Small corrupt acts grow into big corrupt acts

Transparency Institute

Corruption is worse than prostitution. The latter might endanger the morals of the individual, the former invariably endangers the morals of the entire country. 
Karl Kraus

How many times have we had that little voice telling us, “Is just a lil small piece and he/she gon help me out.  In this way, I wouldn’t have to waste a lot of time.”
Are our dignity and the liberty of others, preserved by such decisions or actions? Too often we are extremely critical of people in power in the face of corrupt practices, and rightfully so. However, we fail to examine ourselves as ordinary citizens and consider how we are contributing to the very problem we rant about.

How many of us stop to think that the little acts of buying a lunch, a $500 phone card or taking a chocolate bar for a public official will get us unfair advantage versus people who do not, or cannot afford to, engage in such a practice?  Many people believe that they only aid corruption if they shell out some hard cash. Often times, they fail to recognize that gifts have a monetary value attached to them, and that public officials react the same way they would in relation to receiving money. A gift of a blackberry, iPod or a pair of sneakers has the same effect as money. It entices the recipient to act in a way that results in the giver being in a position of advantage over those who do not offer gifts.

transparency institute guy incWe grow up in a society where such “gift giving” appears somewhat pervasive, and so we begin to think these are norms of how to get things done. However, when we encourage for the first time a public official with a chocolate bar, we are setting precedence. Over time, the said official gets confident enough to raise the stakes to lunch money, then maybe a “lil raise”, eventually a blackberry, and the list continues. This practice may seem normal since the stakes are raised incrementally, and you continue to think it is a small price to pay. You rationalize your actions by telling yourself that you will get your paperwork done and/or the goods/service without much hassle. If you are in a business, you may pass these remorseless costs to innocent victims, your customers. Little acts like these that we encourage in our routine activities influence wide-scale corruption.

To extort money, corrupt officials will intentionally make your life miserable by unnecessarily increasing processing/waiting time and in the case of the traffic police officer, your car may be “blacklisted” for the unrelenting so-called “routine” stops, or you are threatened with an accompanied visit to the police station. In some instances, the extortion at police roadblocks, ostensibly put in place to combat crime, takes the nature of a standardized “toll.” Some officers do not even attempt to hide the scheme.

According to OECD, “Bribery and corruption…impede the efforts to reduce poverty. In particular, the diversion of funds through corrupt practices undermines attempts by citizens to achieve higher levels of economic, social and environmental welfare.” Corruption implies that only people with resources are likely to get an unfair advantage because they can afford to bribe officials, and people who cannot afford will suffer.

Corruption is most devastating for people who cannot afford to fork out the lunch money, a bus fare or a “lil raise”. They are disproportionately affected by the system created by those who have the means to do so. How many times have we not heard of people complaining about travelling to central offices or to the public hospital to access services only to witness others who arrive later being given priority? As a result, they had to return home without any attention.

Public officials responsible for oversight, discipline and reform have failed to root out systemic corruption. Public complaint mechanisms, internal police controls, and civilian oversight also remain weak, underfunded, and largely ineffective. In addition, victims of police abuse and extortion cite fear of victimization as a key reason for not reporting these abuses.  Corruption is as old as humankind but it is only due to more reasoning and examination by the rational man that corrupt practices are being exposed and put on the front burner.  Many adults grow up seeing their parents offering the “customary gifts” to public officials, and most of these children tend to continue this trend in their adult lives.

It was Mark Twain who said that you cannot fight corruption without first changing norms. However, norms are not always easy to change, especially when they become deep-rooted through generations. It requires the application of behavioural science theories of social cognitive change, which, according to Albert Bandura, requires you to first model those behaviours you want people to adopt and reinforce them over time amongst small groups of people. Such an intervention requires formative research to conceptualize a behaviour change programme to fight corruption. It can be costly to implement such a model but the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other international organizations use it successfully. It also works in many societies across the world and is certainly worthy of further exploration.

As citizens, we have an obligation to uphold our integrity and to help create fair and transparent systems for all. We may start by examining our actions and consider the following:

●  Am I trying to get a public official to improperly use his knowledge, power or resources to bring me a personal gain and a competitive advantage over others?

●  Am I trying to get a public official to act dishonestly or unfairly? and
●  Am I trying to influence a public official to use his or her position in a way that is biased or breaches public trust?

To combat corruption, we must take time to comprehend both corruption and anti-corruption efforts. We need to develop and appreciate how corruption undermines democracy and constrains the voice of the poor. Then, we can start effecting those behavioural changes and advocating for an environment that is more transparent and free of corrupt practices.

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