Grand corruption attracts plenty of attention—from activists, the mainstream media, and other commentators (including on this blog)—and for good reason. While the media may simply be riveted by the decadent lifestyles of corrupt actors, the anticorruption community has increasingly recognized the devastating impact that kleptocrats and their cronies can have. No doubt, this attention to grand corruption is welcome and recent successes in fighting it are laudable. At the same time, though, this increased focus on grand corruption carries with it the risk of making smaller, more everyday forms of corruption—sometimes called “petty” corruption—seem less consequential.
Yet so-called “petty” corruption remains widespread, and its aggregate impact should not be underestimated. By way of example, consider the most recent results from the Transparency International (TI) Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) survey of citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean, which found that one-third of people who used a public service paid a bribe in order to do so. In other words, for these 90 million people, their ability to access a government service to which they were entitled was conditioned upon an extralegal payment—and that’s just accounting for this one region.
Even as the anticorruption community rightly focuses attention on combatting grand corruption, we can’t forget the real havoc wreaked by smaller-scale corruption. So-called “petty” corruption is not a petty concern. Rather, it’s a serious, pervasive problem that deserves just as much sustained attention as does politicians buying collector cars and oceanfront properties with assets from their secret offshore bank accounts. At the risk of repeating familiar points, it’s worth reviewing the ways in which small-scale corruption has, cumulatively, a range of incredibly destructive effects:
- First, and most obviously, small-scale corruption inflicts real, tangible harm on a very large number of victims. Consider health care corruption, which 20% of the respondents in TI’s GCB survey of Latin America had encountered, and which is a common experience in many other regions of the world as well (see, for example, here, here, and here). Requiring patients to pay more than the fair price for health care is clearly a problem in itself. Furthermore, one study found that corruption causes people to postpone when they first seek medical help, resulting in cancer diagnoses at later stages of the disease, sometimes so late that the cancer has progressed to an incurable stage. Additionally, bribes and kickbacks destroy the opportunity for a meaningful, trusting doctor-patient relationship, because patients rightly assume that health care providers’ top priority is making money, not improving health. Or consider education: throughout the developing world, teacher absenteeism—properly considered a form of corruption— is a huge problem, squandering up to one-quarter of primary school spending and leading to classrooms standing empty 11-30% of the time. Affected students are the most obvious victims, but in addition, society loses out on having fully educated and trained citizens and workers.
- Second, small-scale corruption is often regressive, increasing economic inequality by siphoning resources away from poorer families. TI’s GCB survey of Latin America found that poor people paid bribes at higher rates than the rich. Other research has shown that the impact of bribery, as measured as a percentage of income, can be enormous for poor families: in Mexico, an astonishing one-third of the poorest families’ household income is spent on bribes. This burdensome illegal “tax” might make it impossible for a poor family to afford necessary medical treatments or to send children to school—impositions that further entrench their poverty.
- Third, small-scale corruption—the sort of corruption that ordinary citizens are most likely to experience directly in their own lives—is particularly likely to undermine confidence in public institutions. That mistrust and suspicion can, in turn, have disastrous consequences. For example, some have argued that distrust of the public health sector in Sierra Leone and Liberia, engendered in large part by the prevalence of demands for bribes, contributed to the rapid spread and death toll of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, as sick people avoided seeking treatment from institutions they didn’t trust.
- Fourth, the prevalence of small-scale “petty” corruption can contribute to the grand corruption problem, for two reasons. For one thing, corruption is often organized in networks, in which the low-level official demanding a bribe at the point of service might be required to give a cut of the bribes (or salary) to the next person up the chain, who might be required to do the same, and so forth. Thus, seemingly “petty” corruption isn’t an isolated occurrence, but actually feeds the whole system of corruption. In addition, tolerance of small-scale corruption may foster a culture of rule breaking. Consider psychologist Dan Ariely’s finding that mere exposure to a demand for a bribe (regardless of whether it was actually paid) makes people less honest, thus “degrading the moral character” of everyone involved. Corruption at any level legitimizes and normalizes wrongful behavior, threatening the rule of law and making anticorruption efforts all the more difficult.
Although so-called “petty” corruption may not generate as many headlines as grand corruption, it has enormous significance to the daily lives of ordinary people and to society more broadly. Small-scale corruption harms people’s well-being, increases inequality, degrades institutions, and helps feed other forms of corruption. The anticorruption community must ensure it’s paying attention not only to grand corruption, but also to the day-to-day effect of small-scale corruption on citizens’ lives.