PublicationsThe U4 Blog

U4 Issue

Reciprocity networks, service delivery, and corruption: The wantok system in Papua New Guinea

In all countries, informal systems of reciprocity influence the distribution of state resources. These social networks help people cope with adversity but can also promote favouritism and corruption, posing a dilemma for development practitioners. Using Papua New Guinea’s wantok system as a case in point, we develop a tripartite model for understanding how reciprocity networks function. This model provides insights into how practitioners can start designing context-specific responses to the challenges associated with informal systems of reciprocity.

2 February 2020
Download PDFRead short version
Reciprocity networks, service delivery, and corruption: The wantok system in Papua New Guinea

Main points

  • Informal systems of reciprocity (ISRs) are informal social networks underpinned by reciprocal obligations linking families, friends, colleagues, and associates. ISRs are found in all societies.
  • During times of crisis these networks can provide critical support, ensuring that people have somewhere to sleep, food to eat, and access to other essential resources. However, ISRs can also present corruption risks, particularly when public servants and other elites direct state resources to their own ISR networks and exclude people outside these cliques.
  • In Papua New Guinea (PNG) social networks are rooted in the wantok system. Wantok means ‘same language’ or ‘one talk’ in Tok Pisin (the country’s lingua franca) and refers to a reciprocal relationship of favours between kin and community members.
  • To develop programmes and policies that can contribute to reducing corruption in public service delivery programmes, practitioners need to understand (1) the broader environment of accountability, (2) how the wantok system is structured, and (3) how individual public officials relate to pressures from wantok networks.
  • Such analysis can reveal the types of additional interventions required to mitigate corruption and improve service delivery.
  • As the nature of ISRs vary, practitioners need to embrace diverse responses to the challenges ISRs can present, even within the same country or region. One-size-fits-all responses will likely cause more problems than they solve.

Cite this publication

Walton, G.; Jackson, D.; (2020) Reciprocity networks, service delivery, and corruption: The wantok system in Papua New Guinea. Bergen: U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, Chr. Michelsen Institute (U4 Issue 2020:1)

Download PDFRead short version

About the authors

Grant Walton

Dr Grant W. Walton is a Fellow with the Development Policy Centre at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, and Chair of the Transnational Research Institute on Corruption. He is the author of Anti-Corruption and Its Discontents: Local, National and International Perspectives on Corruption in Papua New Guinea (Routledge, 2018). 

Dr. David Jackson leads U4’s thematic work on informal contexts of corruption. His research explores how an understanding of social norms, patron-client politics, and nonstate actors can lead to anti-corruption interventions that are better suited to context. He is the author of various book chapters and journal articles on governance issues and holds degrees from Oxford University, the Hertie School of Governance, and the Freie Universität Berlin.


All views in this text are the author(s)’, and may differ from the U4 partner agencies’ policies.

This work is licenced under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International licence (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Rob Deutscher