Defining Corruption

Contributed by Obert Chinhamo ( and Gabriel Shumba (

1. Introduction

This paper proposes a distinctive institutional working definition of corruption for use by the Anti-Corruption Trust of Southern Africa. The authors propose that corruption be defined as the abuse or complicity in the abuse of private or public power, office or
resources for personal gain It is essential to note from the outset that there is no single, comprehensive and universally accepted definition of corruption. It would be a long and cumbersome process to come up with a universally shared definition. To come up with such a definition, one would in any event require a functional democracy that involves consultation and consensus by relevant stakeholders. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in the Global Programme against Corruption- UN Anti-Corruption Toolkit2 succinctly states that the difficulties encountered in formulating a common definition are due to legal, criminological and political problems.
Senior (2006:24) attributes the problems of coming up with a convincing definition to the
shades of corruption found in Heidenheimer (1989). Authors such as Heidenheimer
(1989) attribute the definitional problems adverted to above the many shades that
corruption takes and the complex processes of decision making. Heidenheimer is cited by
Kalchheim (2004) as having classified corruption into three categories which are black
corruption4, grey corruption5 and white corruption.

In view of the difficulties surrounding definition, it is often even more difficult to agree on
the necessary punishment of the act itself. There are acts that authorities and everyone
else condemn and agree to punish, but there are also other acts that those in position of
authority may want punish but that public opinion would not agree to censure. Lastly there are corrupt acts that both the authorities and the public opinion regard as tolerable. This scenario makes decision-making long, conflicting and cumbersome.

Though there are technical hitches in agreeing on a common universal definition, it is
extremely important to define it so that the actions of individuals and institutions can be
judged as corrupt or uncorrupt. To this end, this paper explores the definitions given by
different authors and then a draft working definition for use by the Anti-Corruption Trust of Southern Africa is proposed.

2. Defining Corruption

The most effective approach in coming up with an acceptable definition is to look at what
various authorities have written or said about it. As adverted to already, the definitions of
corruption are many and have been widely contested. There is a proliferation of literature
on corruption. A number of authors devote their time and energy to this subject
(Heidenheimer, Johnston and Levine, 1989; Gardiner, 1993; Dolan, McKeown & Carlson,
1988 are a few examples). However, there is little accord about what constitutes a
reasonably comprehensive and widely shared definition of corruption.
Johnston (1996) provides an important typology for the definition of corruption. He
identifies two different groups in the literature on the subject. The first group (Nye, 1967;
Friedrich, 1966; Van Klaveren, 1989; Heidenheimer, 1989) focuses on the behavioral
aspects of corruption. These behavior-orientated researchers hold the opinion that
corruption is the abuse of public office, power or authority for private gain. The second
group defines corruption by roping in the relationship between and among the principalagent-client relationships (Rose-Akerman, 1978; Klitgaard, 1988). These researchers pay more attention to the interactions between and among the parties involved: a principal7, an agent8 and a client.

Senior (2006) also cites authors (Waterbury, 1973; Nye, 1967; Alam, 1989) who supports
Johnson (1996)’s typology. Waterbury (1973) defines corruption as ‘the abuse of public
power and influence for private ends’. Nye (1967) defines it as ‘behaviour which deviates
from the formal duties of a public role because of private-regarding (personal, close family,
private clique) pecuniary or status gains; or violates rules against the exercise of certain
types of private-regarding influence’. The two authors are categorized under Johnson
(1996)’s behavior orientated typology. On the other hand Senior (2006) also cites Alam
(1989)‘s definition which represents Johnston (1996)’s second strand of definitions
showing the relationships between principals and their agents. According to Alam (1989)
corruption is defined as ‘…. (1) the sacrifice of the principal’s interest for the agent’s, or (2)
the violation of norms defining the agent’s behaviour’. Alam (1989) pays attention to the
interactions between and among the parties involved.

Readers who turn to The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary for a definition will find
“dishonest or illegal behaviour, especially of people in authority:”10 Those who turn to The
Concise Oxford Dictionary will find ‘decomposition; moral deterioration, use of corrupt
practices (bribery etc); perversion (of language etc) from its original state’. The Oxford
Unabridged Dictionary defines it as “perversion or destruction of integrity in the discharge
of public duties by bribery or favor.” The Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines
corruption as “inducement to wrong by improper or unlawful means (as bribery).” Curzon
(1997:90) defines corruption as “… an inducement by means of an improper consideration
to violate some duty”. Garner (2004:370) defines corruption as “The act of doing
something with an intent to give some advantage inconsistent with official duty and the
rights of others, a fiduciary’s official’s use of a station or office to procure some benefit
either personally or for someone else contrary to the rights of others”. The ‘Lectric Law
Library’s Lexicon defines it as “An act done with an intent to give some advantage
inconsistent with the official duty and the rights of others. It includes bribery, but is more
comprehensive; because an act may be corruptly done, though the advantage to be
derived from it be not offered by another.”11. Another author Neild (2002) defines
corruption as “the breaking public persons, for the sake of private financial or political gain, of the rules of conduct in public affairs prevailing in a society in the period under
consideration”. The definitions are usefull since they avoid one of the weaknesses of Nye
(1967); Friedrich (1966); Van Klaveren (1989) and Heidenheimer (1989) of confining
corruption to the public sector. However, the definitions are too broad to make sense to
anyone interested in understanding what corruption is.

The Southern African Development Community in the Protocol against Corruption defines
corruption as “any act referred to in Article 312 and includes bribery or any other behaviour in relation to persons entrusted with responsibilities in the public and private sectors which violates their duties as public officials, private employees, independent agents or other relationships of that kind and aimed at obtaining undue advantage of any kind for themselves or others”. The definition is more detailed as compared to Johnston (1996)’s list of the first group (Nye, 1967; Friedrich, 1966; Van Klaveren, 1989; Heidenheimer, 1989) since it recognises that corruption also takes place in the private sector and other settings.
What is also significant about the SADC definition is that it gives the leeway to include acts
of corruption that are hidden in the contemporary democratic processes. For instance,
cases of rigging of elections, putting in place biased electoral institutions and processes,
abusing national resources for political gains, hijacking of law enforcement agents, vote
buying, . There is however, need for such acts to be clearly spelt out in the list of acts of
corruption, which the SADC did not do.
Transparency International (TI) defines corruption as “the misuse of entrusted power for
private gain”13 According to TI (2007:xxi) in its Global Corruption Report 2007: Corruption in Judicial systems, private gain means “both financial or material gain and non-material gain, such as the furtherance of political or professional ambitions”. This is similar to the definition by United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in its Anti-Corruption Strategy it also defines Corruption as “… the abuse of entrusted authority for private gain”14 The succinct definition of the World Bank is “the abuse of public office for private gain.”15

The above definitions are short and precise. However there has been a tendency to
generalize and take for granted the fact that the power that individuals and institutions
misuse is ‘entrusted power’ yet there are other types of power such as referent16 and
coercive17 power that are abused which are not necessarily entrusted to those who have
‘authority’. The words ‘entrusted power’ imply that one does not own that power but its
owned by the people and they can take it away if they feel that it is not being used to their
satisfaction. The contemporary world is awash with ugly faces of dictators who impose
themselves to the people through coups and other means. There are also cases in
whereby people hold power because of their association to high offices. There are many
cases that can be quoted to substantiate this view.

According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in its Anti-Corruption
Practice Note, corruption is defined as “the misuse of public power, office or authority for
private benefit – through bribery, extortion, influence peddling, nepotism, fraud, speed
money or embezzlement”.18 According to the Report of the Common Wealth Expert Group on Good Governance and the Elimination of Corruption, in the book Fighting Corruption – promoting Good Governance, produced by the Common Wealth Secretariat 200019, Corruption is generally defined as the abuse of public office for private gain. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) defines corruption as “the misuse of public office for private gain. It encompasses abuses by government officials such as embezzlement and nepotism, as well as abuses linking public and private actors such as
bribery, extortion, influence peddling, and fraud”.20 The definitions do not include
corruption in the private sector which is also worth mentioning. In the same Anti-Corruption Practice Note, UNDP acknowledged that corruption is also prevalent in the private sector but this should be incorporated in the definition.

As has been spelt out above, corruption should not be confined to the public sector. The
definitions should be ranked at the same level as those of Nye (1967); Friedrich (1966);
Van Klaveren (1989) and Heidenheimer (1989). All these definitions are incomplete since
corruption also takes place in the private sector, non-governmental organisations and
other sectors that can not be represented in UNDP and USAID’s label of ‘public power and

The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) states that corruption occurs when ‘….organisations or individuals profit improperly through their position in an activity, and thereby cause damage or loss’. SIDA further states that corruption is widespread in states where ‘the legal system, mass media and the public administration are weak and undeveloped. Three levels of corruption are usually referred to: petty corruption (bureaucratic corruption), grand corruption (political corruption) and state capture (corruption which affects the entire state apparatus)’21 This definition is very important in this debate because it is elaborate.

The above notwithstanding, it is important to take note that there are some forms of
corruption that do not necessarily cause damage or loss. In this regard, there are some
laws that have been made and amended to give an advantage to some politicians so that
they can retain power. In Zimbabwe, the Constitution and laws such as the Public Order
and Security Act (POSA) and Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA)
have been crafted in such a way that it will be difficult for the opposition political parties to
effectively participate in politics and meet their constituencies. This has helped to keep
ZANU PF in power since 1980. It is not clear whether the ‘damage and loss’ referred to
includes such cases.
Senior (2006) states that corruption takes place when “… a corruptor covertly gives a
favour to a corruptee or to a nominee to influence action(s) that may benefit the corruptor
or a nominee and for which the corruptee has authority” The Asian Bank defines
Corruption as ‘……. behavior on the part of officials in the public and private sectors, in
which they improperly and unlawfully enrich themselves and/or those close to them, or
induce others to do so, by misusing the position in which they are placed’22 The definitions
by Senior (2006) and The Asian Bank recognize that corruption takes place in both private
and public sectors.
3. Proposed Working Definition
Before giving an institutional working definition, it is important to make some observations
on the many definitions given above:
a) Defining corruption as ‘the abuse of public office for private gain’ is too narrow
because there are many more phenomena that deserve the label “corruption” than
those that involve the abuse of public office for private gain23 This idea is supported
by Warren (2004) who pointed out that the definition does not fit well in corruption
of the democratic processes.
b) Some of the definitions are too broad and are subject to misinterpretation.
c) most definitions given above take for granted that corruption takes place in the
public sector yet it is also rampant in the private sector. This applies to all
individuals who define corruption as the abuse, use or misuse of entrusted public
power, office and authority for private benefit.24
d) The definitions do not hold responsible all those who fail or neglect to take
measures or fail or neglect to exercise sufficient oversight In as far as preventing
and combating corruption is concerned.25

e) It is also important to take note that not all power, office and authority is entrusted.
f) Not all acts of corruption result in damage or loss26.
After putting into consideration all of the above issues, the following definition is proposed;
Corruption is the abuse or complicity in the abuse of private or public power,
office or resources for personal gain.
The definition has the following characteristics;
a) It recognizes that corruption takes place in the both the private and public sectors.
b) It holds individuals and institutions that are involved in the abuse of power, office
and authority vicariously responsible for corruption.27
4. Conclusion
The proposed definition recognizes that corruption takes place in both the private and
public sectors and also holds individuals and institutions involved in corruption vicariously
liable. It remains a draft proposed working definition until the Board of Trustees of the Anti-Corruption Trust of Southern Africa revises and approves it.
5. References
· Alam, M S. 1989, ‘Anatomy of corruption: an approach to the political economy of
underdevelopment’ American Journal of Economics and Sociology, 48 (4): 441-456
· Hornsby A. 2000 Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary of Current English. Oxford
University Press
· Garner, B, 2004. Black’s Law Dictionary, 8th Edition, Thompson West.
· Heidenheimer, A, J. 1989. ‘Perspectives on the perception of corruption’ in A.J.
Heidenheimer, M. Johnston and V Levine (eds) Political Corruption: A Handbook,
New Brunswick
· Heidenheimer, Arnold J, M, Johnston and VT Levine (eds) Political Corruption: A
Handbook, New Brunswick and Oxford: Transaction Publishers, 1987
· Johnson, R. A. and S.Sharma (2004), “About Corruption”, in R.A Johnson (ed.),The
Struggle against Corruption: A Comparative Study, New York: Pelgrave Macmillan
· Klitgaard, R. 1988.Controlling Corruption. Los Angels: University of California
· Klitgaard, R. 1984.Corruption in Mexico. Cambridge, Mass: Kennedy School of
· Klitgaard, R. 1991.(Strategies for Reform” Journal of Democracy, 2(4):86-100

· Michael, B. 2007. Working Paper 150. Drafting Implementing Regulations for
International Anti-Corruption Conventions: Linacre College and the American
University in Paris
· Neild, R (2002), Public Corruption: The Dark side of the Social Revolution, London:
Anthem Press.
· Nye, J. 1967. “Corruption and Political Development: A cost benefit analysis”
American Political Science Review. P.417
· Reed S. 2007. Corruption as Political Parasitism: Paper presented at the workshop
on Corruption and Democracy (June 8-9 2007).
· Rose Ackerman, Susan, 1978. Corruption: A Study in Political economy. New York.
Academic Press
· Senior, I (2006), Corruption-the World’s Big C- Cases, Causes, Consequences,
· The SADC Protocol against Corruption (2001).
· The UN Convention against Corruption (2003).
· The AU Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption (2003).
· Transparency International, 2007. Global Corruption Report 2007: Corruption in
Judicial systems. University Press, Cambridge

About Anti-Corruption Trust of Southern Africa

The Anti-Corruption Trust of Southern Africa (ACT-Southern Africa) is a non-profit making organisation registered to facilitate the sharing of anti-corruption best practices and advocacy against corruption in Southern Africa.
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1 Response to Defining Corruption

  1. Evan Reho says:

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