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The chief targets of corruption

Study points to those segments of developing country societies that most face corruption in their day-to-day lives

Corruption, a topic that stubbornly remains in the forefront, has many aspects as well as many costs. In a system in which favoritism of one means disadvantage for another, someone always pays the price for illegal or improper benefits. And that price is even higher in poorer countries.

According to economist Pranab Kumar Bardhan, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, the cost of corruption is particularly high in developing economies since it introduces inefficiency into a system that is already at a disadvantage. If the economy is not doing well, the inefficiency promoted by corruption makes things worse.

Amanda Lea Robinson, a professor in the Department of Political Science at Ohio State University, is studying the main targets of corruption in precisely those developing countries. She is not studying who is suffering the most or paying the most, but instead who most often faces what is called “petty corruption” in their day-to-day lives.

“It is abuse of power by low and mid-level public officials in their interactions with ordinary citizens,” she explained.

Robinson analyzed one country in which corruption is “endemic at all levels of government” and where 79% of the population considers corruption to be one of the main factors that limits development: the eastern African country of Malawi.

Her study, conducted in collaboration with Brigitte Seim, a professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, mainly involved cases with highway patrol officers. A previous study had indicated that 95% of the population considers police in that country to be corrupt.

“The officers weigh the potential benefits of asking for kickbacks – such as the citizen’s ability and desire to pay, the certainty of payment and the amount of the kickback – against the potential costs: the capacity and desire of the citizen to punish the officer through formal or informal means,” she said.

According to Robinson, when stopping a vehicle that has committed some infraction on the highway, that has overdue tags or stickers, or has done something that could lead to imposition of a fine, the patrol officer assesses the type of vehicle and the characteristics of the driver to determine whether or not he will take a chance and ask for a kickback if he agrees not to enforce the penalty.

The study involved six workers in Malawi, who drove around the country’s roads using different automobiles, outfits and accessories that indicated whether they were wealthy or poor. They also used some type of indicator of political party or ethnic affiliation while sometimes driving expensive vehicles and other times driving inexpensive vehicles.

“During the survey conducted in June 2014, 52% of the time that the workers drove along the selected highways, they were stopped by the police. In only 3% of the cases was a fine imposed, but in 90% of the cases, the police asked for kickbacks,” Robinson said.

One might assume that the poorest would face more corruption in their daily lives, and thus be subjected to being asked to pay kickbacks, but this was not what happened.

The study found that political connections reduced the chance of paying kickbacks in 11% of the cases while socioeconomic status had no effect. According to Robinson, this suggests that corruption is more frequently associated with politics than with the financial circumstances of the individuals involved.

In the examples with low socioeconomic level and no political connections, 91% of the sample resulted in the payment of kickbacks. When the driver indicated high socioeconomic status, but an absence of political connections, the results were the same.

High socioeconomic status and absence of political connections led to the payment of kickbacks in 86% of the cases. The fewest number of cases of kickbacks occurred when the driver indicated that he had political connections, but low socioeconomic status.

“We think that this is due to the contradictory impact of wealth on corruption in societies with substantial inequality. Wealthier individuals can increase the benefits of corruption by paying higher kickbacks, but in so doing, they also increase their costs if they are able to corrupt officers,” Robinson said. In other words, the next time, because they have more money, they will pay more.

If on the one hand the fieldwork done in Malawi indicated the protective effect of political connections, the researchers found evidence that ethnicity had an opposite effect, increasing the exposure to corruption, especially in contexts where it was most endemic.

“We think this effect is motivated by the elevated levels of trust between people of the same ethnicity. This interpersonal trust makes the officers feel more inclined to ask for kickbacks,” said the Ohio State professor.

Robinson points out that if this is really the case, “it is another context in which elevated social capital can have negative effects. She says that “the perverse effect of social capital” is something she plans to study further.

Robinson went on to say that the study “is informing the scientific literature, programs and policies that attempt to document and deal with discrimination against the poorest and least favored in society,” and she stresses that the results found in Malawi should not be generalized for use in other contexts.

“In any event, our findings suggest that the costs of corruption fall more heavily on some segments of the population than on others. Such discriminatory practices incur great losses on the social fabric of any society, even more so for those who struggle with underdevelopment, inequality and ethnic divisions,” she said.

Heitor Shimizu, in Columbus (USA) | Agência FAPESP