agency/micro-level approaches

The agency/micro-level approach revolves around the idea that human agency drives corrupt actions (Ward, 1989). The agency/micro-level approach considers corruption as the result of human behaviour and the consequence of individual decisions. It considers differences in behaviour as the outcome of diverging incentives and individual peculiarities (Collier, 2005). The agency/micro-level approach to understanding the triggers of corrupt actions and antidote to corrupt practices comprises (a) economic/rational choice and (b) moralist approaches.

The economic/rational choice view of causes of  and antidotes to corruption addresses actions by an agent that are meant to increase the agent’s self-aggrandising behaviour/interest after considering information asymmetry and opportunity costs (Monroe, 1991). Examples of the economic/rational choice approach include the principal–agent model popularised by Rose-Ackerman (1978) and Klitgaard (1988). Others include game theory analyses of corruption (Geddes, 1991; Manion, 1996) and cost–benefit analytical perspectives (Nye, 1967). The moralist approaches on the other hand view and investigate corruption through normative perspectives and perceive individual corrupt actors termed ‘bad apples’ as the main sources of corruption (Johnston & Heidenheimer, 2017). Bad apples are typically inadequately trained or educated officials with weak character and ethical traits (Alatas, 1990; Johnston, 2005; Leys, 1965).

(ii) Structural (macro-level) approaches

Advocates of structural explanations propose that social behaviour is governed by specific institutional circumstances which influence the incentives that in turn influence agent behaviour (Johnston, 1982). Hence, different behaviours result from differing institutions and institutional circumstances (e.g. see the literature on ‘Base of the Pyramid’ and ‘Institutional Voids’). Structural approaches to the causes of and antidotes to corruption is significantly influenced by modernisation theory (Collier, 2005; Huntington, 1968; Webster & Webster, 1990; Roxborough, 1979; Hagen, 1962). Modernisation perspectives seem to focus on issues of ineffective institutions, inequality, inequity, and the material poverty and social underdevelopment of certain countries and regions of the world as the causes of corruption when benchmarked against Western democracies. This approach implies that corruption is highest when a country is ‘developing’ or modernising rapidly with weak institutions in flux (Johnston, 1982). However, corruption decreases with the attainment of stable and efficient institutions such as found in developed countries and Western democracies (Huntington, 1968, 2017). As such, the role of individual agents in explaining social behavior is not deemed essential by structuralists in this whole of society/whole of country approach (Johnston, 1982; Huntington, 1968: 59).

Also, within the structural macro-level view is a revisionist sub-theme that attempts to explain causes of corruption by investigating the functional needs for corruption and how corruption fulfils a societal need left unmet by government (e.g. Méon & Weill, 2010; Leff, 1964; Merton, 1968; Scott, 1972). Such revisionists argue that corruption may promote a more efficient functioning of dysfunctional economic and political systems thus sustaining corruption and dysfunction of the system (Meon & Weill, 2010; Merton, 1968).

Another sub-theme of the structural macro-level view is the culturalist branch which argues that the level and extent of corruption in society is influenced by the nature of a country’s culture (Huntington, 1968). Hence, corruption increases when self-interests of diverse nationalities, clans or ethnic groups within a country dominate (Huntington, 1968), and modern developed societies with higher civic standards and stricter views of corruption generate lower corruption (Heidenheimer, 1970; Kutnjak, 2005; Hooker, 2009; Johnston and Heidenheimer, 2017).

6. Corruption literature: observations, assessment and challenges

In section 6 of this introduction, I briefly assess and comment upon the interdisciplinary scholarly corruption literature based on the broad dichotomous framework of (a) agency/micro-level approaches and (b) structural/macro-level approaches. I then briefly highlight key challenges within existing perspectives, approaches and explanations of corruption, and from which I highlight gaps and controversy in our understanding of corruption and areas requiring further research (addressed in section 7).

A. Agency/micro-level approaches

The agency/micro-level approaches focus on individual corruption actors making their choices based on their individual attitudes toward corruption and on the incentives for their individual choices (Zimelis, 2020). The approach focuses on individual actors and their attitudes, the choices such individual actors make and the incentives for corruption in various contexts (Akbar & Vujić, 2014; Cartier-Bresson, 1997; Cuervo-Cazurra, 2016; Della Porta et al., 1996; Fleming & Zyglidopoulos, 2009; Gamboa-Cavazos et al., 2006; Gamboa-Cavazos et al., 2007; Jancsics, 2014; Nabli & Nugent, 1989; Rose-Ackerman, 1999).

i. Attitudes, incentives and numbers

In the agency/micro-level analyses of corruption, the key issues for an individual actor to consider in thinking of whether (or not) to engage in corrupt action are the likely gains and/or losses and the ability to  safely find willing co-actors and associates to cooperate with in a corrupt scheme (Della Porta et al., 1996). Another consideration is the risk of corruption being detected.

Thus, the anticipated benefit of corrupt behaviour is dependent on an actor’s beliefs, about detection and what other individuals will do as regards their probability of cooperating and participating in corrupt deals, or declining to participate, and going further to blow the whistle. For instance, if few public officials engage in corruption, the larger numbers of honest public officials benefit more than the few corrupt public officials. However, such benefit decreases significantly as the number of corrupt officials grows (Bardhan, 1997). Hence, the more the proportion of corrupt officials, the easier it becomes for another official to cooperate with the corrupt and engage in corruption schemes (Bardhan, 1997).

The sheer scale and numbers of individuals perceived as corrupt influences norms and attitudes (Bardhan, 1997). This in turn impacts the ethical cost for an actor considering whether to participate or not in corruption (Gorsira et al., 2018; Della Porta & Vannucci, 2016; Bardhan, 1997; Andvig & Moene, 1990; Lui, 1986).

As the proportion of corrupt officials increases, expectations of corrupt acts and schemes being detected and successfully prosecuted decreases (Cadot, 1987).  However, it is worthy of note that Barnes & Beaulieu (2018), Wängnerud (2012) and Swamy et al., (2001) demonstrate that the higher the number of women in government and in the workforce the lower the levels of corruption.

ii. Inter-generational corruption, reputations and transparency

In corrupt organisations and societies, younger generations may view corruption as a normal part of everyday life due to the corrupt practices established and entrenched by earlier generations, and as a result, keep sustaining corruption (Hauk & Saez-Marti, 2002). This type of ‘petty’ corruption may result from everyday interaction of ordinary citizens and officials and bureaucrats. It may include providing various gifts, bribes or other services to an official and/or their family members by citizens. This category includes nepotism in distributing public resources, goods and services. Another example may be corruption in business where government and business interact in a commercial litigation arising from trade disputes or breach of contract where either party may resort to the help of the judge to decide in their favour, usually through bribery. Similarly, when businesses face criminal prosecution, they may resort to the help of the judge to rule in their favour.

Political corruption at its extreme may involve senior political leadership and the courts. The so-called ‘grand corruption’ may include conduct of policy by people in power to pursue their private interests and in so doing do damage to the interests of the electorate (Rose-Ackerman, 1996, 2002). It may also include secret payoffs of political leaders by large multinational companies (Islam et al., 2021; Fazekas et al. 2013; Schubert & Miller, 2008).

The strength of an individual actor’s psychological motivation to maintain their integrity and a pristine reputation becomes stronger if the actor’s identity group or community has a reputation for integrity and high ethics (Tirole, 1996). This is because individual reputations are decided by collective reputations, and collective reputations are decided by individual reputations (Tirole, 1996).

Thus, an individual actor’s choice to actively seek to participate in corrupt acts or corruption schemes is important to that individual. However, the impact of such individual choice on the decisions of others is also equally important (Corbacho et al., 2016). As a result, the more individuals who perceive corruption as ethically acceptable, the lower the individual ethical cost of becoming involved in corrupt behaviour (Gorsira et al., 2018).

iii. Anti-corruption perspectives

The agency/micro-level approaches in the (anti-)corruption literature is also of the view that individual actor behaviour may be influenced by a range of social influences such as peer behaviour and transparent media reporting (Gorsira et al., 2018; Dong et al., 2012; Tavits, 2010). Thus, the level of corruption may be reduced through democratic governance processes such as probity, accountability, political openness, checks and balances, record-keeping and effective oversight (Gorsira et al., 2018; Dong et al., 2012; Tavits, 2010). However, such oversight is difficult to achieve in reality without changing social norms, attitudes and values (Cain et al., 2001; Dimant & Schulte, 2016; Neeman et al., 2008). The challenge is in changing social norms and the media has a key role to play in achieving this goal (Stapenhurst, 2000).

For instance, the electorate can vote out corrupt politicians if the media informs it of corruption by politicians because a politically well-informed electorate influences the level of perception of public corruption (Ionescu, 2017). However, according to Alam (1995), this is contingent upon losers from corruption in a society being able to take effective countervailing actions to minimize their losses, such as voting out corrupt governments, or corporate organisations removing and prosecuting corrupt managers. Losers from corruption may include the masses of the people, the electorate, workers and other marginalised subjects and citizens who are continually deprived of their rights as a result of corrupt decision-making, and corrupt schemes and practices.

The agency/micro-level approaches in the corruption literature can be said to be of the view that the nature and effectiveness of the countervailing actions that losers from corruption take ultimately determines the level of corruption in a country. The level of corruption in a country is in turn dependent on the factors affecting the capacity of the losers from corruption to effectively participate in countervailing actions against corrupt officials. Such factors include their human, political and property rights (Alam, 1995; Ahmad, 2004), their level of education, income distributions and the types of losses they might have incurred from corruption (Alam, 1995; Ahmad, 2004).

iv. Principal–agent view

The principal–agent view of studies in the agency/micro-level approach of the literature focuses on investigations of the effects of delegated authority from a principal to an agent (Rose-Ackerman, 1978). The principal–agent view is the most commonly used approach to academic studies of corruption within the agency/micro-level approaches, and most often used by policymakers for designing anti-corruption and integrity policies (Zimelis, 2020).

In this view, corruption is an informational problem where the principal fails or is unable to monitor the agent properly (Gurgur and Shah, 2005; Klitgaard, 1988; Marquette & Peiffer, 2018, 2015; Rose-Ackerman, 1978). The principal–agent view explains corruption levels based on information asymmetry and information availability problems (Rose-Ackerman, 1978). For instance, the electorate is considered the principal when it votes to elect a political representative (e.g. president) who in turn is considered to be the agent of the electorate (Rose-Ackerman, 1978).

The elected political representatives (i.e. agents) have a monopoly over information that may create an information disconnect between the agents and the principal (i.e. the electorate/voters). The principal–agent view suggests strict monitoring of competition and political power in government as an anti-corruption strategy (Gurgur & Shah, 2005). If the principal is unable to effectively monitor the actions of its agent or the agent has access to superior information which the principal lacks, corruption and opportunistic behaviour may result (Mungiu-Pippidi & Dadašov, 2016; Andersson & Bergman, 2009; Kiewiet & McCubbins, 1991). Such information asymmetry can result in agents abusing their public position and colluding against the electorate (principal) (Kiewiet & McCubbins, 1991: 25–26; Andersson, 2008; Philp, 2017).

As corporations play a key role in much of the corruption that occurs in society and are themselves important contexts for corruption, the principal-agent view has also been used as a lens to analyse corporate sector firms on issues of collusion, insider trading (Cole et al., 2021), racketeering (Smith, 2021), procurement fraud (Venter, 2021), and nepotistic hiring practices (Cooper et al., 2021; Castro et al., 2020; Erden & Otken, 2019; Padgett & Morris, 2005; Wu, 2005; Laffont & N'Guessan, 1999; Tirole, 1996).

While the principal–agent lens of analysis is in general useful for explaining why and in what context an individual actor decides to engage in corruption, these types of analyses tend to focus only on a small part of a much more complex and larger political corruption issue. The principal–agent view is thus considered an over-simplification and reductionist (Anderson & Gray, 2006). As such, principal-agent analyses tend to overlook broader institutional structures that may condition individual agent behaviour. Klitgaard (1988) showed that an agent possessing monopoly of sensitive information and individual discretion as to its use without the need to account to the principal may result in corrupt practices. However, the weakness of the principal-agent analyses is that it omits important macro-level factors such as the types of political systems, societal values and attitudes to corruption.

B. Structural (macro-level) approaches

Structural macro-level analyses and explanations of corruption often focus on identifying the variables affecting corruption risks (Zimelis, 2020). These variables may include the level of democratic development, economic factors, strength of institutions and political parties (Batory, 2018; Della Porta & Vannucci, 2016). The structural macro-level analysis builds our knowledge of the interrelationships between corruption, public institutions, socio-cultural characteristics, political capability and unique national or societal circumstances (Ades & Di Tella, 1999; Batory, 2018; Della Porta & Vannucci, 2016; Drury et al., 2006; Paldam, 2002; Pellegrini & Gerlagh, 2004; Suleiman & Othman, 2017).

While of value in developing our understanding of the persistence of corruption, this body of work still has conflicting and contradicting findings on the specific causes of corruption (Ceschel et al., 2022; De Graaf, 2007; Lancaster & Montinola, 1997; Zimelis, 2020). Structural macro-level analyses within the corruption literature has however clearly and empirically demonstrated the harmful impact of corruption on economic growth (e.g. Mo, 2001; Cooper et al., 2006; Egunjobi, 2013; Umbreen & Saadat, 2015; Alfada, 2019). However, this relationship is not linear and with many caveats (Trabelsi, 2023; Bardhan, 1997; Mauro, 1995). In fact, the effects of corruption on economic growth appears ambiguous (Trabelsi, 2023). Hence, to what extent can corruption be tolerated in an economy, and at what threshold does it begin to have an adverse impact on an economy? This is still unclear.

An important factor in explaining various levels of corruption in the structural macro-level approaches has been the level of economic development, specifically income levels as measured in GDP per capita (Gross Domestic Product) (Campos & Giovannoni, 2017; Bologna, 2016; Lederman et al., 2005; Kunicova & Rose-Ackerman, 2005; Damania et al., 2004; Paldam, 2002; Persson & Tabellini, 2003; Swamy et al., 2001; Treisman, 2000; Ades & Di Tella, 1999).

In general, countries with greater per capita income are associated with lower levels of corruption (Chetwynd et al., 2003; Heckelman & Powell, 2010). Although, some researchers question such correlation (e.g. Kaufmann, 1999, Johnson et al., 1999) and several scholars having discovered the opposite (e.g. Frechette, 2001; Braun & Di Tella, 2004).Likewise, some researchers find that a different economic factor, income equality reduces corruption (Ullah & Ammad, 2016; Paldam, 2002; Rothstein & Uslaner, 2005), whereas other scholars find no statistically significant relationships (Brown et al., 2011).Thus, this area remains unclear.

The level of democratic advancement of a country has also been described as a key antidote to corruption because of more transparent processes, structures and responsibility that make corruption more difficult to maintain.  For instance, the presence of whistleblowers, transparency activists and advocates and civil liberties in democratic countries have been said to reduce corruption (Cooper, 2022; Damania et al., 2004; Goldsmith, 1999; Kunicova & Rose-Ackerman, 2005; Lederman et al., 2005; Paldam, 2002; Svensson, 2005; Swamy et al., 2001). In contrast, Treisman (2000) failed to find a statistically significant relationship between levels of corruption and democracy. In other words, whether a country is democratic or not does not seem to have any effect on the level of corruption in a country. This may be because the electoral system does not function effectively and corrupt politicians are deeply entrenched and cannot be penalised at the polls. Thus such corrupt politicians stand an excellent chance of being re-elected (Chang & Golden, 2007).

Hence, voters with incomplete information on the extent and consequences of corruption and voters with uniquely peculiar societal norms are seen as the key obstacle to a corruption-free society (Chang & Golden, 2007). Alternatively, other scholars have criticised the overall political system in a country for being unable to provide corruption-free politicians to the voters (Kurer & Jain, 2001).

Overall, democracy appears to reduce corruption, but the challenge is teasing out the impact of democracy from the impact of other crucial factors such as the level of media freedoms and the level of economic development. Some scholars have shown that the adverse impact of democracy on the level of corruption disappears when we consider the Protestant religion and level of wealth (Lane et al., 2000) or income inequality (Donovan & Karp, 2017).

Studies of electoral victories of politicians in democracies show that there is a need for electoral resources such as patronage networks (Geddes, 1991). Distribution and exploitation of lucrative government resources such as jobs, import licenses, construction licenses and public contracts is necessary for rewarding loyal patronage networks and political supporters (Collier, 2002; Flinders & Geddes, 2014), and such patronage networks are part of political power structures all over the world (Collier, 2002; Flinders & Geddes, 2014). Most efforts to reform and reduce patronage remain moribound because, even if honest politicians aim to execute useful reforms, they usually cannot because their political survival is directly jeopardised by loss of access to electoral resources (Flinders & Geddes, 2014; Geddes, 1991).

As regards public institutions, code of conducts, official rules and legal structures mostly determine what behaviour is considered corrupt. Key institutional structures may include various mechanisms of party funding, electoral arrangements and election formats (Alexander & Shiratori, 1994; Galeotti & Merlo, 1994; Gidlund & Koole, 2001; Gunlicks, 2019; Nassmacher, 1993, 2003). Specialised independent anti-corruption agencies are also important for successful anti-corruption efforts (Di Mascio et al., 2020; Gregory, 2015; Meagher, 2004, 2005; Transparency International, 2015; United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2012). Anti-corruption efforts must be supported by free independent media and robust democratic processes (Krajewska & Makowski, 2017; Kuris, 2015; Quah, 2017; Quah, 2017b).

Digitalisation and effective e-governments/e-procurement systems may also lower overall corruption levels in the country (Agarwal & Maiti, 2020; Funk and Owen, 2020; Sanmukhiya, 2019) but only if the country has a strong rule of law (Park & Kim, 2020).

Scholars of corruption also need to understand whether political parties are institutionally separate from a government’s public administration arrangements (Heywood, 1997; Krylova, 2018). Scholars need to understand the degree of accountability, competition and openness in the public domain; the extent of competition amongst a country’s authority centres and how long a government has been in power (Kim & Sharman, 2014; Della Porta & Vannucci, 2016; Aranha, 2017; LaPalombara, 1995).

The structural macro-level analyses and explanations of corruption literature also investigate effects of the nature of relationships between the private and public spheres on governance. Several scholars have investigated the effects of privatisation on corruption levels and the research argues that privatisation can increase levels of corruption by blurring the boundaries between the public and the private thus worsening the corruption risk and perceptions of corruption (Belousova et al., 2016; Doig & Wilson, 1998; Heywood, 1997, 2002; Kamal et al., 2018; Khlif et al., 2016). However, others argue that privatisation decreases overall corruption levels (Kaufmann & Siegelbaum, 1997; Koyuncu et al., 2010; Peña Miguel & Cuadrado-Ballesteros, 2018, 2019). Yet, others argue that privatisation can do both, increase corruption risks and decrease corruption perceptions concurrently (Martimort & Straub, 2006).

The structural macro-level analyses and explanations of corruption include research addressing the degree of bureaucratic and economic regulation (Schlicht, 1985; LaPalombara, 1995), the legal system (Lane et al., 2000), the style of economic system (Bardhan, 1997) and the design and arrangement of public sector functions (Heywood, 1997).

Others like Dincer & Johnston (2017) and Lipset & Lenz (2000) demonstrate the relevance of a country’s culture and investigate the association between a country’s religion and a country’s intra-family and inter-individual relations. However, others argue that culture does not explain the levels of corruption in regard to income based on GDP variations (Persson et al., 2013; Rehman & Naveed, 2007; Andersson, 2008; Paldam, 2001).

While macro-level structural explanations of corruption has value in shedding light on various levels of corruption in a society or country, there is little or no agreement  as to which specific structural factors are the most important in explaining the various levels of corruption across the many different countries of the world.

In addition, these macro-level structural relationships do not comprehensively explain the causal mechanisms of corruption (Rose-Ackerman & Palifka, 2016) and the utility of structural factors for designing anti-corruption policies remains unclear. For instance, there is little practical benefit in telling a poorer developing country to become richer in order to lower its level of corruption level. It is also of little value telling such a country to strengthen democracy, or convert to Protestantism to achieve lower levels of corruption. Nevertheless, the structural macro-level corruption literature has value in identifying some key institutional factors that may be useful in accounting for differences in the levels of corruption amongst countries (Menocal et al., 2015). It is noteworthy that the effectiveness of macro-level structural relationships in explaining levels of corruption at municipal, city or local government levels remains mostly untested. The corruption literature in general and the macro-level approach in particular can be said to be bias in its use of countries and nation-states as research case studies and key institutional factors from the literature remain untested at the local level (see for instance, Yates & Graycar, 2020). Thus, testing the robustness of key macro-concepts at the local level would develop innovative new knowledge, theoretical and practical.

7. Conclusions and recommendations for further research

I introduced this Emerald SDG mission on corruption and provided a broad conceptual definition of corruption and its features. I have also provided an overview of the costs of corruption and a cross-disciplinary synthesis of what we already know in the corruption literature as well as existing perspectives, approaches and explanations of corruption. I have highlighted key challenges within what we know, and I now conclude by highlighting gaps in our understanding of corruption and areas requiring further research.

A. Combined approaches

There is need for studies that combine agency/micro-level and structural/macro approaches    to investigating and understanding corruption. Such mixed approach studies could be designed as sequential where for instance, findings from a structural/macro approach phase of a study feeds into an agency/micro-level phase of the study, and vice versa.

This is because single-approach studies of corruption – structural/macro-level or agency/micro-level by themselves do not have the capacity to fully explain the triggers, causes and persistent of corruption across the world. Agency/ micro-level explanations are based solely on human behaviour and their individual preferences. However, structural/macro-level explanations are considered too deterministic and cannot explain why two individuals in similar circumstances make different choices – one to be corrupt and the other to maintain their honesty and integrity. Hence, combined studies that focus on both individuals (agency/micro) and structures/macro approaches would add a richer, deeper and more comprehensive understanding to the corruption literature. Likewise, a renewed research focus on actors in public, not for profit, and private sector organisations.

B. Causes of anti-corruption and ineffective anti-corruption reforms

The current corruption literature would benefit from additional studies that go beyond a focus on investigations of the causes of corruption to investigations of the causes and triggers of anti-corruption including studies of anti-corruption measures at the international, national-state and local/city levels. Such studies can also be extended into in-depth studies of why anti-corruption reforms across the vast majority of the nations of the world have not worked (Brown, 2015).

Currently, many studies of corruption seem to focus on factors contributing to corruption and the causes of corruption.  For instance, studies have investigated a range of components in governance such as: the quality of judicial and democratic institutions; effects of corruption on society and the economy; and government transparency. While such studies help us better understand variables that could result in higher levels of corruption, they often do not explore specific anti-corruption measures, structures and strategies. Merely knowing what factors cause corruption have not helped us reduce corruption significantly anywhere in the world. For instance as recently as 2021 the UN Global Report on Corruption in Sport (2021) estimated that US $1.7 trillion is wagered on corrupt dealings in illicit sports betting markets and in the running of sports institutions and competitions at global, regional, and national levels.

There is a need for scholars to study specific aspects of anti-corruption, particularly those that result in more effective anti-corruption strategies in order to secure a full understanding of the causes of and remedies of corruption.

Enormous resources have been invested in studying anti-corruption strategies to formulate effective anti-corruption policies (investments such as the International Anti-Corruption Academy Austria, Transparency International, World Bank etc) (Philippou, 2021).

A simple principal-agent perspective seems simplistic given the collusion that often goes on between actor perpetrators and political authorities. The ‘institutionalisation’ of corruption through collusion among the perpetrating entities including the institutions meant to offer ‘checks and balances’ means that the popular principal-agent approach  needs to be integrated with a collective action approach that takes into account collusion. Collusion dictates a broader holistic approach to combating corruption. Hence, studies deploying a collective action theory lens together with principal-agent theory to the problem might enable us to develop more comprehensive anti-corruption solutions rather than merely increasing the agent’s accountability towards the principal. Academics need to contribute to the body of knowledge in this area and fill these gaps.

C. Corruption in developed Western democracies

The focus of most corruption and anti-corruption studies has so far tended to be developing countries i.e. the ‘global south’ (see for example Garcia, 2019; World Bank, 2017; Olken & Pande, 2012; Doig & Riley, 1998). This is in spite of ongoing corruption scandals in developed countries (Andersson & Anechiarico, 2019; Brown, 2015; Graycar & Monaghan, 2015; Golden, 2012, 2006; Glaeser & Goldin, 2007; Johnston, 1998). Some developed democratic countries such as Australia have dropped in rankings in the corruption perception index (CPI). Australia dropped from 9th in 2013 to 11th in 2014 and maintained 13th in the years 2015 to 2018 and ranked 12th and 11th in 2019 and 2020 respectively before plunging to 18th in 2021 and 13th in 2022 (Transparency International, 2022b). It is noteworthy that though the nature of corruption in developed and developing countries differ, a developed democracy such as Australia has dropped out of the top ten least corrupt countries for almost a decade which may be worth researching.

A narrow research focus on developing countries signals corruption as a ‘third world’ problem with minimal relevance to scholars and policymakers in developed countries. This is not so. Hence, studying factors that contribute to corruption and anti-corruption in developed Western democracies would complement the existing literature on corruption and allow researchers and policymakers obtain a fuller picture of potential remedies to corruption. Nye (1967) argued that corruption is endemic in all countries. The scandal of putting up a senate seat for sale for potential personal and campaign benefits by  a past governor of the State of Illinois in the US (Yepsen, 2018), the conviction of senior Federal and State public officials in Australia (Mcllroy, 2021) and many corruption scandals  in the UK demonstrate the pervasiveness of high-level corruption in established democracies. Denmark, Finland and New Zealand are often ranked highly in the CPI but that does not mean they are corruption free. Scholars need to undertake research to investigate whether corruption in western democracies require similar anti-corruption methods as developing countries.

D. Studies of actual corruption cases

There are not many studies on actual, individual corruption cases from the view of perpetrators and/or prosecutors (e.g. Campos et al., 2021; Zakari & Burton, 2022). It seems, therefore, that we need more contextually specific corruption research as many current studies lack contingency. There are many varieties of corrupt behaviour, so there are a multitude of factors contributing to corruption. The complexity of corruption makes it difficult to provide a comprehensive account of the causes of corruption. Factors that contribute to corruption, however, are not the same as causes of corruption.  While corruption can be attributed to almost anything, greed, culture, poverty, weak institutions, lack of democracy, and opportunities exist everywhere for corruption, the degree of corruption varies widely among individuals, public agencies, administrative cultures, and geographic regions. Hence, the literature would benefit significantly by case studies of corruption cases.

E. Local, municipal and city studies

Most studies have focused on corruption at the national and international levels (Zimelis, 2020). Few studies investigate corruption at the local level. Many anti-corruption recommendations revolve around the dozen or so regional and international anti-corruption treaties and conventions. While necessary and of value, the almost exclusive international focus does not augur well for understanding the effectiveness of anti-corruption initiatives at the local level (Huberts et al., 2008).  Corruption perception is determined by where people live and their interactions with local/city governments in regard to services such as vehicle licensing, waste removal, building and parking permits, fines, construction, and local development planning, which are all prone to corruption (O’Neill & Hymel, 1994; Andersson, 2008; Transparency International, 2018).

Studies of corruption at local, municipal and city levels of government would expand and deepen our understanding of corruption at the ‘grassroots’ level. Currently, much of the available literature addresses corruption at the level of the nation-state (or national levels). A comparative analysis of corruption in cities local governments and municipalities would be helpful. In summary, citizens have more direct contact with their city/local government officials and politicians hence the honesty of local politicians and government officials demands extra attention and research (DeLeon, 2015).

F. Studies of corruption in regional and global supply chains

The global challenge of corruption, the harm it does and the need to do more to develop and execute effective anti-corruption measures in both developing and developed countries is exemplified by the many regional and international corruption treaties in place. Regional and international corruption treaties include: African Union Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption; Civil Law Convention on Corruption; Criminal Law Convention on Corruption; Inter-American Convention Against Corruption; OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions; Anticorruption Protocol to the UN Convention Against Corruption (APUNCAC); United Nations Convention against Corruption; United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Protocols; Legislative Guide for the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime; United Nations Declaration Against Corruption and Bribery in International Commercial Transactions; United Nations Convention Against Corruption Origins and Negotiation Process; and others. These treaties and the ongoing international discourse about establishing an International Anti-Corruption Court illustrate the multilateral momentum and interest in developing effective anti-corruption measures and structures.

However, there are gaps in our understanding in the areas of corruption in global and regional supply chains, how corruption manifests (e.g. inaccurate product quality, adulteration of product) and how corruption prevents supply chains from achieving their desired quality or sustainability performance. Silvestre et al., (2018) investigated the consequences of corruption in the Brazilian beef supply chain and argued that supply chains in emerging economies face a significant risk from both “petty” and “grand” corruption which makes corruption activity more difficult to disrupt. Silvestre et al (2018) went on to argue that corruption might be embedded in certain types of supply chain relationships which form a “corruption triangle”, and went on to suggest how to identify and disrupt supply chain corruption scams. Silvestre et al (2020) went on to investigate corruption in South American supply chains regarding how supply chain participants collude to circumvent sustainability standards. Other supply chain management researchers have begun pioneering work in the area of corruption in the supply chain and this is an area ripe for research to extend our knowledge given supply chains tie global production to distribution and consumption and are indispensable to our current lifestyles and civilisation (Saeed et al., 2022; Goel et al., 2021; Liu et al., 2019; Monnteiro et al., 2018; Basu, 2014; Arnold et al., 2012)

G. Hindrance to attainment of SDGs

There is need for more research in the areas of corruption as to how it hinders the achievement of SDGs and other global grand challenges such as net zero, climate change and so forth. There is a consensus that corruption has a significant adverse effect on the economy, the environment, and society (Kasa et al., 2023; Hope, 2022; Koller et al., 2020). Thus, the more we know about the causes of corruption in its various manifestations, the better we can decide which policy instruments to use to combat it, particularly as corruption can easily be a barrier to the global achievement of sustainable development goals (SDGs) For instance, efforts to attain universal health coverage (UHC) and other health-related and equity-related SDGs can easily be adversely affected by corruption (Kasa et al., 2023; Hope, 2022; Koller et al., 2020). Hence, we need deeper knowledge of how corruption interacts with evaluation of countries' performance with regard to the progress in SDGs implementation as well as attainment of the 17 SDGs and the strategies for addressing the global grand challenges.

Scholars can study the quality of available data used to monitor performance towards attainment of the SDGs.  To execute and achieve SDGs, it is critical to have a valid evidence-base for action and to verify the quality of such evidence as the validity and quality of existing data is what enables countries to evaluate their performance in achieving the SDGs and developing precisely targeted SDG-related policies. In summary, while the mission on corruption is complex, it is of high value and I hope scholars get some value out of this introduction to the mission, and out of the other papers and outputs published by experts on corruption. 

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