Corruption among stakeholder as a collective action problem


Dr Robert G. Boutilier

Richard Auty’s 1993 book on the curse of natural resources launched investigations into why some countries, but not all, that depend on revenues from oil, gold, diamonds, and so forth experience slow GDP growth. Research at the macroeconomic level first rejected the Dutch disease hypothesis and then converged on weak institutions as the key differentiator. The alleged ‘weakness’, according to this hypothesis, is that the institutions in cursed countries permit bribe-taking and encourage rent-seeking. Unfortunately, the most recent research finds that more strict laws, more transparency, more accountability, and stronger, independent anti-corruption bodies seldom reduce corruption. One emerging alternative view is that corruption and rent-seeking are examples of the collective action problem. Peter Ekeh’s theory of corruption captured this insight back in 1975. Focusing on Africa, he theorized that corruption is an expression of loyalty to what he called ‘primordial’ groups at the expense of more formal civic institutions. In other words, bribing an official is like exceeding a fishing quota on a shared fishing ground. Until those who share the same government, or the same fishing ground, can develop patterns of social capital among themselves that would induce restraining norm adherence, the shared resource will be harvested for short-term gain. The curse of natural resources, in this view, is a shared revenue being depleted by a failure of collective action to make collective interests dominant. This paper examines social capital patterns that have overcome the collective action problem in other contexts and, using an example from the Misima mine in Papua New Guinea, shows how different network configurations of social capital either attenuated or exacerbated corruption among stakeholders.