Legitimate Corruption: Ethics of Bureaucracy and Kinship in Central Asia

Rune Steenberg


The World Bank and Transparency International rank the Central Asian republics as highly corrupt. This is an opinion that is also shared by international media and by NGO personnel and academics working on the ground in these countries. Yet, the kind of practices that are labelled as “corrupt” by these observers seem much too diverse to meaningfully be covered by the same term, such as illicit selling and buying of government contracts at the highest level; tax evasion in the millions; the faster processing of a passport for a relative; and a taxi driver bribing the traffic police. This presents both an analytical and an ethical problem. This article argues that condemning discourses on corruption are often used by the powerful both nationally and internationally to dominate colonised and marginalised groups. Such groups, excluded from or exploited within formal structures, rely on networks and communities for their livelihoods. The upkeep of these social relations comes into conflict with the imperatives of state law and bureaucracy. Anti-corruption thus becomes a weapon of the strong against the weak and aligns with a long history of colonial tradition of domination and vilification of those “yet-to-be-civilised.” Its focus on regions of the Global South such as Central Asia marks a continuation of colonial legacy but also the region's continued marginality in the capitalist world system. This article posits that in order solve these analytical and ethical problems, we must be careful not to conflate a legal state-notion of corruption with a moral one thus accepting as default the perspective of the dominant groups running states and organisations.


corruption; kinship; bureaucracy; Kyrgyzstan; Xinjiang; coloniality

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.58036/stss.v13i1.931


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