In a lecture at the LSA International Institute on Wednesday, Kelly McMann, a University alum and political science professor at Case Western Reserve University, challenged traditional conceptions of corruption based on more than a decade studying post-Soviet Central Asian republics.

Referencing her 2014 book, “Corruption as a Last Resort: Adapting to the Market in Central Asia,” McMann argued that petty political corruption in developing post-communist countries is not a result of bureaucratic overreach, poverty or a culture that disregards rule of law. Rather, it occurs when citizens have exhausted all other means of acquiring necessary goods and services.

“To reduce and understand corruption, we need to move away from this idea that state institutions and culture propel people — ordinary citizens — into corrupt exchanges, and instead consider their decision-making processes and the alternatives that are available to them,” she said.

The central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan served as ideal case studies to support her thesis, McMann said. She conducted 266 interviews, numerous surveys and lived with nine households between 1994 and 2009 in the three republics. All three countries share a common history under Soviet rule, and engaged in varying levels of market reforms following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The collapse greatly reduced the role of the government in their respective economies and accordingly saw an explosion in corruption.

McMann said the increase in corruption was fueled by the drawdown of centrally allocated resources under the old socialist system did not smoothly allow for a healthy private sector to emerge and replace the state-centralized economy in these countries. Thus, these hollowed-out governments would remain the biggest potential parties for citizens to receive credit or other resources.

“When you have a situation of a legacy of significant state economic intervention, and you introduce market reform but don’t create effective market-building institutions, you end up with a situation of resource-poor non-state actors,” she said.

McMann also emphasized that even though this corruption is generally viewed as “business as usual” in these societies, it is still considered unethical and therefore typically engaged in as a last resort.

Based on her interviews and research, McMann described a typical Kyrgyz farmer looking to expand their subsistence farm through credit. According to McMann, the farmer wouldn’t have enough collateral to secure a loan from a private bank, would find that their local religious institutions and extended family don’t have the resources to extend them informal credit and discover the local government credit program has a long waiting list. Only when there are no other options, McMann said, would that farmer then choose to bribe a local official to get ahead of the waiting list for a government-sponsored loan.

McMann argued that her findings have important implications for anti-corruption efforts around the world, saying, “What my findings suggest is that it’s not sufficient just to tinker with state institutions; you can’t just increase government officials’ income, for example, or create more sanctions for bad behavior, you also need to ask whether there are alternatives so that citizens don’t have to engage in corruption to deal with economic challenges.”

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