Tracing the Path of Corruption

by Jessica Stoller-Conrad

When economic anthropologist Jean Ensminger started her research in a rural African village in 1978, she couldn’t have anticipated the surprising turn her work would take three decades later. Ensminger—who is interested in the impediments to development that stem from poor governance and weak economic institutions—began her work by studying society from the bottom up among the Orma people in Kenya.

This work involved several decades of quantitative data gathering on the economic fortunes and actions of the same households as they reacted to changes in their political economy and as they gradually engaged more with national political institutions and the global market.

Some years after her arrival at Caltech in 2000, a seemingly benign goat-restocking project in the area where Ensminger conducts her studies ultimately caused an unanticipated shift in her research. She was not then aware that the microproject was under the umbrella of a large $230 million World Bank project funding thousands of similar microprojects in villages over most of Kenya.

“This local project was small enough that it was not particularly on my radar, but I kept hearing from villagers that it was causing a lot of conflict because it was riddled with corruption,” she says. Based upon prodding from villagers, Ensminger decided to dig further. Fortuitously, she had just completed her once per decade survey of the local population. Armed with several decades’ worth of socioeconomic data on the same people, she was able to link people’s positions in the socioeconomic hierarchy, including their social network position, to the benefits received as a result of corruption in the project.

In collaboration with Caltech undergraduate Jetson Leder-Luis (Stamps Leadership Scholar), a double major in economics and applied math who graduated in 2014, Ensminger adapted and developed approximately one dozen statistical tests used to detect fraud in the reported data of the World Bank project.

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