Bribery & Corruption: how things get done around the world.

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Since 1995, Transparency Internationl have produced a comparision of 180 countries by their perceived levels of corruption. Denmark is seen to be the least and Somalia the most corrupt currently. Check out your country’s perceived level of corruption.

Ask yourself these questions about corruption:

  • What is it?
  • Can you find reasons to justify it?
  • Where do you think the money/gifts go?
  • Why could people from a ‘corrupt’ society be suspicious of you?

Difficult questions to answer as your answers depend on the culture you are accustomed to. The trouble is, what is considered corruption in one country is perfectly acceptable in another. Also, we tend to ‘judge’ other countries by our own experiences and norms. When working in the Middle East, I was amazed to learn that those who come from a culture where ‘oiling the wheels’ (bribery) is comon place look suspiciously on those that do not adhere to that practice. They find it difficult to understand the motivation behind someone whose purpose is to carry out their job well – because it’s their job.

Read about my experiences below and check out the Corruption Perception Index to see how corrupt your country is perceived to be in relation to the rest of the world.

I was visiting Russia with my husband on a lecturer tour. When we first arrived in the country, we were waved through the customs gate, even though most others were being stopped to have their Customs Declaration stamped.  When we came to leave Russia at the end of our stay, a customs official looked at our Customs Declaration (unstamped) and said he would have to confiscate our foreign currency and jewellery.  When we protested we had been waved through on arrival, and that the cash and jewellery had been brought into Russia from England, he just shrugged and kept repeating, “It’s your problem”.  This went on for several minutes, with mounting frustration on both sides.

Finally, the Russian official, with total contempt, decided to take direct action to resolve the situation.  He asked for all our dollars, removed $80 and handed the rest back to us.  Eventually we realised that, when the official said, “It’s your problem” he was expecting us to ask, “What do we have to do to solve it?”  His choice of language provided the prompt, but we didn’t recognise it as such. It could only work with people who knew the system. In hindsight, the whole thing was a ‘set up’ and we had been targeted as we arrived as being the ones to get pulled over on the way out of the country.

Something similar happened to me when I was in Malawi with my business partner, Phillip.  Driving a rented car out of Lilongwe, we were waved down by a policeman on the highway.  The man in uniform walked around the car, checking the road tax disc and the tyres.  “Your tyre is worn,” he said finally.  “It’s smooth.”  Phillip got out of the car and verified that the tyre did, in fact, look illegal.  The policeman’s next words were interesting.  He said, “I should fine you.”

Phillip realised that the expected response would have been “But you won’t, will you?” as he handed over his driving licence, having first inserted some money, a bribe, into its folds.  Instead, he asked how much the fine was gong to be and asked for a receipt so that he could reclaim the fine from the car rental company.  The policeman was most put out. In conversation, the policeman then made it clear that they would stop any car driven by a foreigner and look for any excuse to issue a fine, as a means of raising funds for the police, or attracting a bribe (for the individual policeman).

Both the Malawian policeman and the Russian Customs official were using their positions to add to their personal funds.  In other poor countries, officials of all kinds charge ‘fees’ for doing their jobs, often with the knowledge and connivance of their employers or their government departments.  By the standards of some in the West, this would amount to corruption.  However, one oriental explained it like this:  “Those countries cannot afford to pay their officials well enough, so they allow them to charge end-users of their services.  It is done unofficially, and in addition to any official fee that may be involved.  How is that different from tipping waiters in a restaurant in the West?  Owners of restaurants get away with paying their staff low wages, knowing that they will get tips.” 

Clearly, what is considered corruption in one context is perfectly acceptable in another.  It is therefore wise to withhold judgement, recognise that business practices vary around the world, and take a pragmatic approach. But the consequences of bribery and corruption can be tragic as empahsised by Transparency International:

In the poorest countries, corruption levels can mean the difference between life and death, when money for hospitals or clean water is in play,” said Huguette Labelle of Transparency International. “The continuing high levels of corruption and poverty plaguing many of the world’s societies amount to an ongoing humanitarian disaster and cannot be tolerated. But even in more privileged countries, with enforcement disturbingly uneven, a tougher approach to tackling corruption is needed.” 

Transparency International annually produce an index to compare and contrast levels of transparency and corruption at both a global and local level. Click here for the Corruption Perception Index

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This entry was posted on Monday, August 24th, 2009 at 1:52 pm and is filed under cross-cultural differences, General, social practices, working internationally . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

3 Responses to “ What’s Your Country’s Corruption Perception Index? ”

  1. KiLuMnaTi says:

    Not bad article, but I really miss that you didn’t express your opinion, but ok you just have different approach

  2. ShamusNY says:

    It is useful to try everything in practice anyway and I like that here it’s always possible to find something new. 🙂

  3. John says:

    Be sure I´ll be back. Found this great blog by searching for cultural customs