Uncovering JAPA

Planning for Corruption in Sub-Saharan Africa and Beyond

Although widespread, the dynamics of corruption and the conditions that give rise to it remain understudied in planning literature. In "Planning Corruption or Corruption Planning?" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 88, No. 3), Emmanuel Frimpong Boamah and eight colleagues shed light on the factors that create incentives and opportunities for corruption in Ghana and sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) more broadly. They argue that the pervasiveness of perceived and real corruption poses important challenges for planners that warrant more attention.

Planners in Ghana Combat Pervasive Corruption Challenges

In Ghana, like many SSA countries, the history of colonialism imposed a top-down, bureaucratic planning system that persists today. The authors note that in these structures, planning laws and practices are especially vulnerable to being corrupted for private gains, because they are often discretionary while also being opaque and disconnected. Structural incentives and the presence of coercion also influence behavior in practice.

The authors designed their study to explore the complex interplay between structures, personal values, and coercion that together give rise to corrupt behaviors. Through an online survey coupled with semi-structured interviews, they sought to understand how planners in Ghana experience and cope with corruption in practice. Over half of survey respondents indicated they had encountered public works corruption, defined in the figure below, while a similar number encountered bureaucratic corruption. The figure shows respondents' experiences with various subcategories of corruption.

Figure 2. Forms of corruption experienced by planning practitioners. Source: 2020 Survey of planning practitioners in Ghana. Illustration assistance: Joshua Diamond.

Figure 2. Forms of corruption experienced by planning practitioners. Source: 2020 Survey of planning practitioners in Ghana. Illustration assistance: Joshua Diamond.

Structural Factors Foster Planning Corruption Worldwide

The survey and interviews revealed that many structural factors leading to planning corruption are prevalent across administrative regions in Ghana. Such elements — including lack of coordination across agencies, vague processes, and lack of oversight — were particularly common in the realm of land use and development.

Interviews also revealed the frequency with which planners found their values and integrity in conflict with their higher-ups'. Even planners who were personally opposed to corruption reported feeling vulnerable in the face of coercion from superiors. Overall, the findings reinforce the notion that further study is needed to more clearly unpack how corruption occurs.

While their study focused on Ghana and the SSA context, the authors emphasize that corruption is a global phenomenon. The economic, political, and social benefits that can result from planning decisions mean that practitioners everywhere should be alert to the conditions that make corruption possible or even likely.

As a current student, it is interesting to consider how these findings might relate to pedagogy. The authors urge that these topics should be integrated into planning curricula. As we think about the implementation of our projects, these findings suggest that we should think carefully about discretion, incentives, and the pitfalls that can make efforts vulnerable to corruption.

Top image: A street in Ghana. FabioB, iStock/Getty Images Plus.

About the author
Megan McGlinchey is a master of urban planning candidate at Harvard University.

August 18, 2022

By Megan McGlinchey