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Islands of Non-Corruption



In much of the world, corruption permeates every aspect of government functioning. The ministries are corrupt; the army is corrupt; the police are corrupt; the judges are corrupt; the schools are corrupt; the hospitals are corrupt.


But it is not entirely that way everywhere in the Global South. Some entire countries are clean. (Singapore is the star example here.) Other countries have individualized “islands of non-corruption”. These are individual offices or branches of ministries that are technocratic super-performers. Everything else may be going to hell in a handbasket around them. Every other office may have bureaucrats that don’t show up for work, may have piles of paper sitting on desks that never move, and are characterized by uselessness, infinite delays, and political appointees who do a miserable job – if they even bother to do their job at all. And yes – if you want to move a piece of paper off that desk with any amount of speed, it is likely to cost you.


But this does not apply in the islands of non-corruption. Air India was once an island of non-corruption in India. The Policy and Research Analysis Division in the Ministry of Finance in Ghana is one such island of non-corruption today. In the high-performance islands, workers show up on time and stay late until the job is done. The staff is generally highly qualified. Even with political connections, you can’t get into these offices unless you have bona fide relevant technical skills. Levels of idealism and esprit de corps are excellent. The products that come out of these offices are of superlative quality.


What produces these ‘lotus blossom’ departments – these beautiful flowers that grow in murky swamps? Erin McDonnell in the Sociology Department at Notre Dame has written one answer to this question. You can find it in the 2017 American Sociological Review: “Patchwork Leviathan: How Pockets of Bureaucratic Governance Flourish Within Institutionally Diverse Developing States”. This article has won multiple prizes from the American Sociological Association and rightly so.


She documents four super-performing agencies in Ghana – one of which is the Financial Analysis division referred to above. Ghana currently is one of the economic development stars of Sub-Saharan Africa. (Other development stars are Tanzania, Rwanda and, yes, Nigeria, where the proceeds from its petroleum are finally after many decades, being put to excellent work.) Even though Ghana has a strong economy and is viewed as being well-run, it is not the case that every single office in every single government department is a model of Swiss efficiency. In fact, many of the government departments McDonnell examined in Ghana are the disorganized low-work-effort centers of chaos and delay that you would expect from a stereotypical corrupt African government office.


What is the secret sauce that makes these four Ghanaian islands of non-corruption possible?

  • A department leader with high levels of technical competence, ethics and a crusader’s sense of mission about the importance of his or her job.

  • That leader having enough political connections to prevent interference with the department doing the job it was meant to do.

  • *** The Critical Ingredient *** The recruitment of a large body of idealistic highly skilled technocrats into this one particular office. McDonnell is frank and explicit about this point. The department leader goes out to get a monopoly or near monopoly of every technical superstar in the Ghanaian government whose skills would be relevant to the tasks of the office in question. The one amazing office functions because most of the rest of the offices don’t have any superstars at all. In return, one attraction of working in the island of non-corruption is that the prestige and quality of colleagueship in the superstar department dwarfs the prestige and quality of colleagueship in any other office. So the best and the brightest do what they can to be transferred into the superstar department, and as a result, that department outperforms everyone else in government.

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How permanent are these changes? This is hard to tell if you only look at Ghana. However, there are useful insights to be drawn from scholars who study Brazil.


A political scientist who has looked at precisely these issues is Barbara Geddes. In her book Politician’s Dilemma: Building State Capacity in Latin America, she considered super-ministries and super-departments in Brazil. Brazil has a baroque and complicated administrative structure. Duplicating ministries and offices are the order of the day. Why all the double and triple departments?


Geddes argued that Brazilian politicians face a set of double challenges. On one hand, they have to give out political jobs to those people who supported them in the election. Without patronage, they won’t get re-elected. At the same time, they have to actually do something to govern. They need to fulfill at least some of their campaign promises and show some kind of concrete achievement. Otherwise, they won’t get re-elected. What is a Brazilian politicians to do?


Geddes argues that the solution to this problem is organizing a “Mad Tea Party” of both good and bad governance. Because some tasks really do have to be accomplished – presidents, governors and mayors create brand new offices and brand new departments. They fill these new offices and new departments with the finest technocrats they can. They tell this new elite that there is one special important task that the new department has to accomplish. This may be building new hospitals or reducing one kind of crime or improving one kind of education. The goal is desirable, attractive and noble. The brand new technocrats jump at the chance to face an important challenge. They have the full support of the new executive. They go on to do great things. To keep these new departments vital, there are no patronage hires and no corruption. The youngsters are charged with doing their job in the best manner possible.


However, the politician still has to meet their quota of hiring X number of political supporters. So the politician puts the incompetent political appointees into every old office they can find. All of the pre-existing offices get flooded with no-show no-good wannabes looking for sinecures. Not all of the political hires are terrible. Some of these people are idealistic too – and some of the “best of the rest” actually intend to get something done and do so. However, the old offices get slowly filled with paper-pushers and bribe takers and increasingly become less effective.


Note that this happens every time a regime changes. This means that the last governor’s star elite office becomes the locus of new and terrible political hires for the next governor and the governor after that.


This is why I call this the “Mad Tea Party” system. In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland there is a Mad Tea Party where everyone sits at a long tea table with all dirty teacups on one side of the table and clean teacups to their right. When the lead person wants a clean teacup, they say “I want a clean teacup” and move to the clean teacup to their right. Everyone else shifts to the right but inherits the dirty teacup of who was sitting there before them. In the Geddes system, the new governor or mayor gets to have a clean teacup when they come into power. Everyone else gets political hires and has to drink from dirty teacups.


Is this how McDonnell’s Ghana works – or how other meritocratic departments work in countries that are otherwise full of corrupt incompetent ministries? On this point, further research is clearly needed.


But Islands of Non-Corruption are inherently fragile. They can do incredible things during the honeymoon period where the idealistic founder is creating his or her vision and where that founder has the support and protection of the powers-that-matter. In some cases, the prestige of the office may lead to an inheritance of the culture of competence through various different leaders and various different political administrations. It is also possible that a tradition of excellence may come to persist.


But Islands of Non-Corruption are not the same as a Continent of Non-Corruption. Something has to be done at some point to prevent such islands from sinking into ever-rising seas.

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For More Information

For readers interested in levels of corruption in the world today, Transparency International publishes a ranking of nations by their levels of corruption. You can find it at It measures “perceptions of corruption” in nations by well informed observers. These rankings are reliable and well respected.

The best general treatment of corruption can be found in Theobald, Robin. 1990. Corruption, Development and Underdevelopment. Durham, Duke, notably chapters 3 and 4.

For a terrific essay on corruption by my favorite author, look on this website at “How to Corrupt an Idealistic Public Servant”. The site has other nifty essays on corruption as well – some on my work and some on the work of other people.

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