What Exactly is Corruption? Part II

By | October 21, 2021

4: When corruption becomes culture

Much that is also counted as corruption, falls within a kind of gray zone. Examples are friend services, nepotism, embezzlement, contract prices or lubrication.

The point is that there are many definitions of corruption, and corruption can be understood differently from country to country. What we understand as corruption in Norway does not necessarily have to be illegal or understood as unreasonable elsewhere. Therefore, we are often trapped in unclear boundaries between social norms, cultural expectations and official laws. In the Nordic region, we have a system that is based on trust and respect for the regulations. People mostly pay their taxes and the authorities take over most of the responsibility for health, education, social security and pensions. In contrast, public authorities in many developing countries are less responsible for the challenges and needs of the individual. When the tax money that comes in ends up in the hands of greedy tenants or bureaucrats, it is understandable that mistrust is spread. If the authorities are not able to deliver what they are supposed to, this can lead to the inhabitants procuring goods and services in alternative and illegal ways. An example could be the lubrication of health personnel because the authorities are unable to comply with their obligations to universal health services.

According to electronicsencyclopedia, corruption is fast becoming an overarching explanation for why things do not work. There is no doubt that widespread corruption can be very destructive, but it is and will be wrong to measure corruption as the explanation for everything that goes wrong in development work. Informal “extra costs” on goods or services can also ensure that the poor earn something from the rich, and in this way act as an indirect tax. In many places this is expected and quite clear. Corruption has also managed to create efficiency in some bureaucracies. At the forefront, we have seen that public systems that work poorly from before can take advantage of illegal baits to speed up processes. Some systems are inflexible and characterized by delays and inefficiencies. In this context, residents and companies can be content to “oil the machinery” with the help of so-called “speed money”. This is to motivate public servants to work better and faster when the state otherwise delivers services of poor quality. The other side of the coin, however, is that bureaucrats can deliberately ensure that treatment is slow to obtain lubrication. This has been demonstrated, for example, in previous studies by India, where public officials throw “sand in the wheels” if they do not receive sufficient payment under the table.

When corruption occurs at the intersection of the public and social spheres, it thus becomes difficult to point out. It is often said that corruption is the absence of trust or a breach of trust, but this definition also falls short in those areas where corruption is widespread and almost expected. Can we state that there is less trust and greater uncertainty in thoroughly corrupt societies? Paradoxically, deeply corrupt regimes can actually be based on a kind of mutual trust, precisely because individuals are completely dependent on trusting each other to be able to maintain business relationships or exchange services.

5: Can we measure corruption?

Violations of corruption laws can often be a matter of interpretation. Therefore, it has been difficult to develop measures. Not least, it is challenging to measure the extent, because corruption is in principle secret. But attempts are being made. The Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index is one of the most well-known overviews we have of corruption in the public sector on a global basis. Every quarter, 180 countries are ranked according to how academics, business actors and analysts perceive the amount of corruption. In 2017, Norway followed New Zealand and Denmark as the best countries, in a shared third place with Finland and Switzerland. No country is considered completely clean.

But these overviews are incomplete because they are based on how the spread of corruption is perceived. This can be confused with fact. Such a subjective opinion can vary from country to country, and the actors’ understanding can affect whether they consider situations as legal or illegal. The corruption index must therefore be read with caution because it does not relate to an actual goal of corruption.

There are several reasons why corruption is difficult to detect. On the one hand, in many countries there is a great risk involved in reporting corruption. We have seen this through that journalists, watchdogs who are to report on public misconduct, are persecuted and killed. This happens especially in countries where judicial protection is low and crime is high.

It is also difficult to get an overview of the total corruption in the development assistance field. In many development projects, zero tolerance leads to aid programs being discontinued. Several aid workers have therefore avoided reporting breaches of anti-corruption guidelines. The problem they face is that the project is interrupted and that the recipient suffers an even greater need than what the corruption itself has led to. These examples illustrate that it will be impossible to get a complete overview of the spread of corruption, at the same time as many ethical dilemmas are associated with the problem.

6: A disease or a symptom?

Although it is a serious problem, it is important to be aware that corruption can not always be the explanation for bad conditions alone. Rather, it is a circular relationship between poverty and corruption, where both reinforce each other. It can therefore be difficult to eradicate poverty by eradicating corruption because underlying causes, such as poor governance, mean that the problem persists despite attempts to “relieve pain”.

Maybe we should rather understand and treat corruption as a symptom on a major disease. This disease can be a serious failure in important public bodies. We have shown in this text that the consequences of corruption vary with culture and context, and that this is far from a “black-and-white” problem. We can therefore not use a “one size fits all” to define corrupt actions and design measures to eradicate the consequences. Many people think that we need to look beyond the rhetoric about anti-corruption and become better at identifying the underlying factors that can lead to various forms of corruption. Then we have to work strategically to work with these. So we cannot necessarily eradicate corruption in order to eradicate poverty, but we must work on the underlying factors of corruption in order to eradicate both.

What Exactly is Corruption 2