Watch Your Language: Not “Everyone” Is Corrupt–Anywhere.

I’ve noticed something about the way many people (including me) sometimes describe the severity of the corruption problem in many parts of the world: When calling attention to the problem of widespread, systemic corruption, it’s not uncommon to hear people say—usually in casual conversation, occasionally in more formal presentations—that in this or that country, or this or that government or department, “everyone” is corrupt, or “everybody” takes bribes, or similar. I’m sure I’ve used this or similar language myself, without even thinking about it. And I understand that when most people say things like “everyone in [X] is corrupt,” they don’t mean that literally. Yet I find myself increasingly bothered by statements like this, for several reasons:

  • First, it’s not true. Even in countries where corruption is widespread, the percentage of the population that has had to pay a bribe is well below 100%. That’s not to deny that fact that the numbers from corruption-experience surveys like Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer are really, really bad in many countries. But even the countries that do worst on these statistics have substantial percentages of the population that have not paid bribes. As for governments, or individual government departments, it’s harder to tell, as there isn’t as much data, but my very strong hunch is that even in government departments with widespread, systemic corruption, there are quite a few people of integrity who do not participate in that corruption. Now, maybe many of them are passive bystanders, and maybe the honest ones find themselves marginalized. But I don’t think it’s true (and we should be careful of asserting without evidence) that “every” civil servant in a given department is involved in corrupt activity.
  • Second, there’s a very real worry that casual use of the everyone-is-corrupt language—particularly when thrown around without hard evidence—can contribute to a wholly unintentional but nonetheless pernicious form of bias, particularly against populations in poor countries with predominantly non-European cultural backgrounds. Here, an analogy might be helpful: In many poor, predominantly minority inner-city neighborhoods in the United States, rates of crime and drug use are relatively high, especially among young men. That’s just a fact—one that should cause serious concern—and it’s not racist to point it out. But if I were to casually remark (say, at a conference on anti-crime policies in the U.S.), “Of course, all young men in the inner cities are involved in drug gangs,” I would be rightly castigated. I’m not sure it’s much different if I were to casually remark, at an anticorruption conference, that “everyone in Nigeria pays bribes” (or even, “every Nigerian bureaucrat takes bribes”). In both cases, there’s a subtle but important distinction: Stating (accurately) that rates of a particular form of malfeasance are high in a particular population is not only acceptable but important; stating (inaccurately) that “everyone” in a particular community is engaged in malfeasance sounds like a claim that people of that sort are inherently predisposed to that bad activity. And that sort of stereotyping is something we should try to avoid.
  • Third, the belief that corruption is widespread can be self-reinforcing. There’s a fair bit of academic work now (see, for example, here and here) that makes this intuitive point: When people believe that “everyone” is engaged in supposedly improper conduct, the norms against that conduct erode; people feel less shame, and are less likely to be criticized or shunned, for doing something that “everyone” is doing. So when we exaggerate the frequency of corrupt activities in a given country or organization, we may contribute to the erosion of those norms. Now, this does raise a kind of ethical conundrum—such a dilemma might arise, for example, corruption is indeed very high in a given organization, but we’re worried that providing an honest and public assessment of that corruption will actually make it worse. But often there is no such tension, because it is not in fact empirically true that “everyone” (or anywhere close to everyone) is actually engaging in corrupt activities. At the very least, if we don’t have strong evidence on that point, we should be very careful about making sweeping claims about what “everybody” is doing.

To be clear, none of this is to deny that in many countries, and many individual organizations and departments, corruption is a very serious problem. It is not to deny that “systemic” corruption exists, nor that we should talk about it frankly. It is not even to deny that in some limited cases, an entire organization or group (say, the ruling clique of a kleptocracy) is corrupt. Rather, I want to make two much more modest suggestions. First, where possible we should base our claims about widespread or systemic corruption on evidence (hard numbers where possible, though of course that’s not always feasible), rather than second-hand stereotypes. Second, we should (except in special extreme cases) avoid casual statements to the effect that “everyone” in a given group is corrupt—especially when we’re talking about a large group, and certainly when we’re talking about a whole country. Better to say that corruption is “widespread” or “systemic” or “pervasive.” Even where corruption is indeed pervasive, there are some—often many—who avoid or resist it. Let’s acknowledge their existence, and encourage them, by this small change in how we talk about the problem.

10 thoughts on “Watch Your Language: Not “Everyone” Is Corrupt–Anywhere.

  1. The common discourse of branding “all politicians” as corrupt often discourages honest people from participating in the political process as they fear for their hard earned reputation. This generalization tends to portray all those who engage in politics as power/ money hungry. I wholeheartedly agree that this practice must stop as it has an adverse impact on public trust in democratic institutions. Some politicians have consciously sacrificed their personal ambitions for the sake of public service and they must be respected for the same. The Media (in my country i.e. India) has added, rather irresponsibly, to this false notion that the political class is corrupt lock, stock and barrel.

  2. An interesting and valid observation and I fully agree with both suggestions. What this reflection highlights for me is that however much we try, we unfortunately cannot escape continuously revisiting the usefulness of our understanding of what we mean with the ‘corruption’ label,. One strategy that I would suggest to support productive rethinking is very detailed descriptive research of specific settings. We lack so much evidence about how ‘things work’ in reality, description without the pre-defined use of the corruption label (as opposed to the use of the label by setting-insiders, which is indicative of their, as opposed to the analyst’s understanding), that application of the corruption label is often hindering more than anything else. It prevents us from asking the right questions. I’ll try to illustrate: take any public service provision in a country where the service provider personnel is paid non-living salaries. E.g education. What money changes hands in a particular (set of) schools between parents and teachers and school administrators for what and how are particular payments seen/understood? How is the behaviur of individual service-providers judged? Can payments be replaced by other exchanges, avoided by having the right relationships? What level of educational quality is provided for the money paid? Are required payments known and standardized? Is there an interface of intermediaries who take care of payments against fixed fees? What is the consequence of not paying/not being able to pay certain ‘customary’ fees, or not participating in certain customary supplementary income-generating offers from service-provision personnel (e.g. tutoring) Etc. etc. etc. I am pretty sure that such descriptions would result in much more nuanced understanding of what actually transpires within ‘corruption-prone settings’ than currently available. It will show that also ‘non-corrupt’ individuals participate (to some extent) in ‘corrupt’ aspects of the setting, that also ‘corrupt’ individuals (sometimes/regularly) act ‘clean’, etc. It will allow us to ask questions around the financing of the setting as it is (supposedly public but largely private in practice) and explore its efficiency (in light of the actual money available) in comparison with adequately funded public education and various tiers of official ‘private’ service offers; and questions around what private contribution is unavoidable (as long as public resources are inadequate) to make the setting operate at all (remember non-living salary means just that, unless you have additional income you cannot do this work…), how does the quality of the offer compare to what one gets in a setting that is publicly financed at that (basic) level, etc. What is the role of (forced) contributions by front line service provision personnel to those higher up in the bureaucracy (from having to pay for getting a job, an investment that needs to be re-earned in one way or the other, to regular payments based on the expectation that their job offers ‘sideline’ income that needs to be shared)? What proportion of that income is going to personnel pockets, what part is used for ‘institutional’ purposes (e.g. in a country like Cambodia, one-party dominance is maintained a.o. by using income thus generated by party-members for public largesse).
    As is evident from the above my wish would be for research that gives priority of place to stakeholder/participant understanding of the propriety of what happens in a setting, and the institutional incentives and constraints that the setting offers, in combination with a comparative approach that contrasts the outcomes (costs and benefits, distributive fairness, etc) with that of similar settings with a different institutional design. That would provide a good background for productive thinking about normative labels like ‘corruption’. To conclude with a totally different setting: I would see anthropological work on (parts of) the financial services industry in particular locales as good examples of such work that could and should inspire anti-corruption thinking, in that it brings to light aspects the institutional design of the setting and to insider understandings in ways that a ‘corruption’ lens would not be able to (examples: Karen Ho’s Liquidated. An ethnography of Wallstreet – – and Joris Luijendijk’s Swimming with Sharks. Inside the World of Bankers –

  3. Pingback: Watch Your Language: Not “Everyone” Is Corrupt–Anywhere | Anti Corruption Digest

  4. Thanks for this timely reminder to watch our language and our prejudices. Before I started working with Papua New Guinea’s National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate, I was told it would be a waste of time because it is staffed by PNG police and, well, everyone knows they’re corrupt. How refreshing and invigorating it was to work with PNG police who demonstrated wonderful integrity and exceptional bravery. Yes, casual off-hand judgements about corruption can be very harmful, especially when they are held by people who make major investment decisions about capacity building opportunities and priorities.

    There is an important story here about the plight of PNG’s National Fraud and Anti-Corruption Directorate:'s-top-fraud-squad-officer-arrested/7518278

  5. Thanks for another interesting piece Matthew,

    last year, while working with a corruption prevention team in one of Australia’s anti-corruption agencies, we discussed a very similar issue when thinking about applying crime prevention techniques to corruption prevention. In a low corruption environment, the language of crime prevention carries an implicit message the deliverer (i.e. the anti-corruption agency) assumes all members of the receiving agency are either criminal/corrupt or would drift that way if left to their own devices.

    The outcome of our work was to re-write many of the strategies with more positive language to encourage integrity, rather than assume corruption. The unintended consequences of labelling are counterproductive to the anti-corruption message.

  6. Pingback: Please Never, Ever Say (or Imply) That the United States Is the Only Country that Tries To Do Something About Corruption | Anti Corruption Digest

  7. I agree with this 100 percent.

    By the way, there is an ongoing debate in the anti-corruption NGOs community about how to communicate the problem of corruption to the public and I think there are already many good examples where communication focuses on hope, good examples, inspiring stories and action guidelines. This is also relevant to the larger NGO community in general and I recently saw a wonderful article that summarizes it very nicely –

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