Abuse of state resources for re-election is a common practice in many countries. It causes damage to
democracy by creating an unlevel playing field which improves the re-election chances of incumbents.
In addition, putting public assets at the incumbent party’s disposal in its drive for re-election
negatively influences the quality of government, since the diversion of resources incurs financial costs
for the institutions involved and may reduce the quantity or quality of services provided to the public.
Misuse of public resources to win an election yields a political benefit (re-election) rather than an
individual personal benefit (e.g., enrichment from a bribe). This justifies extending the concept of
corruption beyond “abuse of entrusted power for private gain” to include political gain as well.
This issue has received little attention from academics and anti-corruption practitioners.
political finance have been preoccupied with discussions about regulating private donations.
International donors and other specialists on public sector reform consider the issue too politically
sensitive to include on their development agendas, because reforms that challenge the power of
incumbent politicians may have negative diplomatic and commercial implications for donor countries.
Efforts to confront the abuse of state resources by governments in office require attention to the
demand side (politicians abusing these assets) and the supply side (the public administration system
that supplies such resources). Regulating politicians’ demands for resources to engage in an electoral
contest involves reforming the electoral system, strengthening political parties, and regulating the
financing of parties and elections. At the same time, curbing the supply of resources by the public
sector requires strengthening the civil service, building strong state monitoring mechanisms, and
enhancing transparency to allow for media and civil society oversight. Most efforts to address abuse of
state resources have considered only the demand side of the problem. While the development
community regularly implements programmes that address several issues relevant to the supply side, it
has ignored the potential of using such programmes to tackle political abuse.
This issue paper draws on research conducted in Bolivia and Mozambique, as well as on other sources
of information, and includes examples illustrating the damage that certain forms of abuse may cause to
public administration and to democracy. This is an important step toward identifying reform priorities,
since certain types of abuses may have relatively modest financial implications but serious, longlasting
impacts on the fairness of democratic representation. For example, the media often highlight
the unauthorized use of official vehicles or the requirement that civil servants attend campaign rallies
for ruling-party candidates. However blatant such common forms of abuse may be, the financial
damage to public administration is relatively small, especially when compared to the financial impact
of granting contracts or licenses to unfit companies as repayment for political contributions.
Nevertheless, even such low-level abuses may cause significant damage to the prospects for fair
This paper also explains the need for an integrated reform strategy. There is an obvious need to
modernize the financing of political competition, but an integrated strategy should also include efforts
to reform other sectors of public administration. Research results from the two case studies suggest the
need for legal reform, as well as for work within government institutions to protect the supply of
public resources from abuse.
Donors should reconsider their hands-off stance with respect to these problems. For example, abuse of
state resources could be considered routinely as a risk factor in donors’ assessments of their activities,
and mechanisms included in memoranda of understanding to minimize the possibility of abuse.
Serious abuses should prompt donors to reconsider the eligibility of the perpetrators to continue as
working partners. Other options include building up local, independent research organizations that
carry out advocacy related to abuse of state resources, monitoring implementation of relevant
U4 Issue 2011:7 “Milking the system”:
Fighting the abuse of public resources for re-election
legislation, and using donors’ influence to keep this sensitive issue on national and local political
A framework for fighting the abuse of public resources for political gain should therefore include
identification of the problem, assessment of the political and economic costs it generates, decisions on
priorities for action, and development of a set of responses that combine both political finance
regulation and, crucially, general public sector reforms. The latter should include steps to strengthen
the quality and capacity of local media and civil society organizations, which can make a valuable
contribution by speaking out about these problems when other stakeholders refrain from doing so.
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