The Corruption Game: Health Systems, International Agencies, and the State in South Asia

Sign painted on a government health post wall in Nepal.
Photo by Svea Closser


Drawing on ethnographic material collected in Pakistan, India, and Nepal, this article analyzes patterns of corruption in vaccination programs in South Asia. Corrupt practices—which required substantial work—were deeply shaped by both the money and systems of accountability of the global health system. Bilateral and multilateral donors provided substantial funding for immunization programs across South Asia. International agencies and governments instituted systems of accountability, including documentation requirements and a parallel UN bureaucracy in problematic districts, to try to ensure that health workers did what they wanted. Some immunization program staff skillfully bent these systems of accountability to their own ends, diverting vaccination funding into their own pockets. Corruption operates not in opposition to the official rules, but in spaces opened up by them. These practices sometimes transform Weber’s rational bureaucracy into a sophisticated game with many players, whose aims are more complex than the stated goals of the bureaucracy.