Defining corruption can be a challenge. It takes many forms, and perpetrators are skilled in developing new ways to be corrupt and cover their tracks.
Corruption may be defined as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. Transparency International uses this definition. It captures three elements of corruption:
Sometimes the ‘advantage’ gained may not be ‘undue’ or clear-cut, but is nonetheless an advantage. For example, in some corrupt societies people can only secure access to public health or education if they pay bribes. In such situations, those who can afford to pay have an advantage over those who cannot. The bribe-giver's ‘benefit’ is merely that which is anyway his or her rightful due. Bribe-takers receive an advantage for carrying out functions that are anyway their duty to perform.
We often describe corruption as either ‘grand’ or ‘petty’ and ‘administrative.’
Often, it is not clear where petty corruption ends and grand corruption begins. For example, political corruption, in addition to the features above, can also encompass vote buying and other forms of petty corruption. And junior officials who demand illegal payments from citizens may do so because their managers demand a cut of their salaries in return for having been hired. These managers may have superiors who, in turn, expect money from them. This corrupt chain may stretch all the way up to senior state officials.
Corruption undermines economic development and threatens state security. It also undermines democratic values. UN member states acknowledge the threat corruption poses to development and have included Goal 16 into the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – calling on states to ‘substantially reduce corruption and bribery in all their forms.’
When people cannot get access to healthcare, safe places to live and clean water, their lives are at risk. When buildings collapse because developers have bribed their way out of adhering to health and safety standards, the lives of occupants are at risk, too.
Corruption has more than just financial costs. It reduces public trust and citizens’ willingness to participate in society. For example, citizens who perceive politicians as corrupt may not bother to vote in elections, get engaged in politics, or pay taxes.
Human rights are violated as a result of corruption. For example, courts violate the fundamental right of access to justice when they only hear cases if parties bribe staff and judges .
Corruption perpetuates inequality. Data shows that poor people suffer disproportionately from corruption. In modest income households, petty bribes to a nurse can cut deep into a family’s disposable income.
Women sometimes bear worse consequences of corruption than men. For example, since women attend to family health issues more frequently, they receive more bribe requests from medical staff. In public life, female politicians may have less access to corrupt networks that generate votes and other support.
Corruption is often linked to organised crime. It thrives in conflict and war. High levels of corruption can make prolonged conflict more likely, and push post-conflict societies back into war. Corruption also undermines the responsible management of natural resources.
Corruption can undermine climate change initiatives, as powerful actors bribe their way out of environmental responsibilities in pursuit of profits.
In many countries, criminal and administrative laws prohibit various types of corrupt acts. The UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) defines corrupt criminal behaviour that signatory states should include in their legal systems.
Actions may be corrupt even if there is no law against them. The nature of corruption is often slippery and complex. It can evolve into new forms that criminal or administrative law does not capture. Therefore, anti-corruption practitioners emphasise prevention in addition to punishment.
Common types of corruption include:
Corruption can grow in a variety of political and economic environments. It particularly thrives where accountable governance structures and processes are weak. However, weak governance does not necessarily always lead to corrupt acts – most people will still act honestly.
We know much about different elements of anti-corruption work. However, there is no formula that will always work. How to address corruption always depends on the context. Experience of anti-corruption programming since the 1990s shows a constant tension between holistic and targeted approaches. Corruption results from a system of factors that facilitate and drive it. These factors range from individual attitudes to international opportunity structures – which points towards favouring holistic approaches. However, not all reforms are feasible in every setting. This, in turn, argues in favour of focused approaches, and to seek out context-specific opportunities.
Organisations like the World Bank, the United Nations, Transparency International and others have sought to capture what anti-corruption means. Their explanatory frameworks differ slightly, but we see a broadly agreed ‘menu’ of anti-corruption efforts.
Anti-corruption efforts should not just be aimed at strengthening specific institutions or functions that are weak. They should build and strengthen mutually-reinforcing systems that include a range of interdependent actors, institutions, laws and policies.
Two corruption issues concern donor aid:
Researchers have studied which aid modalities are less vulnerable to corruption. Findings show little evidence that aid delivered through budget support is more or less prone to corruption than project support. However, evidence shows that for countries with both high levels of aid and corruption, there are compelling arguments against budget support.
Donor aid can fuel corruption in recipient countries. It provides new resources to plunder. However, aid effectiveness depends on the quality of policymaking and governance – both within donor aid agencies and recipient country governance structures. Without good governance, aid effectiveness declines because of increased leakage of funds from development projects or national budgets. This is often due to corruption.
Corruption may happen at all stages of aid disbursement. Programme design, the bidding process, the implementation phase, and even audits are at risk. Corruption can cause inefficient and incompetent companies to win contracts at excessive cost. It can lead to inappropriate and failed aid projects. The danger of corruption in development assistance is clear: aid is diverted from its original aims by corrupt politicians and officials. The perpetrators rather spend the funds on projects that allow for personal enrichment. Because of this, the funds never reach the poorest and most vulnerable citizens.
Academic research and policy papers on corruption has flourished since the late 1990s. It is complemented by a multitude of blogs and discussion fora. Here are some seminal works and chapters that we at U4 keep returning to read:
Routledge handbook of political corruption Philp, M., 'The definition of political corruption' in Heywood, P. (ed.) (London: Routledge, 2015): 17–29.
The quest for good governance: How societies develop control of corruption Mungiu-Pippidi, A. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
Rents, rent-seeking and economic development: Theory and evidence in Asia Khan, M. H. and K. S. Jomo (eds.). (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000).
Political settlements and the governance of growth-enhancing institutionsKhan, M. (London: SOAS, 2010).
Political parties, clientelism, and bureaucratic reformCruz, C. and Keefer, P. Comparative Political Studies 48, no. 14 (2015): 1942–1973.
Jobs for the boys: Patronage and the state in comparative perspectiveGrindle, M.S. (Cambridge, M.A.: Harvard University Press, 2012).
Everyday corruption and the state: Citizens and public officials in Africa Blundo, G. and de Sardan, J-P. O. (London: Zed Books, 2006).
Beyond convergence: World without order Matfess, T. and M. Mikaucic (eds.). (Washington: Center for Complex Operations, 2016).
WJP Rule of Law Index 2016World Justice Project.
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