Transparency International’s 2009 Global Corruption Barometer, published last month, details the results of an opinion survey on the public’s perceptions and experiences of corruption and bribery around the world. The report contains many interesting findings, but the ones I found particularly notable were the following:
- Levels of bribery since 2005 have not decreased in most parts of the world, with some countries experiencing an actual increase.
- Respondents most frequently named political parties and the civil service as the single institution/sector they considered most affected by corruption.
- Respondents stated that the institutions they were most likely to bribe were the police, followed by the judiciary and land services.
- Poorer households are more vulnerable to bribery: they reported paying bribes more frequently to the police, the judiciary, land services, and education services than the wealthier households.
- Considering only those respondents who paid bribes, people spend, by a conservative estimate, around 7 percent (!) of their annual income on bribes.
- People feel disempowered to complain about petty corruption through formal channels.
The last point merits further analysis. Why indeed do people shy away from reporting incidents of bribery through the formal mechanisms? According to the report, at the top of the list of reasons were the complaint mechanisms’ ineffectiveness and time-consuming procedures, followed by fear of harassment and reprisals, and lack of awareness on how to lodge a formal complaint.
The most troubling and difficult to address are the latter two reasons. That the public might be afraid to complain about bribery does not come as a surprise, especially given the report’s findings: the general public has experienced paying bribes most frequently to the very institutions, such as the police and the judiciary, which also happen to be the main institutions tasked to uphold and guarantee people’s rights—so how could people report on them? The issue here is trust. The lack of awareness on how even to report incidents of bribery might just be a simple information dissemination problem, or worse, could point to the public accepting bribery as the norm in dealing with public institutions. The issue here is norms.
If we could count on the willingness of public institutions to clean up their act and commit to developing a culture of probity and integrity among their civil service employees, the task of generating trust among people to use formal channels for reporting bribery would be a bit less daunting (and there are successful cases of communication strategies helping to engender public trust in institutions, an excellent example of which is described in José-Manuel Bassat’s case study, "Building Support for the Rule of Law in Georgia," in Governance Reform under Real-World Conditions: Citizens, Stakeholders, and Voice). But a precursor to this action, before we could expect people to speak up against petty corruption, would still involve solving the normative challenge of changing public opinion to view bribery as wrong and to condemn such practices. Absent cooperation from the state institutions themselves, the difficult task of transforming norms and public opinion will have to be tackled first and head on, so that people will stop tolerating corruption and start demanding an end to bribery-dependent service delivery from public institutions. After all, 7 percent of annual income is no small sum by any means. And perhaps this sum is where the public education campaign should focus on. Shouldn’t households want to fight to retain this money with them, where it belongs, rather than letting it slip into the pockets of civil servants?