Home Discussion Papers Finance & Economy Corruption in Africa: A crime against development
Corruption in Africa: A crime against development
Written by Claire Furphy (1) Tuesday, 16 November 2010 08:10

Corruption is a pervasive problem in both the developed and developing world. In recent years, the problem has gained much interest due primarily to a series of high level corruption cases in industrialised countries, an increasing awareness of the cost of corruption throughout the world and the practical and economic changes many countries are undergoing.(2) In Africa however, corruption is a development issue. In 2009, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Southern Africa Representative Jonathan Lucas labelled corruption as “a crime against development, democracy, education, prosperity, public health and justice - what many would consider the pillars of social well being."(3)

Transparency International’s (TI) 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), released in October 2010, identified Africa as the most corrupt region in the world.(4) Sub-Saharan Africa is also one of the most under-developed regions on earth.(5) While Governments commit large sums to addressing the plethora of problems hindering development on the continent, corruption remains a major obstacle to achieving much needed progress. It is therefore imperative that anti-corruption measures form part of Africa’s development agenda to ensure future growth and prosperity in the region.

Corruption is a complex issue with a vast array of determinants and effects that are often context and country specific. This discussion paper provides a concise overview of corruption in Africa and outlines how this corruption constrains development, with solutions to the problem also being briefly discussed.

Corruption is crippling development in Africa

The CPI report defines corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain, in public and private sectors.(6) Countries are scored based on assessments of the prevalence of bribery of public officials, embezzlement of public funds, kickbacks in public procurement, and questions about the effectiveness of public anti-corruption efforts. According to the report, conduct within most African countries in these areas leaves much to be desired. 

The Berlin-based group’s 2010 list ranks six African nations among the 10 most corrupt countries of the 173 surveyed. These are Sudan, Chad, Burundi, Angola and Equatorial Guinea, with Somalia heading the list as  the most corrupt nation of all those surveyed. These six may be the worst culprits on the continent, but the majority of African countries surveyed did not fare any better. TI scores countries on a 10-point scale, with zero being the most corrupt.  Forty-four of the 47 African nations surveyed scored less than five on the index, indicating serious levels of corruption. The severity of Africa’s corruption problem is further evidenced by the least corrupt African nation, Botswana, only achieving a score of 5.8.

The scientific nature of scales and scores may have little meaning to the people affected most by the corruption the figures indicate. An additional report published by TI in 2010, The Anti-Corruption Catalyst: Realising the MDGs by 2015, puts the affects of corruption in perspective.(7) A bribe demanded by a teacher to enrol a girl at a ‘free’ elementary school could irreversibly block that girl's education and future opportunities. A hike in the local cost of drugs by newly elected parliamentarians whose campaigns were supported by pharmaceutical firms might put treatment out of reach of sick people, leaving them unable to work and earn a living. Amounts paid as bribes are often quite small, but the implicit costs are great.

The Anti-Corruption Catalyst report shows, through the statistical analysis of data from 42 countries, that where more bribes are paid, there is a lower literacy rate among 15 to 24-year-olds. A rise in reported bribery is also associated with higher maternal deaths in 64 states, regardless of a country's wealth or how much it invests in health. Data for 51 countries shows that people's access to safe drinking water falls as bribery increases. According to TI, reducing bribery has the same effect on improving access to clean water as increasing household incomes.

The effects of bribery and kickbacks in the education, water and healthcare sectors represent the implicit costs of corruption. These incidents transform corruption into a “regressive tax” on services that the poor cannot afford, making basic services unattainable.(8) Thus, it is the poor and vulnerable who suffer most due to corruption as they are more reliant on Government services and public systems to satisfy their most basic needs. In addition to the bribes that are demanded of those who cannot afford them, corruption results in the deviation of funds intended for development and undermines Government’s ability to provide basic services. It also undermines the rule of law, feeding inequality and injustice, discouraging foreign investment, further impeding development.(9)

A lack of transparency, integrity and accountability is related to economic under-performance and fetters progress toward poverty eradication in many developing nations.(10) As the world’s most under-developed region, the barriers to development and poverty eradication that corruption imposes are costs sub-Saharan Africa can ill afford.

In addition to the implicit costs of corruption due to bribery, there are also hidden costs associated with corruption. The costs of a form of corruption termed “quiet corruption” by the World Bank, adversely affect the poor in particular. The World Bank’s Africa Development Indicators 2010 shows that civil servants' failure to deliver Government-run health, education or agricultural services, further jeopardises Africa’s long-term development.(11)

This form of corruption, smaller in monetary terms and not usually involving powerful officials or large amounts of money, is particularly harmful for the poor. One example of this type of low-level corruption comes from Burkina Faso, ranked 98th in 2010’s CPI with a score of 3.8.(12) RENLAC, the Burkina Faso anti-corruption network, identified a primary school inspector who used to arrange for teachers posted to rural areas to be transferred back to cities if they paid her small sums of money, thus depriving the rural poor of much needed teachers.(13)

Low-level corruption in the education sector is of course not unique to Burkina Faso. In many African countries, teachers at Government schools stay away from class or do not take up appointments in remote regions. The results of this behaviour has devastating long-term effects, as children who are denied a proper education because of absentee teachers will suffer low cognitive skills and associated problems in adulthood.(14) It is clear then that corruption in all its forms is a crime against development that blocks attempts at growth and poverty eradication. Corruption impacts most heavily on the poor and vulnerable members in society, but underdevelopment affects the future growth and prosperity of all people. Thus, fighting on behalf of the disempowered and ensuring Africa’s development means that the responsibility for dealing with corruption falls squarely on all, from Governments and donors to civil society and citizens.


Corruption is endemic in most African societies but is worst in countries where:

  • institutions such as the legislature and judiciary are weak;
  • the rule of law is not strictly enforced;
  • political patronage is the norm;
  • the independence and professionalism of the public and private sectors have been eroded; and
  • civil society lacks the means to hold perpetrators to account.(15)

These features may characterise many African nations, but the problem of corruption can nevertheless be addressed through the combined efforts of individuals in all spheres of society.

In order to eradicate the negative effects of corruption on development, TI calls on all Governments, donors and non-Governmental organisations to adopt anti-corruption measures in all their development strategies.(16) In particular, the anti-graft organisation suggests that the first step in solving the problem is for Governments to implement the 2003 United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), ratified by 145 countries. UNCAC, which came into force on 14 December 2005, became the first legally binding, global anti-corruption agreement representing a significant achievement in the fight against corruption.(17)

The convention takes a holistic approach and includes a comprehensive array of anti-corruption strategies ranging from good governance and structural reform to the participation of civil society. Its four pillars - prevention, criminalisation, asset recovery and international co-operation serve to promote open, honest and efficient decision-making, fair competition and ethical procurement systems, supporting effective Government development strategies.(18)

TI also urges donors to be transparent to allow for greater public oversight of where and how their money is spent. This will help citizens to hold Governments receiving donor funds to account. TI further suggests that transparency can be improved by the regular publication of information on how governance and anti-corruption efforts are being implemented to achieve progress on the Millennium Development Goals. Transparency initiatives could also include national-level access to information laws, information campaigns on citizens' rights, and joining international initiatives to publish information on particular sectors, such as natural resource revenues.

Governments must include anti-corruption measures in their development strategies if progress is to be made in this field. However, Government action will not be enough.  Key to fighting corruption is the inclusion of the private sector in the implementation of anti-corruption strategies. If the fight against corruption is to make any progress, the private sector cannot leave all the work to Government. Businesses must actively seek to eliminate corruption within their ranks, by keeping bribery out of the tendering and procurement processes and eliminating extortion, in accordance with the 10th principle of the UN Global Compact of universally accepted principles regarding human rights, labour, environment and anti-corruption.(19)

Public opinion must support anti-corruption strategies to be a major force in creating an environment in which corruption is not accepted or condoned. Too often in the past, corruption has been seen as a fact of life with corruption cases rarely being reported. Mechanisms must be put in place for citizens to hold authorities to account on matters of corruption. Furthermore, knowledge will empower communities to become part of the solution to the problem rather than the victims of corruption. According to TI, accountability on development progress can also be promoted through measures to increase the involvement of community members, including women and other vulnerable groups, in decision-making processes and monitoring Government pledges and aid projects.(20) The organisation suggests that tools like shadow reports and scorecards can be used to rate Governments against their commitments.

Concluding remarks

Worldwide corruption is a serious problem that weakens societies, ruins lives, and impedes development. As one of the world’s most corrupt regions, it is vital that Africa tackles the problem with increased vigour. Effectively addressing corruption on the continent must become a development imperative as African countries cannot bear the costs of corruption.

As ever, it is the poor and marginalised who suffer most from corruption, but as a threat to the development of the region, fighting corruption becomes the shared responsibility of every African. In addition to anti-corruption measures being made an integral part all development strategies at the State level, the private sector and civil society must assist Government in fighting the scourge.  Only then will Africa be able to achieve the development, growth and prosperity required for the continent to reach its full potential.


(1) Contact Claire Furphy through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Eyes on Africa Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ). 
(2) Lawal, G., Corruption and development in Africa: challenges for political and economic change, Humanity and Social Sciences Journal, 2(1), p.p 1-7, 2007.
(3) Sholain Govender-Bateman, ‘Corruption Africa: A crime against development’, Inter Press Services, 9 December 2009, www.ipsnews.net.  
(4) Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International,  www.transparency.org.
(5) United Nations, The Millennium Development Goals Report, New York: United Nations, www.un.org.
(6) Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International, www.transparency.org.
(7) Transparency International, The anti-corruption catalyst: realising the MDGs by 2015, Transparency International, www.transparency.org.
(8) Ibid.
(9) United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), United Nations convention against corruption 2004, New York: United Nations, www.unodc.org.
(10) Transparency International, The anti-corruption catalyst: realising the MDGs by 2015, Transparency International, www.transparency.org.
(11) African Development Bank,  Africa development indicators 2010, Washington: The World Bank, www.worldbank.org.
(12) Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index, Transparency International,  www.transparency.org.
(13) George Fominyen, ‘African development hindered by "quiet corruption"- World Bank’, Reuters AlertNet, 15 March 2010, www.alertnet.org.
(14) African Development Bank, Africa development indicators 2010, Washington: The World Bank, www.worldbank.org.
(15) Lawal, G., Corruption and development in Africa: challenges for political and economic change, Humanity and Social Sciences Journal, 2(1), pp. 1-7, 2007.
(16) Transparency International, The anti-corruption catalyst: realising the MDGs by 2015, Transparency International, www.transparency.org.
(17) United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, United Nations convention against corruption 2004, New York: United Nations, www.unodc.org.
(18) Ibid.
(19) United Nations Global Compact Office, Corporate citizenship in the world economy: the UN Global Compact 2008, New York: United Nations, www.globalcompact.org.
(20) Transparency International, The anti-corruption catalyst: Realising the MDGs by 2015, Transparency International, www.transparency.org.


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