The Pursuit of Integrity in Customs: Experiences from Sub-Saharan Africa

Odd-Helge Fjeldstad


Why have many anti-corruption reforms in customs in sub-Saharan Africa apparently not succeeded? This paper argues that the reforms have been too focused on formal institutions, and have paid too little attention to political economy issues and the role of informal institutions. Customs officers are often torn between compliance with abstract bureaucratic norms and the concrete expectations of their networks of social belonging. Accordingly, policy initiatives should focus more on reducing the possibility or attraction of favouritism versus acting in the public interest. This calls for anti-corruption efforts based on thorough political economy analysis.

Efforts to support anti-corruption reforms have often adopted a prescribed and mechanical approach, featuring quantitative performance targets, the redrawing of organisational charts, training courses, and so on. While such strategies may be necessary, they are not sufficient to building an internal culture in customs with a strong mission focus and performance-oriented practices.

In many customs administrations patronage runs through networks grounded on ties of kinship and community origin. Customs staff are seen by their family members and social networks as important potential patrons who have access to money, resources, and opportunities that they are morally obliged to share. In turn, customs officers are motivated to build up networks based on reciprocity as a way of banking assistance for the future: the state is perceived to be an unreliable provider of assistance. Thus, a spiral is created in which informal networks undermine reform efforts, perpetuating the need for their continued operation.

Patronage networks foster parallel organisations within customs, in which posts are valued for the illicit gains to which they provide access. In addition, politicians commonly intervene in customs to grant favours such as managerial positions and import duty and tax exemptions to supporters, or to harass political opponents through audits.

Fighting corruption in customs therefore requires reformers to attend to the informal networks that often determine the behaviour of customs officers and of politicians. Reformers should consider the importance of:

  • Impartiality-enhancing institutions. Reforms need to improve the accountability environment. This could involve strengthening civil society, business and trading associations, and the media. Accountability institutions need access to information about revenue collection (what has been collected from whom, where and at what costs), capacity to analyse and act on information, and motivation to do so. (For example, if civil society organisations depend on government support, they may be disinclined to demand better government performance.)
  • Political will. Customs reforms are often highly political, contested processes that take time to achieve. Their successful implementation requires political support from the highest level.
  • Establishing constructive client-customs relations. The private sector must be actively involved in identifying and implementing practical solutions to fight corruption, but the government needs to show commitment regarding its use of revenues and to design and implement policy non-arbitrarily. Reforms to clarify customs legislation and improve collection procedures should take place concurrently.
  • Building an enabling internal culture in customs with a strong mission focus. Internal leadership and culture are likely to be keys to establishing meritocratic and performance-oriented organisational behaviour in circumstances where formal institutions are weak. Customs administrations could be given more autonomy in personnel matters to facilitate greater capacity to set performance standards for its employees and to hold them accountable.
  • Fair remuneration. It is important to provide appropriate conditions of employment and remuneration that include rewards for good performance, and that can sustain a reasonable standard of living. However, increased pay can simply increase the expectations of officers’ kinship networks: positive incentives should be complemented by negative incentives.

Sustainable change demands sustained effort, commitment and leadership over a long time. The big challenge is to use setbacks as learning opportunities, rather than as excuses for abolishing reforms.


Fjeldstad, O.-H., 2009, 'The Pursuit of Integrity in Customs: Experiences from Sub-Saharan Africa', Chr. Michelsen Institute, Norway