Anticorruption Strategies for Small Population Countries

As I discussed in a prior post, countries with very small populations face distinct challenges when it comes to detecting and fighting corruption. In places where everyone knows everyone, personal ties between decision-makers and stakeholders are practically unavoidable. This not only makes it more difficult to avoid conflicts of interest, but also fosters a culture of informality that may inhibit efforts to impose stricter procedures and requirements for public decision-making. Furthermore, in small, close-knit communities it is harder to ensure anonymity of whistleblowers, and to detect corruption that takes the form of inappropriate long-term reciprocity rather than explicit quid pro quo exchanges.

The distinct challenges posed by corruption in small populations may call for distinct solutions. While there may not be any single solution to these challenges, there are a few approaches that may help:

  • Calling corruption by its name: When a person in a position of public trust prioritizes particular familial or social loyalties over those owed to the public, she is engaged in a form of corruption—abusing her entrusted power to benefit her friends and family. But such corruption may be perceived as benign or even salutary when it takes place in a community characterized by a high degree of close familial and social ties. The fact that these corrupt relationships often do not involve exchange of money may further help to camouflage them as a social interactions rather than as transactions involving the abuse of public trust. Unless corruption is identified and perceived as such, no anticorruption effort is going to succeed. Therefore, there needs to be constant and systematic education within the community to raise awareness about the causes and manifestations of kinship corruption, as well as the harms caused by it, in order to de-normalize this form of corruption (see here, here and here).
  • Leveraging the power of public opinion: In tight-knit communities, informal social sanctions (social exclusion, ostracism, and stigmatization) may be much more powerful in these communities and can be a meaningful constraint on corruption (see here). This is, of course, a double-edged sword: As noted above, unless kinship corruption is recognized as such, those involved are unlikely to be shamed by their peers and may actually be socially punished if they decline to do favors for friends and family. Similarly, social pressure can be used to reinforce clientelism and nepotism (see here and here). But anticorruption reformers can and should try to find ways to leverage the power of shaming, and other social sanctions, to promote integrity.
  • Depersonalize decision-making: As noted above, in small communities, it is harder to enforce the sorts of strict conflict of interest rules that are feasible in larger communities. Furthermore, even where there is no “formal” conflict of interest, in small countries there is an increased likelihood that public decisionmakers will have personal relationships or connections with some of the people who would be affected by their decisions. In a hiring process, for example, those responsible for the hiring will very often have some connection with at least one of the applicants. Therefore, small-population countries should place an even greater emphasis on removing the personal element as much as possible. For example, anonymizing administrative procedures and implementing “blind” decision making not only makes nepotism and clientelism harder, but also reduces the risk of unconscious bias (see here and here).
  • International assistance: Another, potentially more controversial way for small countries to overcome the inherent difficulties in aggressively applying anticorruption laws within a close-knit community is to seek the assistance of the international community, for example by relying more heavily on international assistance to fight corruption. This is not only because outsiders may be less likely to have conflicts of interest. It is also because small population countries may simply have fewer talented people to devote to any single matter, including anticorruption (see here and here). International assistance, for example in the form of manpower with suitable expertise, may help to alleviate such issues.

As we are often reminded, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to anticorruption, and it is also true that there is no one anticorruption recipe for all small countries. Nevertheless, when designing anticorruption strategies for very small jurisdictions, it is useful to recognize some of the common challenges that such jurisdictions face, and to design anticorruption strategies that leverage some of the advantages of smallness while ameliorating some of its drawbacks.