Golden faucets and a fleet of Mercedes: Public perceptions of corruption in development

An anti-corruption billboard in Zambia. The automatic association that "aid = corruption" undermines public confidence in the work of development organizations. Photo by: Lars Plougmann / CC BY-SA

EDITOR’S NOTE: This blog was prepared by Tom Black in his personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the view of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

I have conducted many focus groups about global development with publics in many different donor countries. Along with “teach a man to fish” and “when do I get my incentive,” complaints about the perceived scale of corruption have come up in every single one.

Indeed, if you’ve spoken to people who work outside the development sector about international development or foreign assistance, I’m sure it’s come up in those conversations too. Suitcases full of money, fleets of luxury cars, mansions, and corrupt officials will all be cited, fueled by stories — some apocryphal, some not — which are ingrained in the public consciousness. And this automatic association that “aid = corruption” undermines public confidence in the work of development organizations.

This is a shame, because we know that foreign assistance programs have seen huge successes. The last 15 years in particular have seen some of the most incredible rates of progress for the world’s poorest.

So what can we do about it? We included some questions in a recent survey to see which arguments do the best job of defending foreign assistance in light of corruption claims.

The chart reflects the findings from a study conducted among 6,000 U.S. adults (nationally representative sample; “Don’t know” responses are excluded).

As you can see, the best bet is to describe what can be done to reduce corruption through aid spending, and focus on our ability to do something about it — rather than accept it as the cost of doing business.

But there’s another question to answer. Should we even talk about it at all? Does raising the issue actually make it worse?

George Lakoff showed us that there are better ways of winning an argument than taking the issue head-on — that sometimes you can reinforce people’s perceptions just by mentioning the topic. So is the same true for corruption in development? Should we just ignore it and hope the public forgets about it?

In short, no. For two reasons.

First, the association of corruption with development is already one of the first things most people think of when you mention foreign assistance. The connection is clear and present in their minds. By ignoring it, we’re not preventing people from holding that view, but rather, allowing it to go unchallenged.

Second, in response to the “don't think of an elephant” argument, there are other survey experiments — according to this article by Jennifer and David Hudson of University College London — which show that while mentioning corruption does decrease support for aid (relative to not mentioning it), the same is not true if you also describe the efforts made to counter that corruption. As with the findings shown in the chart above, the best tactic is to be explicit and direct about what is being done to address the problem.

Public support for global development priorities comes under persistent pressure and we should recognize that, for most voters, these issues are not the most pressing. But if we are going to engage more of the public on these issues, we have to address their skepticism about spending public money to address them.

That requires us to talk about corruption and what we — as a sector — are doing to ensure that money is well-spent.

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About the author

  • Oped tomblack ed

    Tom Black

    Tom Black is a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and works in the measurement and insights team where he manages opinion research on the behalf of the foundation. Prior to this, he worked as a pollster in London working on national, local and European elections for parties of all political stripes.