Corruption and Cities

by Dieter Zinnbauer

Creative, inclusive and just. Safe, healthy and green. Adaptive, resilient and sustainable. Urbanists frequently articulate these visions for cities, but an important element is missing: integrity.

By integrity I mean transparent governance with preventative measures for controlling corruption — a necessary condition for improving the quality of life in cities.

Source: Rodrigo Abd via the Associated Press
Corruption is not a "weapon of the weak" that greases the wheels of creaky government systems. It is also not a petty nuisance to be ignored. Corruption systemically undermines livelihoods, justice, health, resilience, safety and democracy.

Does this sound like an exaggeration? Let’s take a closer look.

Entrusted with the power to enforce laws, police who abuse their authority become a source of chronic injustice. Unfortunately, this is a common situation in cities around the world.

In a recent household survey across a representative sample of over 100 countries, 42 percent of urban residents who had interacted with the police indicated that they were coerced into paying a bribe. The figures are even more startling in rapidly urbanizing countries: 67 percent in India, Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and 80 percent in Bangladesh and Nigeria.

Urban justice is unattainable when law enforcement is for sale to the highest bidder.

Thoroughly documented corruption in the healthcare sector disproportionately affects low-income communities. Doctors on the public payroll don't show up for work so they can bring in extra income from private practice. Medicines are unaffordable or unavailable due to illegal sales. Hospital workers overcharge, embezzle funds and peddle off counterfeit drugs to unsuspecting patients.

Source: The Guardian

Access to safe drinking water becomes all but impossible when 20 to 40 percent of water budgets go missing due to corruption, or when water mafias work with corrupt officials to keep low-income settlements off the public water networks so that private vendors can step in. Illegal dumping of toxic waste has long been a lucrative business for organized criminal networks, exposing many communities to health hazards.

Efforts to improve public health depend largely on controlling corruption, especially in urban environments where health risks are already at crisis levels.

Urban aspirations, and the many ways that corruption impedes them, are inexhaustible. I have documented an extensive list with empirical evidence in a new Transparency International working paper on corruption in cities.

The data point to a need for cooperation between urbanists and anti-corruption practitioners. A current disconnect between these communities hinders cross-fertilization, mutual learning and collaborative advocacy.

A recent working paper on ambient accountability investigates ways for architects, planners and concerned citizens to collaborate strategically in fighting urban corruption. I plan to discuss specific strategies in a future post. Critical feedback and ideas are always welcome.

Dieter Zinnbauer is a specialist in policy and innovation for Transparency International. More of his work can be found on the Social Science Research Network and Ambient Accountability websites.

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  1. Thank you for bringing up such important issues. This called to mind an interesting section on transparency and governance in Andrew Barry's "Material Politics" ( Here is a quote from pages 57-58:

    "Transparency is a term, according to Christopher Hood, that has attained quasi-religious significance in debate over governance and institutional design: ‘Since the 1980s the word has appeared in the litanies of countless institutional-reform documents and mission statements … it is the pervasive jargon of business governance as well as that of governments and international bodies, and has been used almost to saturation point in all of those domains over the past decade’ (Hood 2006: 3). Hood traces the demand for openness in government back to the work of Spinoza, Rousseau and Bentham. Bentham, in particular, drew an opposition between publicity and secrecy for ‘the best project prepared in darkness, would excite more alarm than the worst, under the auspices of publicity’ (Bentham 1839: 310).

    "If the recent enthusiasm for transparency is simply the latest stage in a long evolutionary process, of ‘publicity’s invasion’, then what is new? Certainly, there is the prevalence of the term’s usage. Hood does not seek to explain why transparency (rather than, say, openness) has become a preferred term, but he does make an important observation: although the term has become pervasive it has also been promoted as a critical element in the recent development of transnational economic governance."

  2. I appreciate the chance to get better acquainted with Transparency International's research methods. The Corruption Perceptions Index seems kind of like university rankings, and possibly harmful in stigmatizing entire countries based on the actions of a subset who abuse power in the opinion of global experts. But at least it raises awareness and maybe pressure for reform. The working papers mentioned here are a lot more impressive. International efforts to fight corruption are certainly valuable, and the concept of ambient accountability looks like an innovative, potentially effective way of going about this at the local level as well.

  3. enjoyed this, very important work.

  4. Excellent post! Thanks for all the data and useful documents!

  5. I enjoyed reading this! Excellent topic.


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