(A humble attempt to explain a topic of a trillion words in a mere 750.)
“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear
Corruption, according to Transparency International (TI), “is the abuse of power for private gain”. Academic study of the subject is relatively novel itself, but has gained significant momentum in the last two decades. Corruption, on the other hand, is as old as organized human life, and conceivably as old as government.
Transparency International’s Perceived Corruption Index (PCI) clearly shows that the extent of corruption in any given country is in direct proportion with its success and wealth. Countries highest up on the PCI are also the most socially fair. They are also exemplary regarding access to education, resources and gender equality. They are the most accepting and least racially prejudiced. They are mostly in Northern Europe.
Corruption in developing countries has grown considerably in the last three decades despite endless promises by governments to fight it. A recent study found that 83% of all deaths from building collapse in earthquakes over the past 30 years occurred in countries that are among the most corrupt in the world. The global construction industry was valued at US$7.5 trillion in 2011 and can projected to more than double in the next decade, and is considered to be one of the most corrupt segments of the global economy.
Foul play in the humanitarian sector is particularly damaging: aid supplies, water and medicine are stolen and sold on the black market, with that those most in need receiving significantly less (or none at all) of what they desperately need and of poor quality.
According to Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer 2013, 27% of people worldwide paid a bribe last year. Countries where bribes are most prevalent include Afghanistan, Cambodia, Cameroon, India, Iraq, Liberia, Nigeria, Palestine, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Uganda, where more than 50% of people surveyed by TI paid bribes in the past 12 months. Corruption in Russia cost about $300 billion last year, 16% of its GDP.
The shady business of party politics, political favours and party financing is a hotbed for corruption everywhere, in countries rich and poor alike. Japan is among the least corrupt nations on the TI list, but corruption has nonetheless been a fixture of Japanese politics for some time. Just recently, the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has refused to resign after a huge financial scandal erupted within his party, with allegations of illegal donations by construction tycoons to party dignitaries in return for contracts. In France, Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), came under scrutiny for authorising a £270 million pay-out to a prominent supporter of the Sarkozy government when she was finance minister. There is also separate inquiry looking into whether Mr Sarkozy and Ms Legarde awarded Legion d’Honneur (France’s most prestigious civilian award) for political favours.
In many countries people accept small-scale corruption as a fact of life. In Hungary patients are expected to give doctors and nurses money in white envelopes. In Japan, American businesspeople are expected to provide “gifts” for access and quicker handling of their queries, both in their private and public affairs. There are many countries where people cheat on the tax returns without a second thought. Recent tax evasion scandals in the UK included such giants as Apple, Starbucks, Amazon and Vodafone, accused of using their unique positions of power and influence.
Nepotism, favouritism and cronyism are also forms of corruption, ones that TI does not measure, which plague countries higher up on the PI Corruption Index. University teaching positions are almost completely out of reach for those not from the appropriate families in Italy. Most of David Cameron’s aides attended the same four educational institutions (Eton, St. Paul’s, Oxford, Cambridge) and come from the same geographical and social background. They are also predominantly white men.
Corruption might be about money and the abuse of power but it also about social justice, quality of life and opportunities. More often than not it can be translated into numbers, currencies, backhanders, favours, and contracts – but not always. Often it is intangible and we do not even realise its presence. It is about privilege and access, too. It can take countless shapes and forms and affects everyone whose life, livelihood and happiness depend on authority of any kind. Corruption translates into human suffering and poverty, generates anger, destabilises societies and causes violent conflicts. It is omnipresent and omnipotent. It can exist in any country, culture, at any time, and under any form of government.