What is Corruption?

What is Corruption?

What is corruption? When you look for the term corruption on google you usually encounter a fairly basic understanding of the problem of corruption: “dishonest or fraudulent conduct by those in power, typically involving bribery”. But is it really this simple?

In this article Ben Wheatland, a graduate of the MA in Corruption & Governance from the University of Sussex, and Jason Deegan, Anti Corruption International President, seek to explore the ways in which corruption can appear, and what may constitute corruption.

First in the interests of transparency we should clear with anybody reading this what the Anti Corruption International definition of corruption is. We define corruption as “an abuse of imbued power for private and/or collective gain”.

So what do we understand as corruption? Well that’s a tricky question. Corruption is not one single act. It includes bribery (a term that itself encompasses a whole host of acts), but can also cover things like fraud, sexual exploitation, lobbying and whistleblowing. There are a whole host of acts that the term ‘corruption’ covers.

Moreover, corruption is not necessarily a stationary set of actions. Recent innovations in technology have led to innovations in how corruption presents itself. Advances in global trade and communications, for example, means that for one to evade tax they don’t have to bribe a tax official. They just have to route their finances through offshore bank accounts. This means pinning down what corruption is can prove difficult in many cases.

However in other cases, it remains broadly the same as it has for centuries. Small-scale corruption, often termed “petty corruption”, is the kind of corrupt act that many people come into contact with every day. This often includes the sort of corruption that people immediately think of when asked how to define corruption. Road police taking bribes to allow motorists off of a fine, immigration officials taking bribes to process a visa more quickly, a school teacher taking a bribe to give a favourable grade.

And whilst this may be the case, many will be searching to understand corruption by using the title of this article, “What is Corruption?”, to understand if their behaviour is corrupt; have they contributed to corruption? Well, if you are the one paying the bribe to the road police, if you are paying bribes to get through immigration quicker, if you are willing to pay a bribe to a teacher, most likely the answer is yes.

But don’t despair. With advances in technology that enables corruption, so too can their advances help curb it. Many governments are now far more able to provide information relating to procurement and expenditure – if they so wish, that is. Communication is also greatly improved and in the information age this allows for networks to develop that can be used to fight corruption.

Corruption however, is not always so clear cut. In some extreme cases, corruption can be the difference between life and death, and can pose a difficult situation for people. In one case we in ACI encountered, a young woman whose family member was ill in hospital. Although payment was made via the official channels, a doctor still sought a bribe to treat the ill person. This situation highlights the challenges corruption can create. Is it right for a food-aid charity to pay a bribe at a country’s border to allow them to take their vital supplies to a famine-stricken village? These questions can strike right to the core of corruption and what it is and how it can be addressed.

It is also important to remember that corruption, and in particular how it is perceived, changes depending on where you are in the world. Different cultures see different things as fundamentally corrupt. Whereas in one country, the bottle of wine to say thank you to a doctor for their good work is seen as normal, in another such a gift could be seen as attempting to ensure good service for the future. In another example, in some places giving a gift to a friend in order for him to hire your son or daughter at his company is acceptable practice, whereas in another country this would be seen as direct bribery and possibly nepotism.

This poses a problem for those who would seek to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to tackling corruption. Perhaps it makes more sense to tailor anti-corruption activities to the specific needs of a community, country or region.

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