Corruption and Misconceptions

Published On: June 3, 2023 09:00 AM NPT By: Narayan Manandhar

With the revelation of big scandals like fake refugee and Pashupatinath Jalhari Scams, corruption and its antidote, anti-corruption have become a national pastime or a cliché. Day-in, day-out, the political leaders could be heard expressing their commitments to fight corruption, some going even to an absurd level: When their party comes to power, even dreaming about corruption will be a culpable crime. They make sure that each and every corrupt person will one day have to stand trial in court.

In the annual program, the government has proposed a “zero tolerance” policy against corruption and committed to have no compromise when it comes to a good governance agenda. Meanwhile, the opposition leader is famous for his Hippocraticoath: He will not indulge in corruption and will refrain from seeing the faces of corrupt people. 

There are some misconceptions going around about corruption. I would like to outline a few of them here.

First, there is no universally acceptable definition of corruption. Even UNCAC, a global instrument designed to fight corruption, refrains from defining corruption. What one finds in the instrument is the categories of corrupt behaviors, eighteen in total, deemed criminal. The commonly used definition, that is, “abuse of public authority for private gains” was conceived by the World Bank but popularized by the Transparency International, prefixing the word “entrusted” before the phrase public authority in the definition.

Over the period, there is a marked shift in the definition of corruption from legal, public office, economic or market, public interest to moral definitions. At an extreme level, corruption often means what is being defined by the regime in power. The charges like dereliction of duties, perjury, and judgmental failure are confounded because they could be found in gray areas. How would you define lobbying? Is it an act of corruption or a legitimate political process?

Second, corruption cannot be eliminated, it can only be reduced. There is nothing like zero tolerance against corruption. Even going by the popular measure of corruption, i.e., corruption perception index (CPI), there are no countries that have scored perfect 100 (the state of no corruption) or 0 (highly corrupt country). Forget about Japan, even in a highly corrupt country like Nigeria one can find a village with shops displaying goods and prices but no salesman to collect money and issue receipts; the customer simply takes the goods, dropping equivalent charges in the collection boxes. In neighboring country India, I suppose in MP, I have read about a village where there are houses without door locks. This small anecdotal evidence demonstrates extreme social truthfulness even in highly corrupt countries.Corruption constitutes lack of social trustworthiness. It is a matter of degree or truthfulness we are talking about.

Third, there are no quick fixes, silver bullets or magic wands to solve corruption problem. It could be an extremely long-drawn process. It took the USA more than 100 years to solve rampant corruption problems of the 19th century. Similar experiences can be found in Scandinavian countries. Corruption is like a hydra-headed animal. If you suppress one end, it appears at the other end. If you think the problem of corruption can be solved now, it will resurge tomorrow. This must be the reason why the global movement against corruption, even after more than 25 years of efforts and commitments, has come to a standstill. This only reflects the anti-corruption drive to be a slow, long haul process.

Fourth, there is a need to differentiate between corruptor (a person) and corruption (a disease). A sick person is often visible, therefore, politically amenable to target. Therefore, many anti-corruption campaigns are launched to attack corrupt people or political opponents.

But a professionally inclined medical doctor never gets angry with a sick person. Definitely, it is his or her duty to get angry with the disease, not with the sickness. Attacking a sick person is far easier than curing the disease because it is invisible, the causes are difficult to identify.

Fifthly, there is a belief that strong or harsh punitive measures like death penalty or life-time imprisonment will help deter corruption. Had this been true, China and Vietnam, with their death penalties, should have solved their corruption problems. A deeper psychological study of corrupt people tells us that corrupt people are not scared of sending them to the gallows, life sentences or even being ostracized; what they are scared most is the state confiscating their looted properties. If this is true, we need to design such a punishment system which extracts maximum resources from the corruption convicts. I suppose this is sensible for a country lacking resources for development.

Finally, anti-corruption is easier said than done. Because of its strong anti-corruption drive, it is reported that China is having a chilling effect of, around minus 1% in its economic growth rate. Meanwhile countries like China, Vietnam, India and Bangladesh are having high economic growth rates in spite of a high degree of corruption. In the past, countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Malaysia and Thailand exhibited higher economic growth rates despite persistent corruption problems. The experts working in the field of anti-corruption and good governance are baffled by the incongruous relationship between high economic growth rate and high corruption. Corruption is inherently bad for economic development, however, there can be spurious relationships between corruption and development. This happens when the first-order effect of corruption may be bad (good) but second and third order effects may be good (bad). As for a hypothetical illustration, in a highly corrupt developing country, using rent seeking behavior, an entrepreneur or a politician may accumulate wealth. As a first order effect, corruption definitely imposes negative impacts. However, if the accumulated wealth is invested later into a highly productive channel, say, establishing industry and generating employment, the second order effects may cancel out the negative impacts of corruption as a result of the first order effects. What is being stressed here is a need to have longer term effects of corruption, taking into account both positive and negative effects. To drive my points home, let me cite here the results of an experiment done in New Delhi. A researcher divided participants into two groups – control and experimental groups. The first group were given bribe money so that they could secure a driving license directly through bribing officials. The second group were asked to follow normal channels without bribing the officials. Obviously, the first group (bribe) secured their driving license more quickly than the second group (no bribe). However, the impact of the research does not end here. The researchers found that, during an extended duration of the study, those participants who secured their driving license through bribery are more prone to accidents. The social costs were terribly higher because of bribery even though they had immediate gains in terms of swiftly securing a driving license. 

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