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

February 2018 update

Dr Gerhard Anders and his team have produced three country reports and an executive summary, which can be downloaded on this page.

February 2017 update

Read Dr Gerhard Anders' analysis of the current Cashgate trial in Malawi here

January 2017 update: Accountability through Practical Norms

Principal Investigator: Dr Gerhard Anders, Centre of African Studies, University of Edinburgh

Co-investigators: Prof Giorgio Blundo (EHESS, IRD), Prof Jean-Pierre Olivier de Sardan (LASDEL Niger).

The research in Malawi, Tanzania and Sierra Leone has generated extensive evidence of practical norms that are developed by professionals in government health and education agencies to get their job done in situations of severe lack of resources and overwhelming demand from poorer sections of the population. A key finding concerns the pilfering of drugs, which is widespread at ward level: often health staff provide these drugs informally to people in need when they cannot access drugs in time due to cumbersome official procedures. Another key finding pertains to political influence. Outside interference from ministers and political leaders is frequent and often prevents the civil service hierarchy from operating according to official protocols.

This project is one of eight British Academy-funded anti-corruption research projects, and you can see the main project page with full details of all award holders here.


September 2016 update: Accountability through Practical Norms 

The project includes research and engagement of policymakers in six African countries: Sierra Leone, Senegal, Niger, Togo, Tanzania, and Malawi.

The objective of the project is twofold:

  1. Research to produce robust empirical evidence on practical norms and everyday experiences in government, focusing on the health and education sectors.
  2. At a practical level capacity building and engagement of policymakers and representatives of donor agencies to advise on civil service reform and governance of public services in health and education.


The first phase of research was carried out by Dr Anders in Malawi between April and July 2016. More than 90 interviews and several focus group discussions gave fascinating insights into the existence of practical norms and everyday experiences of staff in the government health and education services. Practical norms are informal sociocultural norms at the shop-floor level developed by government employees to reconcile the perceived discrepancy between official rules and lived realities. They might be used to get the job done but they might also create opportunities for corruption.

Preliminary evidence based on first phase of research in two districts suggests that practical norms are indeed widespread in the Malawi government health and education services. Often they are employed to get the job at hand done, since sticking to the official rules and regulations would result in no service at all. For instance, in hospitals and health centres there is an understanding that health workers are allowed to carry out tasks they are actually not qualified to perform when properly qualified staff is not available. By contrast, in health facilities where properly qualified staff is available this practical norm was not recognized.

Often practical norms can be employed both to get the job done and to facilitate corrupt practices. One example for this concerns budget planning in District Health Offices. Budget planning is perceived to be very rigid and centralized. In theory it is possible to change costings if needed but the process is seen as being too complicated and managers tend to avoid contacting the Principal Secretary who authorizes changes. In reality, it is common for managers to respond to unforeseen circumstances by using specific budget costings for other expenditure. For instance, money that is allocated to building maintenance is used for vehicle maintenance and fuel without the re-allocation being reflected in an amended budget. Often this is creative accounting employed to deliver essential services but often these techniques are also used to corrupt ends, accessing funds for training courses or workshops that never took place. This is widespread both in the Ministerial Headquarters and District Health Offices where networks of civil servants misappropriate public funds to pay themselves fuel allowances and daily subsistence allowances for activities that never took place. These activities are often referred to as ‘ghost workshops’.

Examples like this show that practical norms tend to be ambivalent: on the one hand they are developed as pragmatic solutions to get the job done but, on the other hand, they are also integral to the misallocation of public funds and corruption. In fact, the preliminary evidence suggests that the perceived usefulness of practical norms has to be factored in when measures are being developed and implemented that are aimed at curbing corruption and the misallocation of public funds.

This challenge is further exacerbated by the influence of foreign donor agencies and NGOs that have created ‘parallel structures’, according to a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Education.  Donor-funded activities such as research projects, development projects, training courses and workshops with their own rules and regulations complicate the regulatory landscape and accounting requirements that government employees have to navigate. This complex regulatory landscape also creates opportunities for self-enrichment as is amply exemplified in the theft of donor funds allocated to specific programmes or projects.

Dr Anders has worked closely with the DfID country office in Malawi where he briefed staff and the High Commissioner on the project. In a number of meetings, he discussed the conceptual framework and the methodology, inviting input and feedback to ensure that the project meets the demands of DfID as the project’s funder. In addition, he also had meetings with staff of the German GIZ who are working on education.

Engagement of the Government of Malawi is a key component of the project and Dr Anders briefed the Director at the Ministry of Health responsible for the Sector Wide Approach, the Director of Kamuzu Central Hospital, the Director of Research at the Ministry of Health, the Director of the Planning Division at the Ministry of Education, the Planning Officer South East Education Division, and the Manager of the South East Education Division. Most important in this regard has been the engagement of the Public Service Reform Management Unit (PSRMU) in the Office of the Vice President that has been very interested in the project. In May 2016, Dr Anders briefed the full Directorate of the PSRMU on the project and had a very productive discussion about practical norms and everyday challenges in the government health and education services.

Providing input for policymakers goes beyond reaching out to government. Dr Anders has worked closely with the Parliamentary Committee on Government Assurances and Public Service Reform in the Malawi National Assembly. In May 2016, he briefed the Committee on the project and solicited feedback and input, and he also met the chair of the Health Committee, who indicated that the project’s research findings were likely to be important evidence for the Committee and parliament at large.  


The Economic and Social Research Foundation (ESRF) in Dar es Salaam carries out the research in Tanzania. In August 2016 Dr Anders conducted a training course on conceptual framework and research methodology for more than ten research assistants, thus ensuring capacity building. At ESRF, Dr Fortunata Makene is leading the research in Tanzania and at the beginning of September 2016 she conducted a pilot study with the research team to test the interview guide and research methodology. The findings from the pilot study suggest many parallels with the situation in Malawi and comparison between these two and the other four countries will be a central focus of this research project going forward.


Initial thoughts

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

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