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How To Avoid Paying Bribes in Benin


If you are moving goods across the border, it’s not going to happen.

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Ok, you might be able to avoid it.

But that is not very probable.

Most people just pay the bribes.

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There is a fantastic study on corruption that came out in 2019 in World Development. The title is dry but the subject matter is not. Sami Benassi and Joachim Jarreau’s Price Discrimination in Bribe Payments: Evidence from Informal Cross-Border Trade in West Africa. There is a lot of corruption in the Global South. There is also a lot of informal trade. Informal trade is trade that crosses borders without going through conventional customs. Some of this is outright smuggling. Some of this is trade that shows up at the border and is just waved through (nudge nudge wink wink) by the border authorities.

Benassi and Jarreau went to Benin and did something almost no one does.

A. They interviewed people who had been waved through the border without paying customs.

B. They asked how much those traders actually paid.

It is usually murderously hard for an academic to find the going rate on bribes. Benassi and Jarreau got over 7500 traders to talk to them and give precise estimates about how much an illegal border crossing costs. That is a LOT of information on bribes.

What did they find out?

1. Bribes are often – but not always - cheaper than the official duties that would be paid. However, this is a complex and situational matter. I was expecting a slam-dunk price break for bribe payers, but the differences were not that strong.  So, bribery on the Benin border is not really about avoiding paying taxes. My guess is that what traders pay for is fast processing; they want to get through the border without delay. Calculating formal duties can be a time-consuming business.

2. Nearly everyone - but not absolutely everyone - pays a bribe. Depending on where you are going, what you are carrying and how you are carrying it, there is anywhere from a 65% to a 92% chance you will pay a bribe.

3. Trucks and cars are more likely to have to pay a bribe. Travelling by bicycle, motorcycle or pirogue (the local form of canoe), buys you some chance of avoiding having to pay. But still over 2/3 of the light transport people paid.

4. Carrying gasoline nearly guarantees you will have to pay a bribe.

Benassi and Jarreau found significant differences in how much bribe traders have to pay. The quick and dirty version of their findings is this:

Big cargos are expensive.

Petroleum is really expensive.

Do you want more detail than that?

Here are the details:

a. The bigger your shipment and the more valuable the shipment, the more you will pay. Few surprises here.

b. Locals get a break. If you are coming from someplace far from the border post, you pay. If you are a local business, or you are moving a local product, the guards are more likely to cut you a deal. They may even let you through for nothing. Knowing the border patrol people is helpful.

c. Big companies pay more than poor companies. They have more money with which to pay bribes. However,

d. Motorcycles may be less likely to be charged. But if they are charged, they get stiffed. Motorcyclists pay top rates, more than trucks relative to what they are carrying. Cars also get stiffed, having to pay a premium. In contrast, pedestrians get a break. Pedestrians are not likely to be carrying enough to generate an interesting bribe. Why motorcyclists and cars pay more is not obvious. Trucks might have the protection of a big company – but big companies pay more. I suspect motorcyclists and cars are easier to search than are big trucks. They carry enough to make a bribe worth it, and the inspector might be able to fix a hard price in a fraction of the time it would take to really work through the contents of a truck.

e. Women pay more – but only if they are pedestrians. If a woman is rich enough to have a car, or a motorcycle or even (I suspect this happens rarely) a truck, the guards tend to treat her equitably. If she is walking across the border and is relatively vulnerable, the guards come down hard on her. Informants have told me that women crossing borders to trade are often sexually vulnerable as well as financially vulnerable. If one counted other forms of “payment’ that might have to be made at the border, the estimates of the cost of crossing for women could go up substantially.

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So how do you avoid paying a bribe to cross a border to trade in Benin?

1. Just be prepared to wait in line, and fill out a lot of paperwork OR

2. Carry local products from a known and powerful nearby resident OR

3. Walk across the border and don’t appear to have much. This only works for men.

If none of those appeal, you are in the same situation as over 80% of local Benin traders.

Reality is reality.

Just get used to paying bribes.

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