Corruption: the break down of informal institutions

By Laura Ombelet

Singapore consistently ranks as one of the least corrupt countries in the world. While the word ‘corruption’ is virtually antonymous with ‘good government’, tackling corruption continues to remain notoriously difficult even for strong modern states. 

By definition, corruption is an informal institution. Under Helmke and Levitsky’s framework, corruption is a competing informal institution that directly violates the formal rules that exist within government. Informal institutions are often considered highly resilient to change, and this could be why corruption proves to be so difficult to eradicate. However, as countries like Singapore demonstrate, corruption networks can be weakened. So, how is this possible?

Singapore is one of the most well known examples of corruption eradication and today considers itself one of the ‘cleanest and corruption free countries in the world’. If we view the eradication of corruption as informal institutional change, then according to Helmke and Levitsky, this could be the result of changes in formal institutional strength or effectiveness. Before 1959, Singapore was controlled by the British and The Prevention of Corruption Ordinance was not strictly enforced due to weak laws, an uneducated public and underpaid public officers. Consequently corruption was rife. When the new government took over, administrative measures and preventative guidelines were established to reduce corruption. Court punishment for corruption was strengthened and so the costs associated with corruption increased. Therefore committing corruption became a far less viable option than before and with time, levels of corruption decreased. As stated by Helmke and Levitsky, ‘these costs will induce actors to abandon the informal institution’, which is exactly what happened in Singapore.  

If we focus on Singapore, eradicating corruption appears to be rather straightforward. However, Singapore has the added advantage of being a small state; less hindrance to communication makes implementing policy change far easier. Therefore, although we can conclude that the emergence of strong formal institutions aids the eradication of corruption, it is not always the only reason. 

Democratic divergence

By Laura Ombelet

North Korea is notorious for being a totalitarian dictatorship. However just south of the border sits South Korea, a full fledged democracy. The drastic divergence in regime change since 1945 begs the question; how did this happen?

Mahoney’s article ‘Path-dependent Explanations of Regime Change’ centre’s on the idea that divergent regimes in Central America can partially be explained by the choice of ‘reform’ or ‘radical’ policy at the liberal policy choice critical juncture. I wanted to see if it was possible to apply the same concept to North and South Korea. Following World War II and Japan's departure, North and South Korea’s leaders faced a critical juncture; what type of state structure to adopt in the aftermath of independence. If we follow Mahoney’s argument one would assume that South Korea chose reform type characteristics; less state coercion, smaller land estates and less land privatisation. It’s these reform policy options that Mahoney claims led to liberal democracies in Central America. However South Korea’s strong anti-communist agenda led to the implementation of a highly coercive autocratic dictatorship. It wasn’t reformist policies that enforced democratic institutions but the endogenous growth of the democratisation movement in opposition to authoritarian rule that eventually led to South Korea’s transition to democracy in 1987. The adoption of radical institutions did not reinforce themselves and consequently it was possible to switch institutional tracks to democracy. 

In North Korea a communist state was imposed and although conditions were harsh, North Koreans were better off than their southern counterparts. Therefore, there was no development of a democratisation movement in response to autocracy and endogenous change did not occur.

Although Mahoney’s theory of ‘reform’ versus ‘radicalisation’ is applicable to Central America, the same cannot be said for North and South Korea. The growth of the democratic movement is only one part of South Korea’s democratic growth story, however it is possible to see that regime divergence often has many causes. 



Modern slavery

By Laura Ombelet

Slavery is not an issue of the past. Despite its abolishment throughout the 19th and 20th century, 21 million people still exist as slaves today. When someone mentions ‘slavery’ we often conjure images in our mind of thousands being shipped across the Atlantic Ocean to work on plantations in the southern United States. However slavery’s reach is far more relevant than we might initially assume. 

One of the most prominent forms of modern day slavery is human trafficking. Trafficking is defined as ‘the recruitment, transport, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons by means of threat or use of force or other forms or coercion, abduction, fraud, deception [and] the abuse of power’. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade, slaves were often captured in a similar manner. Lovejoy states that slavery was initiated through violence, either as kidnapping, through warfare or as punishment. Deception was also of coercion in the past; slaves were often falsely accused of witchcraft and then detained as criminals. However similarities between slavery in the 18th century and today are not numerous. 

During the transatlantic slave trade, slavery was ‘fundamentally tied to labour’. Although sexuality was significant during the buying and selling of slaves, today the sex trafficking industry features far more prominently in modern day slavery. Masters of slaves were in control of sexual and reproductive capacities and the price of females was higher than men precisely because of this sexual dimension. Nonetheless the production of slaves was highly stressed, especially during the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Today sex trafficking is rising; the multibillion dollar industry is rife in both developing and developed countries marking it as one of societies biggest global challenges. 

It is not possible to paint all forms of slavery with the same brush. Not only does slavery vary through time, but also with region, cause and effect.