In both the developed and developing world, I've come across people in varying positions of power either hinting or stating in no uncertain terms that I would not receive a government service without "greasing the wheel." Despite wide disparities between low- and high- income country contexts, these experiences left the same bad taste in my mouth. But corrupt practices, including bribery, aren't equal and, in a larger sense, understanding the differences among them puts us in better stead in the global fight against corruption. In a previous post, CommGAP requested feedback on an anti-corruption learning event jointly organized with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. One of the themes of the event will be the role of communication in shifting social norms toward condemning corrupt everyday practices.
As part of our preparations, I recently reviewed some notes from a meeting on bribery sponsored by the SNV Netherlands Development Organization held in Niamey, Niger last February 2008. Prof. J. P. Olivier de Sardan, anthropologist and co-editor of an excellent book entitled Everyday Corruption and the State: Citizens and Public Officials in Africa, gave a talk on forms and justifications of bribery. Based on my reading of the Q&A segment, I found it striking that participants asked incisive questions implying the role of social norms (for present purposes, what's socially acceptable and what isn't) in driving relationships among bribery, culture, poverty, and governance. Here's a short recap:
1. On bribery and culture: "… present-day bribery is in no sense rooted in traditional African culture, but is instead an outgrowth of the characteristics of colonial governance. It is nevertheless true that bribery has now become an integral part of the modern professional culture of government employees, and it may sometimes be encouraged by certain traits of modern urban culture in Niger. But this does not mean that the source of bribery lies in society. It lies first and foremost in the behavior of political elites."
2. On bribery and poverty: "While poverty, or the low wages of civil servants, is clearly a factor conducive to bribery… bribery is a phenomenon that develops within well-off groups and continues even when wages increase."
3. On bribery and governance: "Bribery cannot be easily isolated and combated because it is embedded in daily habits and because it is sometimes difficult to sort out what is acceptable and what is unacceptable in ethical terms or from the viewpoint of standards of governance.. it is up to government employees themselves, and to citizens and the users of public services, to react and to decide what must be rejected and what can be tolerated… The corruption that prevailed in the cities of the United States at the end of the 19th century was significantly diminished by intense mobilization of the citizenry, largely spurred and supported by the local press."
In each of the three points above, social norms are clearly implicated as determinants of corruption. We are urged, therefore, to take stock of norms to which various actors ascribe, including civil servants, political elites, well-off groups, citizens, and the press. Influencing norms that tolerate bribery and other corrupt practices should be a key component of any serious public anti-corruption effort. Toward this end, findings from the study of communication influence can be instructive. Under certain conditions, changing what are often erroneous beliefs and attitudes regarding what most people do or deem acceptable has been found to be a critical component of behavior change campaigns in areas such as health and politics.
In this light, public advocates in the global fight against corruption might seriously consider normative dimensions, working with allies to find out what citizens really think about when confronted with the abuse of public resources for private and/or partisan gain. What constitutes corruption in their eyes, and under what conditions might they condemn, tolerate, or support corruption? Hopefully, the anti-corruption community will find that most people really do want to spit out the bitter taste of things such as bribe requests, and thus be able to persuade individual citizens that they should feel free to do so themselves.
Photo credit: Flickr user watchsmart