The social norms of bribery

Congolese PolicePolice at the Gombe station, Kinshasa, DRC

Aid Watch had a good post a while back about why “failed state” is a failed concept, which sums to the recognition that current use of the phrase A) offers no coherent definition of state failure and B) offers no analytical insight into the political trajectories of states considered failed.  Unsurprisingly, this contributes to a lot of confused thought about the Congo, which often gets termed something like “the world’s largest failed state.”  The sloppiest reporting & analysis end up portraying the country as an economic free-for-all, with chaos envisioned as the inevitable consequence of the absence of Western standards of legitimate taxation & property rights, among other things.  (Texas in Africa recently did a great take-down of Jeffrey Gettleman on a variant of this mode of thought, with specific regard to the war in eastern Congo.)

This is a very two-dimensional way of looking at a place as fascinatingly complex as the DRC.  Case in point: the social norms that have developed around the endemic corruption of the Kinshasa traffic police.  Bribe-seeking is technically illegal & unregulated behavior, and can look rather chaotic to the first-time observer.  If you’re wealthy enough to be traveling by car in downtown Kin, you may rest assured that the roulage will be looking for any pretext to stop you and ask for payment of an imagined fine.  (In the situation leading up to the photo above, a friend had parked quite legally in a designated parking spot outside my apartment – after which we were surrounded by police & escorted to the station on claims that we were blocking the road.)  Interestingly, though, the key word here is pretext. I never saw any interaction between the police & drivers that did not involve some sort of legalistic claim to the driver’s money, even if both parties knew that the accusation was false.  By contrast, white foreigners probably look just as wealthy walking down the street as they do when in cars, but the same police officer who stopped us morning after morning whilst we were driving to work scrupulously ignored me when I walked past him on my way to lunch.  Imagined moving violations are presumably easier to justify than imagined walking violations, and the group norm specified that bribery in this particular location had to have a legal pretext.

5 thoughts on “The social norms of bribery

  1. You haven’t romanticised it,but it was a close run thing….

    I drove around Dar es Salaam today with an out of date tax disc. Why? The new one is on the other side of town and I calculated that given the things I had to do today I would have needed a taxi or my car. If stopped by the cops, my bribe (no inverted commas)would have been similar or less than the taxi fares. So of course, people behave rationally.

    In response to TiA, the taxi driver whose cab I was in a couple of weeks ago didn’t t see the shake down that day (about $1.50 equivalent) as a ‘directly paid tax’ and he, like most other road users is not ‘willing’ to pay but is compelled to pay through an implicit threat.

    So don’t believe the robin hood angle. Again in Dar es Salaam, it is a well organised racket that reaches to the top of the force. It mostly targets public transport. Operators don’t protest as it allows them to continue plying with dangerous vehicles.

    It may be organised, it may be acceptable to certain interests but it is not acceptable to most and to equate it with tax is disingenuous.

    Equating it with tax


  2. Great points, Rachel. One of the more interesting things about “bribery” in the DRC is that it’s not always considered to be “bribery” when one makes a direct payment to an official. Everybody knows two things: 1) they’re not paying taxes and 2) government employees have to find a way to get paid somehow. Most people are willing to pay, say, the driver’s license guy – and even the police – a certain amount in exchange for whatever it is they need. I’m not sure it’s accurate to call those payments “bribes.” They’re much more like directly-paid taxes.

    What gets people upset is when they see the payments demanded as being excessive (eg, a judge who sells “justice” to the highest bidder). It would be really interesting to know where the line is drawn and why – very interesting study of a collective action dilemma for a grad student needing a dissertation topic. :)


    1. Hi Laura,

      That’s such a fascinating point! And really a very reasonable understanding of the situation. Do you have a sense of the degree to which the lower level taxes/bribes/whatever they are are standardized by service or by the rank of the official involved? (I think my mental conception of bribery involves more opportunistic profit maximization, whilst something implicitly understood as a tax involves more standardization – but here’s me projecting categories onto something I don’t have firsthand experience with.)

      I’d totally read that dissertation, also. : )




  3. What I think this really means is that we should not rely on journalists and economists to learn about complex concepts of state failure (or for that matter, state building)!


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