Recent years have brought an increased awareness of the importance of trade costs in hindering trade, particularly in the developing world where these costs are highest. The most salient type of trade costs have often been tariff duties and costs associated with the physical transportation of goods. As a result, several countries embarked on extensive programmes of tariff liberalization and a significant portion of aid effort was channelled to investments in hard transport infrastructure, such as rebuilding railways and ports (the World Bank alone devotes more than 20 percent of its budget to transport infrastructure projects worldwide).
More recently, new light has been cast on the importance of a different type of trade cost: the cost imposed by the soft infrastructure of transport, defined as the bureaucratic infrastructure handling the movement of goods across borders. While there are many possible sources of inefficiencies stemming from the soft infrastructure of transport, recent research is beginning to document the role played by corruption in transport bureaucracies in driving trade costs. This article provides an overview of this research.
Research into corruption
Corruption can take many forms and emerge in many different phases of the process of clearing goods across borders. Sequeira and Djankov (2011) documented in great detail the ways in which port corruption emerges in Durban and Maputo in Southern Africa. This research was based on a unique dataset of directly observed bribe payments to each port bureaucracy for a random sample of 1,300 shipments.
The study began by defining two broad categories of port officials that differed in their administrative authority and in their discretion to stop cargo and generate opportunities for bribe extraction: customs officials and port operators. In principle, customs officials hold greater discretionary power to extract bribes than regular port operators, given their broader bureaucratic mandate and the fact that they can access full information on each shipment, and each shipper, at all times. Customs officials possess discretionary power to singlehandedly decide which cargo to stop and whether to reassess the classification of goods for tariff purposes, validate reported prices of goods, or request additional documentation from the shipper.
Regular port operators, on the other hand, have a narrower mandate to move or protect cargo on the docks, and at times even lack access to the cargo’s documentation specifying the value of the cargo and the client firm. This category of officials includes those receiving bribes to adjust reefer temperatures for refrigerated cargo stationed at the port; port gate officials who determine the acceptance of late cargo arrivals; stevedores who auction off forklifts and equipment on the docks; document clerks who stamp import, export and transit documentation for submission to customs; port security who oversee high value cargo vulnerable to theft; shipping planners who auction off priority slots in shipping vessels, and scanner agents who move cargo through non-intrusive scanning technology.
The organizational structure of each port created different opportunities for each type of port official to extract bribes: the high extractive types -customs agents- or the low extractive types -port operators. These opportunities were determined by the extent of face to face interactions between customs officials and clearing agents, the type of management overseeing port operations, and the time horizons of each type of official.
Durban and Maputo
In Durban, direct interaction between clearing agents and customs’ agents was kept to a minimum since all clearance documentation was processed online. In contrast, all clearance documentation was submitted in person by the clearing agent in the Port of Maputo. The close interaction between clearing agents and customs officials in Maputo created more opportunities for corrupt behaviour to emerge in customs relative to Durban.
In Maputo, port operators were privately managed but in Durban, most terminals (for containerized cargo) were under public control, with very lax monitoring and punishment strategies for those engaging in corrupt behaviour. Private management in Maputo was associated with fewer opportunities for bribe payments due to better monitoring and stricter punishment for misconduct. As a result, the organizational features of each bureaucracy determined that the high extractive types in customs had more opportunities to extract bribes in Maputo, while the low extractive types in port operations had more opportunities to extract bribes in Durban. While corruption levels were high in both ports, bribes were higher and more frequent in Maputo relative to Durban.
Finally, port officials with opportunities to extract bribes at each port differed in their time horizons. Customs in Maputo adopted a policy of frequently rotating agents across different terminals and ports, and since bribes varied significantly by the type of terminal at the port, customs agents were aware of the risk of being assigned to terminals with lower levels of extractive potential. On the other hand, port operators in Durban had extended time horizons given the stable support received from dock workers’ unions. Customs officials were therefore the high extractive types with the shortest time horizons, the broadest bureaucratic mandates and more opportunities to interact face to face with clearing agents. As a result, they extracted higher and more frequent bribes, relative to port operators in Durban (the low extractive types) who had longer time horizons and narrower bureaucratic mandates.
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