The Developing Nations: Commentary:



What is Corruption?

by Aurora Z. Badillo

Educator, President, St. Jerome International School

Batangas, The Philippines


Corruption is an often used, but very rarely defined phenomenon of the social life.  Corruption or level of corruption is widely used in public discourse and usually hold a two-fold common-sense meaning.  On one hand it stands for those illegal practices, in which citizens or organizations bribe officials in charge for awarding permissions, contracts, or to escape punishment or fines for offenses they committed.  Simpler: to obtain privileges against law or against the rules of some bureaucracy.  This is the narrow definition of corruption.  Many scholars argue, however, that corruption is a broader phenomenon, or rather, a hardly definable set of phenomena, including achieving several advances through personal networking; paying gratitude money or giving gifts for usual services, what are already reimbursed from customers, or state resources.  Viewed most broadly, corruption is the misuse of office for unofficial ends. (Klitgaard,1981).


Usually the first, narrow definition of corruption is primarily considered as dangerous, illegal, immoral, and furthermore:  totally illegitimate in today’s developed or transforming societies (and economies).  However, researches indicate that the narrowly defined corruption closely correlates with the level of the broader phenomena of corruptive activities or deeds, which are just morally corrupt (Johnston, 1942).  Therefore previous researches suggest measuring both types of corruption to get a reliable and useful resource in estimating actual level of corruption in a specific country, even across countries.


But there is another problem with the broad definition; its largely dependent of culture, historic age, actual social climate, and social groups, which activities can be perceived as corruptive.  Whereas the narrow definition can usually be read from the more or less uniform laws throughout the countries, the definition, and even more the structure- the patterns- of those what we call corruptive activities, are deviating in a wide and rather undiscovered range.


Asia is a well-known, publicized and often criticized, as one of the regions of the world where corruption is endemic- part of daily life everywhere.  This is perceived, particularly by sanctimonious Western observers as a “bad thing” which can never be justified or defended, and must be ended outright.  But 19th Century British historian Lord Acton (1834-1902) was referring to Europe rather than Asia when he made the now famous quote “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  Politics may have changed in Europe (and the West), but corruption still exists- often in cleverly disguised or “legal” forms.


Surprising to many will be the results of a recent survey of government transparency and corruption in the public sector by Transparency International.  They found less corruption in Asian nations like Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan than many from the West.  The UK was placed only 11th and the US in 18th position, behind Hong Kong at 14th!





Does corruption exist only in Asia?  What about Western “cartels”, monopolies and giant conglomerates; also the new “mafia” of Russia and Eastern Europe.  Lobbying in the US- paying a high-ranking politician or elected official to further a cause or try to secure a contract for a particular company.  Donation of large sums of money or other disguised forms of payment to a political candidate’s party campaign in return for expected favors if he or they are elected.  This happens in the US and Europe including the UK.  What else are these if not forms of corruption?  Yet many of them are considered legal if they are performed under convenient legislation which makes them so.  And who exactly is responsible for the legislation – even countries proclaiming democracy and “people power”?  Hypocrisy of the highest order!





Civil services including central and local government offices and police forces, not only in Asian countries, are criticized more than praised by the public for their efficiency.  In Asia, civil servants start their careers at almost below subsistence levels.  The rules and bureaucratic procedures are often archaic by modern standards- relics from bad or indifferent colonial systems.  Even with new technology, modifications are not always improvements.  In some cases they make things worse, and the bureaucratic “paper trails” and lengths of “red tape” get even longer.


The only way to a decent income for people processing information at desks in these officers is by reaching a level of seniority where it’s possible to exert some influence or derive some benefit.  Influence can be with the public (business and individuals) and also over “underlings”.  Benefits pass upward, right to the top of the organization. 


Promotion within these bureaucratic systems is a slow process if one relies on merit or length of service, bit it certainly plays a part.  The way to speed it up is by paying sometimes large amounts of money, just to get the job.  Further payments will be necessary to climb each rung of ladder more quickly too.  There is obviously no justification for this and it cannot produce an efficient system of government, of benefit to the general public.  However, stamping it out completely is virtually impossible because the legislators are the very ones these practices benefit most.


Corruption starts at the top and filters down to the lowest rung of ladder.  Benefits move in an upward direction.  The “public” are aware of it and complain about it; politicians make promises to reduce corruption, but it’s only to win votes at elections.  A few knuckles are sometimes rapped as a token gesture, somewhere down the line, but at the end of the day, little changes.


In the above respect, apart from being impractical in some cases and virtually impossible in others to eradicate completely, certain forms of “corruption” can be of benefit  to any, both “giver” and “receiver”, with little or no effect on others or a country as a whole.

Here are the top scorers(base 10): Finland 9.7; Iceland 9.6; Denmark, New Zealand 9.5; Singapore 9.4;  Sweden 9.3; Netherlands 8.9; Australia, Norway, Switzerland 8.8; Canada, Luxembourg, United Kingdom 8.7; Hong Kong 8.0; United States, Ireland 7.5; Japan 7.0.  Of course there are some Asian nations near the bottom of the list too!


In a perfect world with good, honest governments and efficient civil services, there would be no place or need for public sector corruption – or many other “bad things: for that matter.  There is general consensus that certain forms of corruption should be ended because the overall effect is negative.  A kickback, backhander, bribe, “tea money”, baksheesh is an inducement or sweetener, often in the form of cash, paid to someone able to produce a short or long term benefit by unofficial, unethical, unlawful or illegal or devious means.  At its highest level, national or international government contracts are secured, often resulting not only in considerable portions of a country’s funds being diverted into the pockets of a few powerful politicians, civil servants and the big businesses themselves, but also leading to uncompleted projects or those with inferior workmanship.  When failure or disaster occurs, blame is rarely apportioned to the real cause.  New contracts are drawn up, continuing the self-serving process for the benefit of the avaricious few who continue wield this sort of influence.


In Asia, though there is a difference:  the influence is not generally from random individuals or companies.  There are dynasties of powerful Asian families who use intermarriage to maintain and increase their overall wealth and therefore political power.  Money is the “new God”, who worshipped by all.  Family business often controls politics, so naturally nepotism and cronyism play an important role.  Power leads to generations through control of political systems.  This originally Chinese “model” has filtered into the Southeast Asian region over the past several hundred years.  It’s not going away.  Names like Marcos (Philippines), Soekarno, Suhatro (Indonesia) are already names synonymous with corruption in Asia.  Will the present government fare any better?  Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra is the most recent addition to the list, and his recent ousting by a military coup was the culmination of a long tale of corrupt political and business practices in present-day Thailand.


There are many more, less well known or publicized cases in Asia and even more so in Africa.  Sadly, most of the efforts of genuinely public-spirited individuals and organizations who draw attention to corruption and misuse of their countries’ resources and try to promote political change and improvement to enhance the lives of the majority of their populations, especially the underprivileged and poor, are still overwhelmed by these powerful entities.

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