The broken window theory and fighting corruption in Uganda

By Clare cheromoi

Seven months ago, while attending the international anti-corruption day conference in Kampala, organized by the office of the Inspector General of Government (IGG), I noticed that two concerns monopolized the debate.

One was that the fight against corruption has stagnated over the years; and two, that government action against corruption seems to be targeting the small fish only.

The issue of targeting the so-called small fish in the corruption fight has been the focus of study and debate by many scholars, politicians and civil society organizations, all of them criticizing the Government’s anti-corruption efforts in Uganda.   

In defence of Government, the IGG, Irene Mulyagonja, used the metaphor of “baby snakes”. She argued that whereas baby snakes look small, they are more dangerous than the adults because they have a higher concentration of venom than adult snakes.

Her arguments motivated me to think more about the rationale behind the small fish targets in the corruption fight. After looking at various works on the issue, I now also argue that we should not undermine corruption efforts targeting the small fish.

In particular, the Broken Window theory of policing is gaining momentum. The theory holds that when we fail to contain small crimes such as breaking a window with a stone, they culminate into large crimes later. That is to say, not fighting the small crimes gives the signal that the system is not watchful or does not care enough even about small issues. Furthermore, it argues that small fractures, when left unchecked, have a snowball effect.

When a small snowball rolls down a snow-covered hillside, it picks up more snow in the process, gaining more mass, surface area and momentum along the way. The credibility of this thinking is now supported by various empirical studies worldwide.

Indeed, corruption in Uganda has been compared to a cancer cell which spreads over time. The consensus across the country is that the corruption and permissiveness we see today in Uganda has not started now. The problem has been rolling from one state to another and getting entrenched in almost all spheres of people’s lives.

People are not born corrupt but from small corrupt events, they learn and develop into super thieves. Therefore, the rationale of going for small fish should be supported. While focusing on mega corruption scandals is important, the small cases of corruption are more dangerous because they grow and once they get entrenched, they become harder to fight.

Thus, we should not minimize the fight of corrupt behaviour at any level, however small. If we fail to prevent corruption now, it will escalate into serious problems, which will be hard to resolve.

In conclusion, the Broken Window theory helps us to understand that a holistic approach to preventing corruption, or any other anti-social or economic behaviour, lies in addressing small issues before they escalate into serious problems.

Therefore, all of us in our various capacities should come out boldly to challenge unwanted behaviour, however minor, in our vicinity. That includes our homes, churches, classrooms and communities. That way, we shall all contribute to the prevention of behaviour that causes the social and economic suffering we are faced with today.

The writer is a lecturer in the faculty of social sciences at UCU

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