How institutionalized is police extortion? An ethnographic field experiment with truck drivers in West Africa

Research Method

Randomized Controlled Trial


West Africa




Borderless Alliance, Center for the Study of Development Strategies (funder)

Research Question

How robust are the institutions of extortion to unexpected observation by outsiders?


Are dramatic policy interventions necessary to disrupt forms of corruption sustained through mutually reinforcing expectations, or can small shocks to uncertainty destabilize corrupt equilibria? I attempt to answer this question by randomly introducing the presence of a highly unexpected foreigner into interactions in which officials typically extort citizens for bribes according to a stable going rate. Specifically, I rode with truck drivers along 1,500km of highways in Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo and Benin. At some of the 123 checkpoints manned by customs, police and gendarmerie, I openly observed attempts to extort bribes from drivers, at others I hid from sight. In contradiction to the expectations of well-informed experts, I find statistically significant evidence against large treatment effects. The findings suggest established patterns of corrupt behavior can be resilient to small shocks to uncertainty, and that experts may overestimate the effectiveness of novel anti-corruption measures.