Bribery and corruption are hard to eradicate, they are as old as human history. In different shades, they exist everywhere. Human predisposition to temptation is recognised in all religions, where the consequences for such sinful acts are also clearly explained. Then there are earthly deterrents such as the law or anti-corruption bodies.
Yet they thrive in all societies – wealthy or poor, developed or developing, urban or rural, fundamentalist or secular, educated or uneducated. These nasty qualities are perhaps more conspicuous in regions with fierce competitiveness where resources are scarce, but less competitive regions or relatively affluent ones are not free of them, either.
Let’s look at this from a few different angles.
Winning jobs and business through networks and connections is not a new phenomenon. Preferential treatment exists everywhere, even among the upright citizens of morally right nations. How often do we read that the powerful receive (coerce) undue privilege, commonly in the form of sex and money, in return for favours? Judges, politicians, high ranking bureaucrats, corporate financiers or media tycoons all seem to indulge in quid pro quo, driven perhaps by a hedonistic urge. To them the world is a resource to be manipulated and exploited. I am not talking not only about underdeveloped, poor regions, where we know that bribery and corruption are endemic, but also the wealthy developed world, where routine daily living is unaffected by bribery, but beneath the surface bribery and corruption are at full force.
The powerful and mighty, while paying lip service to the fight against bribery and corruption in America, France, Britain, China or Japan have all been involved in bribery-scandals – whether it was to win hosting rights for mega sporting events, to secure government contracts for gas and oil deals or to buy member votes for an extension of whale hunting. What’s more, they have helped and are friends with corrupt regimes, in return for economic and political gains.
Not dissimilar to corrupt officials, to achieve their goals superpowers are determined to diminish threats, using ethical or unethical means, which may appear in the form of Islam, Iran, Communism, China or Russia. They are prepared to do anything from bribing foreign officials to directing pre-emptive attacks that kill innocent civilians.
Can I prove my accusations? Like seasoned, corrupt officials, they hide traces very well. Credible whistleblowers such as WikiLeaks are dealt with by menaces and threats.
Paradoxical as it may be, states and nations are engaged in bribes, when they are supposed to be eradicating corruption. The preponderance of bribery in the least developed regions is often highlighted as a prime reason for their failure to develop, but does the developed world not play a part in this?
It is astounding to observe the widespread match-fixing that has swamped modern day sports. Money is able to buy sporting bodies, clubs and administrators. Despite earning substantial wages, public following, love, respect and reverence sportsmen have failed to maintain integrity. The rot has peaked in popular sports like soccer, cricket or boxing forcing extreme measures, superior investigative techniques or sting operations to catch the culprits, but why highly paid top players risk careers, positions of fame and honour in exchange for money is a mystery.
Two spectres of the bribery issue are survival and greed: lowly paid officials simply need additional earnings to make ends meet, while high wage earners are on a limitless upward moving demand curve.
Why is it important to curb bribery? A champion economist can rationalise that bribery and corruption may not be bad from an economic point of view – X earns extra through bribes to buy Y’s products, keeping the economy churning. Businesses can treat this as investment for future returns – business models can incorporate the cost of bribes, and they can be considered as a tax to ensure the avoidance of poor service delivery.
Rest assured though that bribery and corruption have an unfortunate impact. The process is demoralising as it takes away the opportunity for merit- based selection and allocation of resources. It creates a shadow (black) economy that avoids tax needed for the development of the wider region.
Who am I to moralise? I grew up in an environment where extra tips brought extra goodies. Bribes are used to get very basic things such as a train ticket, utilities or a phone line. Citizens, however honest and aboveboard they may want to be, are left with no bribe-free options.
Curiously, these citizens adhere to common ethical practices in developed regions as they emigrate. So, has it got more to do with the environment than the culture? While aspects of culture can be unique, such as exchange of gifts or the provision of dinners during business negotiations, I am yet to find a culture that condones unethical behaviour. In the less developed world, even in the toughest of situations, society respects honest and ethical individuals, institutions or administrations.
The history of mankind proves that there will always be opportunists who will not mind taking short cuts to get ahead. Hence, the proverb, ‘Chore Sunena Dharmer kahini – Thieves Won’t Even Listen to Religious Forbidding ’.
We are also influenced and led by a herd mentality. We feel left behind, if we do not do what others are doing: driven by competitive instincts individuals, states and corporations are involved in bribery in their efforts to forge ahead of others.
Firms remain innovative in corporate tax dodging, registering businesses in tax havens to avoid paying tax at home or bribing foreign officials to win contracts, notwithstanding the ethical growth principles that are enshrined in their corporate code of conduct.
Individuals are likewise involved in easier and effective methods of earnings or tax evading that would result maximum output.
With these views I conclude that it is far easier to preach than to follow ethical practice. Remaining ethical is not a simple undertaking, but following the herd is.
Irfan Chowdhury writes from Canberra, Australia.