Published on Voices

Last week, Transparency International published its 2013 Corruption Barometer, which reports the findings of a survey of 114,000 people in 107 countries on their interactions with corruption, the institutions and sectors they see as most corrupt, and their perceptions on whether they have a role in combating corruption. The report captures a number of trends, including the view that corruption is worsening across many sectors; it also calls for governments to strengthen their accountability platforms and enhance standards for procurement and public financial management.

This year’s survey found that 27% of people report having paid a bribe in the past year, nearly the same percentage as in the 2010/2011 report (26%). This indicates that more than a quarter of people surveyed have been touched by bribery.
There was a follow-up question: If the respondent did pay a bribe, what was the reason? The answer given most often, with 40% of responses, was “to speed things up.” This high rate of bribes for speed of service, to me, suggests a troubling complicity: The person paying the bribe may feel entitled to more rapid service at the expense of others.

While many of the trends captured by the report can be confirmed by evidence gathered in some of our World Bank investigations, we also tend to see corruption often occurring in more subtle interactions, and focusing on bribery alone would miss much of the story. So I was glad to see that the report balances its analysis with more elusive means of purveying influence.

For instance, the survey asks about the importance of personal contacts or relationships in peoples’ dealings with the public sector. 65% of people surveyed answered that personal contacts and/or relationships are either “important” or “very important.” This is an alarmingly high figure, since necessary governance and civic tasks such as filing taxes, registering a business, and obtaining a license for a vehicle are most efficient when they are standard and impersonal.

It is easy to think of corruption as someone else’s problem; something involving people in distant places where “that’s just how business is done.” This view is common, but it is wrong. Generally, individuals — not countries or companies — are corrupt, and bribe payers can be found everywhere. Of the 503 entities currently debarred by the World Bank, 262 are based in industrialized economies. The bottom line is, corruption can happen anywhere, so what can we do to reduce corruption risks?

Enforcement is important. Corruption steals from the poor, so any response to corruption must also consider the people who bear its cost. 1.2 billion people live in extreme poverty today. Every dollar lost to bribery and poor governance denies them the benefits of shared prosperity. It forces them to make unjust choices, such as whether to pay for a meal, or for a kickback to obtain medical care for a sick child. But enforcement is not enough.

The World Bank estimates that up to $1 trillion is paid in bribes every year. The Africa Progress Panel, chaired by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, estimated that the Democratic Republic of Congo lost $1.35 billion — twice its health and education budgets — in just five natural resource sales that used undervalued prices. Were those funds preserved, and used properly, the benefits to the world’s poorest would be profound.

In fiscal 2012 the World Bank lent $4.19 billion to help countries improve public sector performance and accountability. We helped the Malawi government remove 5,000 ghost workers from the payroll, saving enough money to hire 10% more elementary school teachers. We also helped train journalists from 22 Sudanese media outlets in government budgeting, enabling them to “follow the money” and enhance accountability. Collective action blending enforcement, advocacy with strengthened governance, and accountability works.

The outcome of collective action has so far reflected well on the global radar: some national authorities are enforcing anti-corruption laws in previously unthinkable ways. In the mid-1990s, bribes were still tax-deductible in many wealthy countries. By 2012, the OECD Working Group on Bribery tallied 709 enforcement cases, 286 ongoing investigations, and 300 sanctions — including 66 people sent to prison — by OECD member countries since 1997. And certain governments are adopting new tools to uncover misconduct, such as whistleblower protection and monetary reward programs.

Yet the most important, and most powerful, ally against corruption is best represented by the commitment of individuals to say no to corruption. We are all connected to, and bear responsibility for, the places where we work and those that make the things we buy. We already tell them to be green — let’s also tell them to be clean. Firms are turning toward ethical business practices, as they learn that wrongdoing of the corrupt few can create countless problems for the honest many. We, their employees and customers, can encourage this movement. We, through our government and our wallets, can help keep them honest.

By working ethically, buying ethically, and supporting national and international anti-corruption efforts, we can make considerable progress in defense of the world’s poorest. Together, let’s build our collective action and say “No to Corruption.”


Leonard McCarthy

Former Integrity Vice President

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