Studies by sociologists and political anthropologists across Asia, Africa, Latin America and even pre-industrial Europe show that voters do not see politicians who “bribe” them as acting wrongly. Indeed, in poor communities, the rich legitimise their wealth by exaggerated demonstrations of generosity. A leader who is not generous loses legitimacy. And giving is not only done during elections. Once elected, politicians are inundated with requests for personal assistance from their constituents – to meet burial expenses, pay medical and education bills, and transport costs, etc.
This thesis has powerful implications on “governance.” How do politicians meet these demands of their voters? Their personal income is insufficient to pay for them, so they must have alternative sources of income; hence corruption. Therefore, the more democratic competition a poor country has, the more corrupt its politicians will be. Simon Denyer’s book, `Rogue Elephant; Harnessing the Power of India’s Unruly Democracy’ is a classic statement of this problem.
In a poor country, because delivering public goods and services to all citizens is not affordable, it is cheaper to win the hearts of voters with gifts of rice, meat, salt, and soap.
This incentive structure works in reverse in rich countries. Imagine Norway, where the income of the median voter is about $73,000. Here the voter has a decent job, lives in a nice apartment with all modern appliances – a refrigerator, a washing machine, a drier, television, cooker, running water, electricity, a car, etc. If he was to accept the indignity of selling his vote, he may ask for half a million dollars. If one has to bribe 20,000 voters in a constituency, it would cost $10 billion. This makes voter bribery unaffordable.
Hence politicians in rich countries do better by campaigning on the platform of service delivery because the state can deliver that, given its high public spending per person. And because their voters are well off they don’t need personal favours from individual politicians. These can be affordably paid through the state.
Politicians in poor countries face impoverished voters who demand the aforementioned small favours. These can be paid for from the pocket of a politician better if they have access to unofficial income to pay; hence corruption.
The state is too poor to pay for universal access to public goods and services, even if politicians genuinely desired to. Therefore, it does better by allowing elites to steal public funds and bribe voters. That is the context in which we must wonder how Rwanda, a very poor country, has good service delivery. My cousin, Jude Kagoro, a professor at Bremen University, calls Rwanda’s political leaders magicians. He is right.