This article results from the project on Informal governance and corruption - Transcending the Principal Agent and Collective Action Paradigms, funded by the British Academy-DFID Anti-Corruption Evidence (ACE) programme.

The author's aim in this project was to explore local patterns of informality in Kyrgyzstan in order to understand how relations of power and influence are organised in daily life.

This article was published in Central Asian Affairs, a peer-reviewed journal that is published quarterly.

It features innovative social science research on contemporary developments in the wider Central Asian region. Its coverage includes Central Asia, Afghanistan, the Caucasus, Xinjiang, neighboring powers (China, Iran, Pakistan, India, Russia, Turkey), and the role of leading international powers and donors in this region.

Alena Ledeneva invites you on a voyage of discovery, to explore society’s open secrets, unwritten rules and know-how practices. Broadly defined as ‘ways of getting things done’, these invisible yet powerful informal practices tend to escape articulation in official discourse. They include emotion-driven exchanges of gifts or favours and tributes for services, interest-driven know-how (from informal welfare to informal employment and entrepreneurship), identity-driven practices of solidarity, and power-driven forms of co-optation and control.

Despite significant investment and anti-corruption capacity building in the past decades, "most systematically corrupt countries are considered to be just as corrupt now as they were before the anti-corruption interventions"(1). Statements like this are indicative of the frustration shared by practitioners and scholars alike at the apparent lack of success in controlling corruption worldwide and point to the need to rethink our understanding of the factors that fuel corruption and make it so hard to abate. 

Conventional anti-corruption approaches advocate for the adoption of legal and institutional reforms in line with international best practices. Nevertheless, these anti-corruption frameworks are often weakly implemented across the Global South. Overcoming these limitations invites the rethinking of some of the core assumptions of anti-corruption practice, which has mainly aimed to address poor accountability and weak law enforcement capabilities of the state.

This article applies a novel conceptual framework to characterise and assess the repertoire of practices used by informal networks to redistribute power and access to resources. These distinct norms and practices are typologised as co-optation, control, and camouflage. Co-optation involves recruitment into the network by means of the reciprocal exchange of favours. Control is about ensuring discipline amongst network members by means of shaming and social isolation. Camouflage refers to the formal facades behind which informality hides and is about protecting and legitimising the network.

Power and influence analysis can be used to assess corruption vulnerabilities in the public sector. This approach helps identify powerful stakeholders that should be engaged to achieve maximum impact for anti-corruption strategies. It also helps reveal informal political networks and relationships that can hamper anti-corruption efforts.

This paper compares social network dynamics and related petty corrupt practices in East Africa. It highlights how the properties of structural and functional networks could serve as entry points for anti-corruption interventions.

With a focus on the health sector in Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda, the empirical findings from this research corroborate the role of social networks in perpetuating collective practices of petty corruption, including bribery, favouritism and gift-giving.

In many countries high levels of corruption persist in spite of the adoption of so-called anti-corruption “best practices”. In this paper we make a call to pursue a context-sensitive inquiry into the drivers of corruption in order to substantially improve the practices and effects of anti-corruption.