Why Anticorruption Reforms Fail—Systemic Corruption as a Collective Action Problem



With an increased awareness of the detrimental effects of corruption on development, strategies to fight it are now a top priority in policy circles. Yet, in countries ridden with systemic corruption, few successes have resulted from the investment. On the basis of an interview study conducted in Kenya and Uganda—two arguably typically thoroughly corrupt countries—we argue that part of an explanation to why anticorruption reforms in countries plagued by widespread corruption fail is that they are based on a theoretical mischaracterization of the problem of systemic corruption. More specifically, the analysis reveals that while contemporary anticorruption reforms are based on a conceptualization of corruption as a principal–agent problem, in thoroughly corrupt settings, corruption rather resembles a collective action problem. This, in turn, leads to a breakdown of any anticorruption reform that builds on the principal–agent framework, taking the existence of noncorruptible so-called principals for granted.