A little while ago, in a post reflecting on the role of academics in the anticorruption movement, I noted the distinction between anticorruption classes that focus on “teaching of skills” (helping students become effective lawyers, policy analysts, critical thinkers, etc.) and “teaching of values” (using education to inculcate anticorruption norms and reduce cultural tolerance for corrupt activities). In this post I want to pick up on that latter theme, which has become increasingly important to anticorruption activists and policymakers. Fighting the “culture of corruption,” many have persuasively argued, requires not just changing incentives and formal institutions, but also changing norms and values. And one way to change values may be through education–not only formal classroom education at all levels, but other forms of educational campaigns. For example, many attribute the success of Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption not only to its law enforcement efforts, but to its broad-based educational campaigns to change the attitude of the Hong Kong population. Many countries have tried to emulate some version of this broad-based “anticorruption advertisement” campaign, and there are at least anecdotal examples of such programs making a difference (though not, to my knowledge, and rigorous assessment through something like a randomized controlled trial).
But these sorts of education efforts, if not carefully designed, can prove not only ineffective, but counterproductive. I recently came across a very nice analysis by the political scientist Frederic Charles Schaffer making this point, drawing on a detailed case study of anti-vote-buying campaigns in the Philippines, and to a lesser extent in Thailand. (I haven’t yet had a chance to read Professor Schaffer’s 2008 book, The Hidden Costs of Clean Election Reform, but I gather it goes into much more depth and discusses a range of other issues and countries as well.) The paper is from 2005, so it’s possible some of the specific examples and criticisms might no longer be apt, but my sense is that the larger points are still highly relevant, and quite important to anticorruption reformers who want to use mass education/advertisement campaigns to change citizen attitudes and behaviors toward corrupt practices. I won’t try to summarize all of Professor Schaffer’s nuanced account, but here’s what I take to be the essential argument:
In the Philippines–a country with particularly pronounced class divisions–vote-buying (or, more broadly, the provision of particularistic material benefits by politicians or party operatives, in the expectation–implicitly or explicitly–that these benefits will be rewarded with votes) is a pervasive problem, particularly in poor communities. (That this is indeed a widespread problem, and that this problem results in worse public policy outcomes, particularly for those same poor communities, is reasonably well documented.) To address this, a range of Filipino NGOs, along with the Catholic Church, launched a series of initiatives designed to discourage vote-buying. These included, for example, magazine, newspaper, and TV adds, as well as fliers, saying things like “In this election, don’t sell your character, don’t sell your vote”, “Do you love the country or the money?”, “Don’t be blinded by money. Vote with your conscience”, and so forth.
But it didn’t work (or at least there’s no evidence that it did). To find out why not, Professor Schaffer and his collaborators interviewed a random sample of poor Filipinos. They learned a few things.
- First, many poor Filipinos feel that their more affluent compatriots don’t respect them, and look on them as filthy, ignorant, greedy, or even subhuman. They experience countless small humiliations, and they deeply resent this.
- Second, although much straight-up vote buying likely does occur in the Philippines, a great deal of what goes on is more like politicians or party operatives providing benefits (like paying for wedding or funeral expenses, or helping out with health care) that many poor Filipinos appreciate as a sign of respect and concern with their well-being–sentiments they don’t often feel from the wealthy and powerful.
- Third, when middle and upper-class activists campaign in poor communities with slogans like: “Don’t be blinded by money,” “Do you love your country or the money?”, “Your vote is important, don’t sell it for a bit of pocket money,” this doesn’t change their minds–rather, it triggers even more resentment and alienation. They experience these messages as condescending, and they reacted to the ads with comments like, “[T]his ad is irritating; they think when I vote it’s because of money”, “Automatically this ad impresses upon you that you can be bribed. I find that insulting,” and “The words hurt; they see [poor] voters as greedy.”
This matters not only because voters are less likely to respond to educational campaigns that they view as condescending and out of touch, but also because this alienation can actually make things worse. Professor Schaffer doesn’t have the evidence to rigorously document the alleged adverse effects, but he offers anecdotal evidence at least suggesting that when poor voters feel more alienated, they are less likely to volunteer to assist in the NGOs that are trying to build support for anticorruption efforts, and less likely to volunteer for other crucial roles, like poll-watching in poor election districts. More generally, a feeling of alienation–a feeling that more affluent Filipinos don’t understand them and don’t respect them–can actually fuel corrupt norms by making anticorruption seem like an upper-class value invoked to criticize the poor and the candidates they support.
None of this is to say that anticorruption education campaigns are not useful, indeed vital, to inculcating ethical norms. And indeed, as noted at the outset, some such programs, like that in Hong Kong, appear to have been quite successful. But Schaffer’s evidence provides a number of reasons to be careful and conscientious in the design of those programs. A few suggestions, many drawn from Schaffer’s paper, with a few of my own thoughts thrown in:
- When designing these sorts of educational or advertising campaigns, it’s important to make sure one has an accurate understanding of how the (allegedly) corrupt activity actually manifests itself, and how it is experienced by the targets of the campaign, rather than relying on assumptions or subconscious stereotypes.
- Even when the diagnosis is accurate — for instance, even when it’s true that many people are crudely selling votes in exchange for cash — shaming approaches may not always work, because they provoke denial, resentment. and backlash. Simply telling people to behave might be less effective than weaving anticorruption messages into more general discussions about the problems and struggles of the target population.
- Where possible, members of the target population should be included in the design of the campaign and materials–indeed, when possible, members of those communities should be given a leading role.
- Any sort of media campaign should be pre-tested on focus groups. Amazingly, according to Schaffer’s account, this wasn’t done with the anti-vote-buying advertisements in the Philippines, even though such focus group testing would have been standard for marketing a commercial product.
- As I emphasized in an earlier post, in addition to surveys and focus groups, field tests using randomized trials (and, where possible, measurable behavioral outcomes) may be the best way to produce reliable information about what actually works, and what is counterproductive.