What Is Corruption?

Almost everyone who studies it would agree that corruption is difficult to define and nearly impossible to measure.

When a high-level government official steals millions of dollars for his/her own personal gain, it’s relatively easy to identify that as corruption. But, what if your neighbor gave preferential treatment to a friend or relative in her business dealings?

Is that corruption? What if a parent made a donation to a school in order to prevent the expulsion of a child?  What if you live in a conflict-ravaged country where food supply is limited and you pay the officials a little bit of money under the table to get extra rations to feed your hungry family?

Corruption exists at many different levels. And, some would argue that a definition for corruption is impossible because it is a concept that is culturally determined and varies from one society to another. For example, gift-giving to officials may be expected in one country and prohibited by law in another.    For the purpose of this guide, corruption involves the misuse of power by those who hold it—people who, in their official position, exploit the power with which they are entrusted by seeking private gain.

The private gain obtained by corrupt public officials, who have been entrusted with guiding and implementing public policy and service, is at the expense of both the common good and of those who don’t “cheat the system.”  In this sense, corruption is widely viewed as an immoral practice and is increasingly condemned around the world.   Even those compelled to participate in corrupt systems in order to survive are frequently fed up with the role that corruption may play in their daily lives.

Corruption creates a system whereby money and connection determines who has access to public services and who receives favorable treatment. Kofi Annan, former Secretary General of the United Nations, put the cost of corruption succinctly in his Foreword to the 2004 United Nations Convention Against Corruption. Calling corruption an “insidious plague that has a wide range of corrosive effects on societies,”  he added that it diverts funds intended for development, undermines the ability of governments to provide basic services, feeds inequalities and injustice, and discourages foreign aid investment  These practices have particular repercussions in countries emerging from conflict because monies that are needed for development of, for example, roads, utilities, education, health care, and transportation, are diverted by greed and desire to survive and get ahead in a broken system.

Corruption can reach many levels and aspects of governance and span a range in its scale. Corruption that involves the public interacting directly with low- or mid-level bureaucrats who implement policies is known as “petty corruption.” A health inspector taking money from a restaurant owner to give a passing inspection is an example of petty corruption. “Grand corruption,” in contrast, involves high-ranking public officials or politicians who influence policies and rules. They can influence policy to give businesses unfettered access to natural resources, or help pass laws or regulations that are in the interest of those who are willing to pay. In unstable countries, another form of grand corruption occurs when politicians buy votes in order to get elected and, once in office, engage in corrupt practices to cement their rule. And, even in stable democracies, it is not uncommon for legislators to use their positions of power to reward their financial supporters with favors, the awarding of contracts, or the drafting of new laws. Poor regulation over “the flow of private money into election campaigns and political party coffers” is the “number one governance challenge around the world,” notes the watchdog group Global Integrity in its 2008 report.



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