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Chasing Shadows: Combatting Corruption with Creativity in Vietnam

Supported by the Reisman Center for Translational Research in Creativity and Motivation

Project led by:

Kristy Kelly, PhD

While there are many forms of corruption, petty corruption, or the everyday abuse of entrusted power by low- and mid-level public officials and community leaders, is most visible to many women around the world as they try to access basic goods or services in places like hospitals, schools, police departments, land management agencies, and when they apply for jobs. Managing petty corruption – or what some call “chasing shadows” – is rarely captured in formal measures of corruption, or in anti-corruption campaigns. When it is, data suggests that men are more likely to be asked to pay bribes, while women are more likely to fall victim to sexual extortion. While international development and humanitarian aid organizations have begun to focus on this disparity, there is little scholarly research focused on women’s diverse experiences with corruption. This study aims to fill that gap, first by investigating the linkages between gender inequality and corruption, and then by investigating how creativity and innovation shape street-level policy responses in one country context: Vietnam.

Vietnam provides an interesting context for connecting gender, creativity, and corruption. It is a country with relatively high gender equality but has among the highest bribery rates for public services in Asia. Corruption is particularly rampant in sectors such as health, education, land management, and public administration. These are sectors where women are most often responsible for seeking services on behalf of families and small businesses, but they are also sectors in which women are often employed as low-level bureaucrats, and therefore directly involved in corruption and so directly involved in facilitating and combatting corruption. Understanding how they do so, the creative strategies they develop, and how their work is perceived by community members, has important implications for both increasing gender equality and reducing corruption.

Using ethnographic research methods, this study seeks to answer the following questions:

  1. How might everyday experiences of corruption in Vietnam be understood as gendered and globally situated?
  2. What strategies do women employ to manage with corruption, and how might these be understood as creative responses to global, national, and/or local structures, institutions, or contexts?
  3. How are these strategies perceived and taken up by others and with what effect?

Paying attention to the ways age, geographic location, ethnicity, professional affiliation, and other identity markers and locations shape women’s experiences and creative responses to corruption, this project centers intersectionality as theory and method (Choo and Ferree 2010) to identify patterns that reveal corruption as the result of patriarchal networking, patronage and clientelist behavior. Findings will illuminate a new framework for studying corruption itself as a gendered institution, shaped by transnational connections, and (re)produced in interaction with global development regimes. Findings will reveal creative solutions and innovative responses – grounded in local experiences – that will be of interest to activists, educators, government leaders, and communities interested in mainstreaming gender into their anti-corruption work.