Corruption getting worse, says poll

Brazilians protesting about corruption in June, 2013 Corruption has been one of the key focuses of recent protests in Brazil

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More than one in two people think corruption has worsened over the last two years, according to a public opinion survey by Transparency International. Its annual Global Corruption Barometer found 27% of respondents said they had paid a bribe when accessing public services and institutions in the last year. The survey covered more than 100 countries. Perhaps it's time to challenge our perceptions of corruption, writes BBC Newshour's Tim Franks.

The evidence suggests a global pandemic, a disease which infects and corrodes and rots. Most people appear to think it's getting worse. And yet the reaction is often just a tut - it's other people's problem, or a shrug - it's always been with us and it always will be.

It is corruption.

It is an act, a fact of life, which occurs - by and large - in the shadows. Some, though, are trying doggedly to draw back the curtain - among them, the Berlin-based pressure group, Transparency International. Its latest global survey of corruption covered 107 countries and 114,000 people. And most of them say that corruption has worsened over the last two years.

Key findings of the Global Corruption Barometer 2013

  • More than half of those surveyed believe corruption has worsened in the last two years
  • In the last year, 27% of respondents say they have paid a bribe when accessing public services and institutions
  • Nearly 9 out of 10 people surveyed said they would act against corruption
  • 2/3 of those who were asked to pay a bribe say they had refused
  • In 51 countries around the world political parties are seen as the most corrupt institution

There are some depressing, if predictable, trends. You are twice as likely to pay a bribe in a poor country as a rich one. In one in three countries, the greasiest palms belong to the police. In almost one in five, the judiciary. Overall, one in four people surveyed say they have paid a bribe.

Nor is it simply about discreetly folding money into an official's palm. It is political parties, "the driving force of democracies", as TI calls them, which are perceived to be the most corrupt public institution.

That is, in large part, because corruption is not just about bribery. Almost two out of three people say they believe personal relationships are what help get things done in the public sector - one in two say their government is largely or completely run by special interest groups.

And the smell does not just hang around emerging democracies or economies. A sentence in the Boston Globe two months ago made me do a double-take - newly elected Democrat members of the House of Representatives were told by their party "to devote at least four hours a day to the tedious task of raising money".

You may argue that that is not corruption. It is an open trawl. There are rules against offering a clear quid pro quo. But the TI survey finds that people in the US, as with the UK, believe corruption is growing. And in the UK, while - full disclosure here - it's the media who are seen as the most venal sector of public life, they're run a close second by political parties.

British politician Lord Danby (seated left) offers a bribe of 1,000 guineas to the British poet and MP Andrew Marvell - circa 1660 This engraving of British politician Lord Danby offering a bribe to an MP in the 17th Century shows political corruption has long been an issue of public concern

There are some oases. People in Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Georgia, Sudan and South Sudan report that corruption has lessened over the last two years.

Map graphic

TI argues, incontrovertibly, if a little optimistically, that for the stench of corruption to be lifted further, "governments must set up accountability mechanisms" and "people should refuse to pay a bribe, wherever asked and whenever possible".

Others may argue that beyond the familiar figures of the grasping politician, dodgy hack and bent policeman, corruption is more amorphous and more pervasive. The Harvard moral philosopher, Michael Sandel, draws an almost Shakespearean image of the corruption of the social fabric when he writes of prisoners paying to upgrade their cell, or patients paying to jump the queue at public hospitals, or schools paying children $2 a pop to read books.

Transparency International's view

Huguette Labelle, Chair of Transparency International

"Bribe-paying levels remain very high worldwide, but people believe they have the power to stop corruption and the number of those willing to combat the abuse of power, secret dealings and bribery is significant"

Huguette Labelle, Chair of Transparency International

Perhaps in the first instance, we should all challenge our preconceptions about the places, the situations, the morality, even the language of corruption. That it isn't just something that other people do. Or it's not just something that everyone does - a fee, rather than a bribe, whether you're paying or taking.

More than 200 years ago, the great political thinker Edmund Burke warned that "among a people generally corrupt, liberty cannot long exist". If that is right, corruption deserves more than a tut or a shrug.

There will be a series of special reports and articles this week as the BBC examines why bribes and backhanders are part of the system in so much of the world, looks at countries which have tried to roll back the tide - and explains how corruption works.

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