Corruption in service delivery

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted in September 2015 by the United Nations’ High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development as part of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. These 17 SDGs and 169 targets build on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) – eight anti-poverty targets that the world committed to achieving by 2015 – and aim to improve equity and justice across the globe by guiding countries in their efforts to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. Providing citizens around the world access to public services is at the core of the SDGs agenda. 

Public service delivery broadly refers to services provided by governments (local, municipal or national) to their citizens. As such, it encompasses the provision of a wide range of services such as healthcare, education, water and sanitation, identification documents (such as voter registries and passports), telecommunications, licences, and many other services that governments or entrusted private entities, like civil society organisations (CSOs), or companies undertake for the benefit of citizens. 

Many of these services are tied to the realisation of fundamental human rights. Article 21(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that, “Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country”, while Article 25(1) emphasises that, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control”.[1] 

Certain forms of corruption in service delivery (such as clientelism, patronage, bribery) undermine the human right of equal access to public services, and exacerbate fundamental inequalities that violate citizens access, affecting the most marginalised and underrepresented segments of the population the most.[2] Moreover, rampant corruption can lead to breakdowns in the service delivery chain, rendering the state apparatus incapable of meeting its obligations to safeguard its citizens , with catastrophic consequences such as famine and lack of basic medical supplies. Inability or unwillingness to curb corruption can therefore be seen as a failure by states to adequately provide for human rights – civil, political, economic, social and cultural, as well as the right to development – by depriving citizens access to public services. This creates a greater divide and inequality in society as the wealthy can afford private services. There is, therefore, a compelling argument to consider the fight against corruption in service delivery as an integral part of the human rights-based approach to development.[3]

Corruption in service delivery is the form of corruption most frequently encountered by citizens, and can plague all kinds of interactions with the state. According to Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Barometer, 27 per cent of respondents worldwide claimed they had experienced corruption while dealing with a public service provider.[4] This primarily affects marginalised and vulnerable groups, as wealthier, more powerful groups of society are less reliant on state assistance. As such, corruption undermines the “redistributionary” nature of public services, distorts policy decisions away from the public interest and diverts available public resources into the hands of corrupt groups inside, outside and straddling the state apparatus.[5] By undermining the quality and quantity of public services, this type of corruption can fatally erode citizens’ confidence in public institutions[6] and ultimately undermine political stability, as reflected by studies that have found a correlation between civil unrest and low-quality service supply.[7]  

As well as reducing the quantity of public resources available for redistributionary purposes, corruption undermines the quality of services. This can happen in a number of ways. Suppliers can use fraudulent or lower-grade inputs in infrastructure projects or essential supplies (like pharmaceutical products, equipment or textbooks) to increase their profit margin at the expense of intended beneficiaries. Bribery and extortion at the point of delivery can render public services unaffordable for a large segment of the population, effectively depriving the poor of access to key basic services they are entitled to.[8]  

The malignant effect corruption has on the quantity and quality of public services has profound implications for human development outcomes and citizens’ well-being and quality of life. Corruption in service delivery has been shown to have negative effects on poverty rates,[9] human development indicators,[10] mortality rates,[11] child mortality rates,[12] school drop-out rates,[13] trust in governments,[14] and civil unrest.[15] It has also been revealed to have devastating effects on the natural environment,[16] which in some cases can lead to food and water insecurity and mismanagement of precious resources.  

The world's poor are disproportionally affected by the impact of corruption on public services. Research shows that low-income households are more likely to have paid bribes to access basic services than wealthier households.[17] Corruption in service delivery thus exacerbates the effects of poverty[18] and may undermine the outcome of development policies.[19]



Iñaki Albisu Ardigó; Marie Chêne


Matthew Jenkins

Contributing experts:

Umrbek Allakulov (Water Integrity Network)

Shaazka Beyerle (US Institute of Peace)

Simone Bloem (Center for Applied Policy)

Claire Grandadam (Water Integrity Network)

Jacques Hallak (Jules Verne University – Amiens)

Mihaylo Milovanovitch (Centre For Applied Policy)

Muriel Poisson (International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP-UNESCO)

Juanita Riano (Inter-American Development Bank)

Marc Y. Tassé (Canadian Centre of Excellence for Anti-Corruption)

Vítězslav Titl (University of Siegen)

Davide Torsello (Central European University Business School)

Patty Zakaria (Royal Roads University)



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