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Accountability through Practical Norms: Civil Service Reform in Africa from Below - Project Blog

University of Edinburgh

Dr Gerhard Anders - University of Edinburgh

Professor Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan - Laboratoire d'Etudes et des Recherches sur le Dynamiques Sociales et le Developpment Local Professor

Giorgio Blundo - Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Marseille

Project Blog – May 2016

In Africa, the state remains the principal provider of education and health services but in spite of numerous reforms these two key sectors are affected by systemic corruption and bad governance. Drawing on insights from their empirical research on African states and corruption Anders, Blundo and Olivier de Sardan will conduct the first systematic comparative multi-country study that focuses on the importance of practical norms that are often invoked to override the official rules and regulations (legislation, public service regulations, circulars and directives). In contrast to conventional approaches, which focus on compliance with official rules and consider practical norms detrimental to integrity, the project will develop best practices ways to supplement compliance-based systems by adding a values-based perspective driven by local ideas and conversations (cf. Heywood and Rose 2015). It will frame them in terms of their potential to contribute to positive change rather than seeing practical norms as obstacle that needs to be overcome.

Across Africa, the functioning of government departments and the provision of public services are characterised by a wide discrepancy between official rules and government employees’ actual behaviour. A recent DfID evidence paper on corruption (January 2015) in African state institutions quotes research by Anders, Blundo and Olivier de Sardan that highlights the importance of practical norms developed by public officials and government employees to cope with this discrepancy (DfID 2015: 25-26). These norms are referred to as practical norms. They are defined as informal sociocultural rules at shop-floor level that override official regulations and govern practices that do not comply with official rules. For instance, in government departments often practical norms rather than official regulations govern spending of the allocated budget. In schools, practical norms often regulate private tuition provided by teachers. In hospitals, nurses and administrators often establish practical norms allowing them to determine who should receive treatment if resources are outstripped by demand. Government employees develop these practical norms as a pragmatic effort to manage their work and reconcile the discrepancy between lived realities in weak government bureaucracies and the official regulations in the book that are often perceived as impractical, outdated and out of touch with reality. The practical norms, in turn, are shaped by the moral principles governing conduct in society at large and are expressed in terms of kinship obligations and patron-client relationships as shown by Anders (2010), Bierschenk and Olivier de Sardan (2014), Blundo and Le Meur (2009), and Chalfin (2010). The interplay of official rules and practical norms results in situations of normative pluralism. In these situations, alternative practical norms are invoked to justify the disregard for official regulations or determine the ways official rules are being applied.

The research project will be the first study comparing practical norms in government in francophone (Senegal, Togo, Niger) and Anglophone (Sierra Leone, Malawi, Tanzania) countries in two different regions, West Africa and East Africa. This will allow the research team to compare a wide range of different settings and identify site-specific practical norms as well as developing cross- regional and cross-cultural best practices that apply to Africa more broadly. The researchers will examine the extent to which official rules are being applied and to what degree everyday practices in schools, clinics, district offices and ministerial headquarters are governed by practical norms. They will create an inventory of practical norms and examine the interdependence between site-specific norms, professionspecific norms and general practical norms of bureaucratic culture. Specifically, they will seek to identify practical norms that could be employed to promote discussions about professional integrity and ethics. It will also help to address harmful sociocultural norms and practices in a culturally sensitive fashion.


Anders, Gerhard. 2010. In the Shadow of Good Governance: An Ethnography of Civil Service Reform in Africa. Leiden: Brill.

Bierschenk, Thomas and Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan, eds. 2014. States at Work: Dynamics of African Bureaucracies. Leiden: Brill.

Blundo, Giorgio and Pierre-Yves Le Meur, eds. 2009. The Governance of Daily Life in Africa: Ethnographic Explorations of Public and Collective Services. Leiden: Brill.

Chalfin, Brenda. 2010. Neoliberal Frontiers: An Ethnography of Sovereignty in West Africa. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Department for International Development. 2015. Why Corruption Matters: Understanding Causes, Effects and How to Address them. Evidence Paper on Corruption, January 2015. London: DfID.

Heywood, Paul M. and Jonathan Rose. 2015. ‘Curbing Corruption or Promoting Integrity? The Hidden Conceptual Challenge’, in Peter Hardi, Paul M. Heywood and Davide Torsello, eds. Debates of Corruption and Integrity: Perspectives from Europe and the US. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 102-119