Dr Leena Koni Hoffmann
Raj Navanit Patel
Publication Date
May 1, 2017

Chatham House Africa Programme Associate Fellow (Hoffmann); and Chatham House Africa Programme Project Consultant, Member of University of Pennsylvania’s Social Norms Group (PennSONG) (Patel)

“Corruption tends to foster more corruption, perpetuating and entrenching social injustice in daily life. Such an environment weakens societal values of fairness, honesty, integrity and common citizenship, as the impunity of dishonest practices and abuses of power or position steadily erode citizens’ sense of moral responsibility to follow the rules in the interests of wider society."

This report aims to diagnose what drives corrupt behaviour in Nigeria, and the types of beliefs that support practices understood to be corrupt. The findings are based largely on a national household survey jointly developed by the Chatham House Africa Programme and the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Norms Group (PennSONG), in collaboration with Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics as well as a network of academics and practitioners from Nigerian universities and non governmental organisations (NGOs). The research is based on the belief that identifying and understanding the specific social drivers of specific collective practices is key to designing targeted and effective policy interventions to change those practices. This report makes the case that anti-corruption efforts in Nigeria can be designed or adjusted, based on lessons drawn from behavioural studies, to more effectively reduce practices such as bribery, extortion, nepotism, and embezzlement. It presents new evidence on key social drivers that influence people’s decisions to engage in or avoid corrupt activity, as well as factors that may impede collective action against corruption. It also highlights lessons from some case studies of successful social campaigns and the critical ingredients for success or failure.

The research underlying this report examines the beliefs and expectations that sustain certain forms of corruption in Nigeria from a ‘social norms’ perspective. Social norms are particular kinds of behavioural beliefs, expectations and values shared and endorsed by a particular group or society. This means that people’s behaviours are strongly influenced by what those around them are doing and think should be done. As explained in the report, social norms determine accepted forms of behaviour in a society, and act as indicators of what actions are appropriate and morally sound, or disapproved of and forbidden. Disapproval of a practice, and the social consequences of failing to adhere to one’s community’s expectations - such as gossip, public shaming, or loss of credibility and status - are usually a powerful influence on the choices people make. Equally powerful are the approval, social respectability and esteem attached to behaviour that is evaluated within one’s community as being right or acceptable.

The following are some of the key findings and critical challenges identified by the research (as extracted from the Executive Summary):

  • Social norms of corruption are limited to specific contexts and sectors in Nigeria - Social norms exist around specific sectors and practices, for example, law enforcement and bribery, but are not as widespread as people may assume. The findings of this research project show that social norms drive the solicitation of bribes by law enforcement officials, whereas the giving of bribes is influenced more by circumstances and by people’s beliefs about what other people are doing. There are thus opportunities for targeted interventions to address the specific beliefs and expectations that motivate corrupt behaviour in specific sectors and practices.
  • If the environment or options change, behaviour will change - A clear majority of respondents in Nigeria’s rural and urban areas know when a practice is illegal, and think that others know this too. But individuals may engage in a practice that they know is wrong because they observe others doing so, or as a rational response to a situation. In many of the scenarios analysed in this study, corrupt behaviour was rationalized as a response to the choices and pressures that people face.
  • Collective action is sometimes impeded because people have misconceptions about what other people really think - Survey respondents frequently underestimated the extent to which fellow citizens believe corruption to be wrong. If people were aware of how commonly held their personal beliefs are, they would be more motivated to act collectively against corruption. Anti-corruption efforts may have the greatest chance of success if they stem from a shared sense of responsibility and urgency – and thus foster collective grassroots pressure.  The crucial step is translating this shared belief into an effective and sustainable coalition for collective social action.
  • In Nigeria, the social contract between government and the people is very local and not national - There is a deep-seated lack of confidence in official institutions, or in the universal application of a fair and neutral rule of law. This severely weakens the consolidation of a Nigerian national identity based on common and equal citizenship. Instead, less effective social contracts are forged particularly around ethnic or religious identities – an arrangement that fuels intercommunal distrust – and increasingly fragmented social identities impede the construction of a national social contract that could form the basis of collective action to overcome corruption.
  • The true costs and consequences of corruption are hidden within the normal interactions of daily life - People tend to engage in certain forms of corruption as a practical response to obstacles and inefficiencies in Nigeria’s administrative and economic systems. Clear information is needed on how individuals’ seemingly innocuous routine interactions can collectively impose a heavy cost on society as a whole, damaging the public institutions Nigerians are supposed to rely on to provide security and essential administration and social services.
  • Tough talk and fear-based messaging cannot substitute for authenticity and exemplary behaviour - As long as the Nigerian government’s interactions with citizens continue to be marred by extortionate behaviour and expectations of bribery, the state deprives itself of the moral basis to lead in addressing the country’s corruption problem. Routinely abusive behaviour by public officials is an obstacle to building public trust and stimulating collective action. Instead, it fosters public cynicism, apathy and a sense that different rules apply to different groups. Government-led anti-corruption campaigns will only be perceived as sincere if they are self-examining and self-correcting.

Based on the findings, the report proposes a range of policy approaches which include administrative and legal reforms, as well as recommendations related to changing behaviour through targeted and appropriate communication. The following is a brief outline of a selection of recommendations that are relevant to communication (as extracted from the Executive Summary):

  • Targeting sectors and communities with information on the human costs of corruption - Anti-corruption campaign messages should be reframed to resonate in affected communities, contexts or sectors by using pertinent and positive norms, values and expectations. Showing how these are undermined by corruption can help render the drivers of corrupt behaviour socially unacceptable. Messages about the cost of corruption will be more effective if they seem relevant to a specific audience, rather than generic and unfocused. Local design and applicability is key. Respected local figures – such as religious and community leaders – who exert social influence can help to convince people to accept evidence of the cost of corruption and overturn notions that a corrupt route is a more efficient way of doing things.                                         Messages targeted to engage Nigeria’s large youth population will be vital in inculcating a lower tolerance of corruption in the next generation. Social and community media can be effectively used to spread social norms messaging among the youth population, and over time this can have a positive influence on opinions and attitudes in wider society. Television and community radio can also show the true human and moral costs of corruption to the futures and life chances of young people. Age-appropriate interventions could, moreover, be integrated into citizenship and civic education programmes in primary and secondary schools nationwide.
  • Reframing the approach to anti-corruption messaging and interventions - Research suggests that the way in which messages about problematic behaviours are framed is critical to the effectiveness of social campaigns. Official anti-corruption campaigns in Nigeria have tended to use tough, intimidating and sometimes aggressive language; but such messages often fail to be sustainable or convincing because the behaviour of the government and its agents is perceived as unchanged or hypocritical.
  • Highlighting and empowering trendsetters (both real and fictional) to drive behavioural change - Leadership on anti-corruption can only be successful if it is by example. The behaviours and actions of Nigerian political actors play a major role in setting social trends, forging public trust and inspiring positive behaviour. As key trendsetters, political actors and officials must measure up to higher standards of integrity, honesty and transparency in order to send a powerful signal regarding the government’s commitment to changing negative social norms and regaining public trust. Behavioural interventions should thus be targeted towards trendsetters who can be persuaded to abandon certain practices and persuade others to follow. Where trendsetters cannot be identified, the media may be used to exemplify alternative lifestyles and behaviours and thus encourage change. Education entertainment (‘edutainment’) has been used successfully by governments and international organizations to promote behavioural changes and disseminate useful information.
  • Using trendsetters and social marketing strategies to overturn the false beliefs that tend to drive corrupt practices - Social marketing strategies that urge people to act in keeping with their personal aversion to corrupt practices can be highly influential, and can generate critical mass support for social change. There is also scope to boost public awareness of the laws governing the behaviour of public officials and setting out their responsibilities towards citizens. Accountability channels – such as confidential text-message hotlines – can allow citizens to make complaints and report corrupt acts by officials without jeopardizing their personal safety.
  • Integrating behavioural insights into anti-corruption strategies - Behavioural drivers influence the attitudes that people adopt towards corruption, and the choices they make about how to act. Nigeria’s anti-corruption agencies should therefore systematically integrate an informed understanding of behavioural drivers as part of the long-term approach to their mandates. It is recommended that an interagency unit be established in Nigeria to review and hone anti-corruption messaging, and to advise how behavioural lessons can be practically, ethically and most effectively applied at all stages of policymaking – from diagnostics to design, implementation and evaluation – rather than as a separate approach that produces ‘behavioural policies’ as add-ons.

Chatham House website on May 23 2017.

Photo credit: Getty Images.