The astounding figure Richard Rose and Caryn Peiffer report in their new book, Paying Bribes for Public Services, that almost one quarter of world’s population or 1.6 billion people, recently paid a bribe would suggest the answer to the question above is a resounding “No.” The 1.6 billion figure sounds so fantastically large that the suspicion arises that it is one of those gauzy numbers conjured up using shaky assumptions and questionable sources to capture headlines rather than advance learning. Yet recent research by the World Bank’ Art Kraay and University of Maryland Professor Peter Murrell shows that, if anything, the Rose and Peiffer 1.6 billion number is low.
Their figure is based on the most solid of evidence: interviews by phone or in-person where respondents are asked whether they had to pay a bribe to obtain a public service. Transparency International’s 2013 Global Corruption Barometer, a main source for the 1.6 billion number, is an example. Surveyors first ask respondents if they or anyone else in their household has had any contact in the past 12 months with anyone associated with any of eight government services: i) the education system, ii) the judiciary, iii) medical or health services, iv) the police, v) registry and permit services, vi) utilities, vii) tax collection or, viii) land service. If the answer is yes, the surveyor then asks:
In your contact or contacts have you or anyone living in your household paid a bribe in any form in the past 12 months?
What could be a more reliable way to gather evidence of bribery? Instead of asking what people think about bribery or what their perceptions of bribery or corruption are, they are asked about their own personal experience, or that of close relatives, with the crime of bribery. The rub comes with the last phrase in the preceding sentence: the respondent is being questioned about “the crime of bribery.”
In the 174 nations now a party to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption payment of a bribe is, or at least should be, a crime punishable by a fine, a prison sentence, or both. So the accuracy of the TI survey data and the data from the other surveys Rose and Peiffer use to compute the 1.6 billion figure depends upon citizens being willing to admit to a stranger, either in person or over the phone, that they have committed a crime. Until Kraay and Murrell’s work, corruption researchers have simply assumed people would not hesitate to report paying a bribe, for as Olken and Pandi say in their 2012 review of corruption research, in most countries little stigma attaches to paying a bribe. But whether a stigma attaches or not, and thus whether a citizen will confess they committed a crime to someone they have never met before, is a question of fact, and in social science, as in science generally, questions of fact are a subject for research not assumptions.
Kraay and Murrell research the subject building on techniques pioneered by an earlier generation of survey researchers. The latest version of their “Misunderestimating Corruption” paper is here, and Murrell’s English language summary here (Kraay and Murrell both being econometricians, much of the paper may be foreign to those not schooled in advanced math). Not surprisingly, they find that respondents’ reticence to admit to paying bribes varies from country to country. What is extraordinary is the effect this reticence can have on survey results: for some countries the actual level of level of bribery may be twice what survey show.
If that result were to hold across all countries, then the real number of people paying bribes across the world would be twice the 1.6 billion figure Rose and Peiffer report, or 3.2 billion. Since there are roughly 6.9 billion people alive today, that number might be plausible – at least in the eyes of some cynics. Excluding infants, half the world pays bribes and perhaps the other half collects them.
Taken together what the Kraay and Murrell and Rose and Peiffer work really show is that the academic and policy communities have a great deal to do before decision-makers and citizens can put much store in measures of corruption.