top of page
  • Writer's pictureNayma Qayum, Manhattanville College

Norms in Tension: tackling one corrupt practice strengthens others (and it might not be a bad thing)

By Nayma Qayum, Associate Professor, Manhattanville College

Corrupt behavior marks a deviation from written rules. Often, such behaviors follow what social scientists refer to as informal institutions or social norms—unwritten, often invisible to outsiders, but well-known to those who live and work in a community. Social norms, as CJL readers well know, are not just everyday behaviors. They are entrenched rules that actors follow. Those who abide by social norms get rewarded, and those who defy them receive sanctions.

When government officials do not follow the prescribed standards or rules, their actions may be driven by social norms that are in direct violation of written rules. In much of the rural global South, these actions can take the form of injustices against the disenfranchised through clientelism, patronage, and bribery. They are prevalent and often illegal. Governments, development agencies, and other organizations target them through laws and anti-corruption programs.

And yet, anti-corruption programs find such norms difficult to challenge. Even ordinary people accept them, and sometimes even prefer them. It is important for practitioners to understand the reasons behind these deviant behaviors, especially in a context like Bangladesh, where many anti-corruption programs implement reforms on the supply side —i.e., government organizations—and not the demand side—ordinary citizens whom these organizations serve. If practitioners overlook the behavioral motivations of ordinary citizens who participate in—and thus help sustain—such norms, anti-corruption programs are unlikely to succeed.

Service Delivery in Rural Bangladesh: Corruption, or Overlapping Social Norms?

What happens when development programs seek to challenge these social norms in the global South? In my work on Bangladesh, I find that collective mobilization programs led by ordinary people can change corrupt behaviors that programs using reform, advocacy, and training have had less success with. I also find that behaviors that defy formal rules can follow multiple social norms and not just obvious and prevalent corrupt practices.

Bangladesh has long retained the status of one of the most corrupt countries in the world. It even ranked number one on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index from 2001 to 2005. Although the country has significant formal legislation targeting corruption, there is insufficient implementation of formal rules. In Bangladesh, anti-corruption organizations are politically charged—and therefore lack the political will to take effective action—and lack accountability measures themselves. Anti-corruption programs are often ceremonial and lack substantive programming measures. They become even more challenging when the written anti-corruption rules challenge prevalent social norms that have long existed as traditional practices. This is accompanied by a dearth of research on how corruption manifests in the everyday lives of poor rural Bangladeshis.

"Learning more about informal practices can allow practitioners to incorporate into program design the expectation that interventions may lead to unexpected outcomes. Development programs must recognize that institutional change takes time. Institutions have a life of their own—they rarely follow a prescribed path, and any institutional shift can take us to unpredictable places."
Graphic of rural population density by SEDACMaps on Flickr

In the area of service delivery, the historically prevalent practice of clientelism still exists; government and non-government service providers hand out welfare services within closed personal networks. Sometimes, they follow good distributive practices and hand out services to the deserving rural poor. However, many rural Bangladeshis (61% of Bangladeshis live in rural areas) also practice what I call transactionalism, the exchange of goods—that should be distributed free of cost—for money. As most anti-corruption programs in Bangladesh primarily target clientelism, understanding transactionalism can help practitioners design better programs that target corruption in rural areas.

Women’s mobilization and social change

In my research I studied a women’s mobilization program whose work illuminates the distinction between different types of corrupt behaviors. Polli Shomaj (PS), a program of the development organization BRAC, brought together rural women to challenge everyday injustices against the poor—ensuring equitable service distribution by various welfare providers; responding to human violations, especially by the rural elite; and participating in local governance systems that typically shut out women and the rural poor. One of these activities involved bargaining with local officials to ensure that welfare resources reach the most disenfranchised rural poor.

In rural Bangladesh, local officials are responsible for handing out welfare goods. Providers include elected local government officials, schoolteachers, and government health workers. In the absence of specific guidelines, they distribute resources based on personal judgment, and sometimes, long-standing clientelist practices. Historically, clientelism dominated resource distribution in rural Bangladesh. In the 70s and 80s, a few strongmen held on to power using government benefits; they chose which villagers received jobs, welfare, and even legal resources. They limited food supplies within their patronage networks and deprived rival groups. And they maintained power using political thugs and formed their networks around kinship groups—i.e., common ancestry—and hired labor.

As development organizations entered Bangladesh with massive funding (US$ 5.04 billion in aid and development assistance received in 2020) and entrepreneurial opportunities, this closed network has opened up. The vast majority of development programs engage in service delivery, including microcredit, which brings new funding and provides the rural poor—and especially rural women—with opportunities to run small businesses. Thus, old land and kinship-based ties were replaced by new relationships based on employment and the market. These changes appear across Bangladesh, where it is rare to find a village without at least one development organization present.

Bangladeshis unloading aid in the wake of the 1991 Bangladesh cyclone. Image: Wikimedia

It is important for development practitioners to understand that these new relationships provide the rural poor with both physical and financial mobility. As a consequence, clientelism which dominates our understanding of corruption and forms the backbone of anti-corruption projects, no longer dominates social relationships in Bangladesh villages.

Clientelism is not the only Game in Town

I found that rural Bangladeshis receive services through a range of distributive practices, including different types of clientelism. Many services are now handed out for free, based on formal written rules as they should be. Yes, older, kinship-based clientelist practices still exist. But they have been mostly replaced by a new electoral clientelism whereby the poor receive services by promising votes in exchange.

This new electoral clientelism allows bargaining on the part of the client—the rural poor who belonged to oppressive kinship or labor relationships now have agency and autonomy. Development programs need to understand and distinguish between the two, as the latter veers away from traditional clientelism and is more like competitive electoral politics. However, instead of voting on policies as citizens in established Western democracies do, in Bangladesh, clients vote for candidates based on whether they serve the rural poor.

Subscribe here to receive the Corruption in Fragile State Blog's posts. We publish every three weeks—enough to keep you informed without cluttering your inboxes.

In addition, rural Bangladeshis practice transactionalism—the exchange of goods for money—a practice that could be classified as corrupt behavior. However, it is also an entrenched and expected practice that provides some benefits for the disenfranchised. In some localities, it serves as a fee to hold a recipient’s place in line. Elsewhere, services are not guaranteed but the fee allows them to include their name in a pool of recipients. Service recipients prefer transactionalism despite the associated cost, as it offers them access to welfare goods that were previously confined within closed networks. And in a distributive system without strict guidelines or accountability, it provides an informal set of rules as well as a distributive mechanism that rural Bangladeshis find useful, and preferable to clientelism.

What Development Practitioners can learn from Local Women’s Groups

Women’s mobilization groups can challenge local corrupt practices in ways that reform or advocacy-based anti-corruption programs cannot. They can hold service providers accountable in a system that lacks such accountability. PS groups negotiate with service providers to ensure that welfare goods go to the poorest villagers. During their open meetings, they draw on their collective knowledge of their communities to make a list of deserving candidates. They take these lists to the local government, schools, and other relevant offices, to bargain with providers.

Thus, PS groups attempt to shift the “rules in use” away from prevalent social norms—clientelism and transactionalism—and towards formal rules. I used a quasi-experimental method to compare PS areas with control areas. In PS areas, clientelism was not as prominent. It was replaced by transactionalism. However, when we focus on the best performing PS groups—the program varied in effectiveness from one locality to another—more PS areas demonstrated exchanges that followed formal rules. In these exchanges, the rural poor acquired services free of any cost or bindings.

"Often, anti-corruption programs find it difficult to succeed due to the difficulties of instilling behavioral change. The very presence of transactionalism suggests that practitioners need to know more about deviant behaviors, not just of corrupt officials, but also of ordinary citizens who abide by such norms."

Accordingly, in areas with the most effective programs, deviant social norms were replaced by formal rules as PS members mobilized and bargained with service providers. In other places, negotiating with officials to challenge oppressive clientelist practices often gave way to transactionalism—a behavior that came with a cost, but which was more inclusive than previous clientelist distributive practices.

Can Anti-corruption Programs Change Social Norms in Rural Bangladesh?

Challenging social norms might lead to desired outcomes—adherence to anti-corruption practices and other written rules. However, it may also create unexpected outcomes. In the case of PS, the unexpected outcome was transactionalism. Rural Bangladeshis understand that transactionalism is immoral behavior. But even as disenfranchised service recipients, they embrace this behavior. For anti-corruption programs to succeed in Bangladesh, practitioners must look deeper into why the rural poor support—and even participate in—what we would typically see as corrupt practices.

The old social norm of kinship-based clientelist relationship allowed local leaders to preserve the status quo. Its purpose was to preserve political power. Newer electoral clientelism allows them to do the same, albeit to a lesser degree. The purpose of transactionalism is twofold. On the part of the corrupt official, it provides access to monetary gains. But on the part of the recipient, it provides access to resources that they did not previously have. Even while recognizing this as corrupt practice, they prefer it as their next best alternative. This signals that the rural poor are willing to embrace informal rules when formal rules do not work, provided that it is less costly and more beneficial than what existed before.

Often, anti-corruption programs find it difficult to succeed due to the difficulties of instilling behavioral change. The very presence of transactionalism suggests that practitioners need to know more about deviant behaviors, not just of corrupt officials, but also of ordinary citizens who abide by such norms. In addition, transactionalism provides accountability in a distributive system where service providers have little guidance or monitoring. Thus, if institutional reform cannot succeed in holding service providers accountable for equitable service delivery, development programs could consider involving ordinary citizens in creating systems of accountability. Collective mobilization programs such as PS can provide such a model.

Finally, learning more about informal practices can allow practitioners to incorporate into program design the expectation that interventions may lead to unexpected outcomes. Development programs must recognize that institutional change takes time. Institutions have a life of their own—they rarely follow a prescribed path, and any institutional shift can take us to unpredictable places.

In Bangladesh, anti-corruption programs must acknowledge these complexities and look beyond advocacy or training programs if they seek lasting change. They need to understand why all actors behave in ways that they do, and what social norms they follow as they go about these actions. They must also allocate greater funding to research so that we can understand how to identify and measure social norms in the community.


Professor Nayma Qayum is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Manhattanville College. She received her Ph.D. from the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Dr. Qayum’s research interests include institutions, gender, and global development. She has previously taught at SUNY Geneseo and City College among other institutions, and held research positions at the development organizations BRAC in Bangladesh and UNDP in New York. Dr. Qayum’s first book, Village Ties: Women, NGOs, and Informal Institutions in Rural Bangladesh was published by Rutgers University Press in 2021.


bottom of page