Agata Slota & Zainab Ravat - Jan 04 2022
For Women, Corruption Looks Different According to Palladium Study

Credit: Jan Simons

Read the full article and study On Women & Corruption, in the Corruption in Fragile States blog.

Why is it that in many contexts, women participate in fewer corrupt practices than men? For decades, researchers have tried to answer this question, and while the likely answers point to structural inequalities, as well as social and gender norms, it’s not quite that simple. In Jordan, it may come down to wasta, “a practice of exchanging favours.”

Yet, we don’t really know what role gender may or may not play in corruption. As a 2020 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNOCD) report notes, there is a “lack of data and primary research on how gender dynamics interplay with accountability, transparency and power structures,” making both anti-corruption and gender equality efforts more difficult.

In 2020, Palladium undertook a study to address this evidence gap on behalf of the UK government and in partnership with the Jordanian social research organisation, Mindset. The study examined the intersection of social norms and corruption, centring on ordinary citizens and their interactions with public officials and institutions.

Wasta is widespread in Jordan, and far more common than bribery. Some forms of wasta are innocuous and could even be socially beneficial—think of a doctor helping a friend’s ill mother-in-law after that friend had provided advice to the doctor’s cousin about a job opening.

But as Transparency International notes, collectively, “[f]avouritism in the form of wasta poses a serious threat to social and economic equality, basic human rights and the rule of law.” This kind of favouritism can range from asking a friend who works in a government office to speed up your drivers’ license renewal application to getting a major infrastructure contract because of your contacts with the right decision-makers.

In Jordan, wasta is often used for functional reasons – many citizens see it as the only way to access quality, timely public services within a governance system perceived to be inefficient and unfair. But the practice has also been normalised within the culture and these normative underpinnings, and the gender norms that intersect with them, need to be understood when designing anti-corruption interventions.

Women Do Wasta Differently

The study found that Jordanian women approve of wasta almost as much as men but engage in it differently. Namely, they are less likely to use wasta directly, and instead seek favours through intermediaries, such as husbands, brothers, or fathers. Why? For one, women have less access to the kind of social ‘power’ that would provide them with services or favours they need and lack access to male-dominated patronage networks.

Women also carry a heavy burden to protect their ‘reputation,’ as a woman seeking wasta directly without a male intermediary risks igniting gossip and an interrogation by men in her family. Fear of ‘sextortion’ is also a factor in deciding whether to invoke wasta.

"Some forms of wasta are innocuous and could even be socially beneficial."

So, what do the findings on gender and social norms and corruption mean in practice?

Three Take-Aways for Anti-Corruption Efforts in Jordan

1. Focus norm-shifting activities and behaviour changes on men to curb wasta

Jordanian men are the main ‘influencers’, for both men and women in their decisions on whether to use wasta or not. Moreover, men’s disapproval (or ‘social sanctions’) of behaviours that don’t align with norms - such as returning favours - are likely to have a greater impact on people’s behaviours than women’s disapproval.

As a result, norm-shifting activities to curb wasta should focus primarily on men—women will simply be much less influential in changing these norms. A social norms-informed approach would call for first changing men’s attitudes and behaviours, and then highlight this change to the wider public.

2. Support greater diversity within institutions

Despite this focus on men, a strong case exists for supporting greater diversity within Jordanian institutions as an effective, long-term anti-corruption measure. As UNODC notes, “For a network of individuals to coordinate any activity that is illegal or widely disapproved of, there must be strong within-group trust, and this trust may be easier to establish and reinforce among people who have gender in common.”

Greater gender diversity within Jordanian institutions would help change the organisational dynamics and could loosen some of the inter-male trust that is necessary for illegal or harmful forms of wasta to be practiced.

3. Choose specific, politically feasible sectors to work

In order to change male-dominated institutions, it is necessary to identify which sufficiently powerful individuals or groups would find it in their interest to make institutions more gender-diverse. This means selecting specific sectors to work in, in which it would be politically feasible to upend the status-quo. Then, it may require providing incentives for powerful actors to promote inclusion.

This would, again, translate into working with (powerful) men in the first instance. However, women’s empowerment efforts would also feed into this strategy to promote inclusion. And these efforts would probably need to be coupled with efforts to shift norms and encourage women’s labour participation.

Anti-corruption efforts cannot be based on social norms interventions alone. But understanding the intersection of gender and other social norms is necessary for designing effective integrated strategies. Careful consideration of how institutions and society are structured, and how norms are formed, maintained and shifted will help focus interventions on the right actors, at the right time.

Read the full study and contact for more information.