Profiting from the fight against corruption

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Governments get richer when NGOs band together to fight official corruption, game theorists at HEC Montréal find.

It makes sense for non-governmental organizations to band together to fight government corruption; they get better results that way.

But did you know it's also in the corrupt government's interest?

That's the startling finding of a new game theory paper by researchers at HEC Montréal published in the January issue of Mathematical Social Sciences.

"The fact that civil society organizations achieve a better result when they cooperate is intuitive," note the study's co-authors, Fabien Ngendakuriyo and Georges Zaccour of the inter-university Group for Research in Decision Analysis (GERAD).

At the same time, one might "expect that a predatory government prefers facing uncoordinated civil society organizations," the authors continue. But that's far from true, they argue.

"A corrupt government will be better off if [...] civil society organizations cooperate.  [...] [It will] prefer to see citizens allocating a significant proportion of their time to productive activities, which will subsequently increase the government payoff."

Fingers in the pie

Zaccour, a professor at HEC's Department of Decision Sciences, explained why.

"It's always a tradeoff," he told UdeMNouvelles.

"The NGOs get stronger when they cooperate with each other, but at the same time, the more they cooperate, they more efficient they become, and that leaves even greater leeway for a corrupt government to dip into the coffers."

How so?

"When anti-corruption works, it creates wealth for everyone – including, paradoxically, the government, because it has its fingers in the pie, too."

To construct their game, the researchers expanded a previous study they did in 2013 in which the government and civil society were in continuous long-term interaction. They gave government the role of "leader" and two NGOs the role of followers who can compete or coordinate their strategies in the fight against government corruption.

Key was finding out whether cooperation was better, and for whom.

As it turns out, it's better for both, the leader as much as the followers. And the proof is in the several pages of mathematical formulae Zaccour and Ngendakuriyo used to model their game and test it out.

"For the moment, our work is purely theoretical," Zaccour said. "The next step will be to see if we can validate our results through stories from the field that can be documented at a qualitative level."

The Africa connection

Zaccour credits Ngendakuriyo with the idea for the game. It grew out of the academic interest the young researcher, who's originally from Burundi, took in government corruption while at Université catholique de Louvain, in Belgium.

He did his graduate studies there from 2005 to 2011, earning a doctorate in economics before coming to Montreal to do further research at GERAD. Since 2013 he has worked as an East Africa research analyst for the World Bank, in Tanzania.

Based at UdeM, GERAD brings together some 70 mathematicians, computer scientists and other experts from the HEC and Polytechnique Montréal, as well as from McGill University and UQÀM.

"For us, mathematics are an instrument," said Zaccour, GERAD's chair of game theory and management.

"Usually, it's economists and political scientists who are interested in things like corruption and its impact. What we do is sketch it out in the form of a game and draw our conclusions."

It's how academics like him operate, he said.

"In the social sciences, we don't have laboratories like physicists and chemists do. Our laboratory is the mathematical model, and we manipulate those models to deduce the results we get."

About Université de Montréal

Deeply rooted in Montreal and dedicated to its international mission, Université de Montréal ranks among the top 1% of the world’s universities and is considered the top comprehensive university in the Francophonie. Founded in 1878, UdeM today has 13 faculties and schools, and together with its two affiliated schools, HEC Montréal and Polytechnique Montréal, constitutes the largest centre of higher education and research in Quebec and one of the most important in North America. It has 2,300 professors and more than 70,000 students.  

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