“Petty” Corruption Isn’t Petty

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:

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The Disease of Corruption: How Distrust in Corrupt Governments Impacts Emergency Health Delivery

Corruption negatively impacts health outcomes. As noted in a previous post, corruption is associated with higher infant, child, and maternal mortality, overall poor health, the spread of antibiotic resistance, and many other problems. When we consider the reasons why corruption undermines health, the most obvious include things like theft or diversion of healthcare resources, or how demands for extra “informal” payments to healthcare providers can deprive poor communities of adequate care. There is, however, another important mechanism through which corruption undermines public health: corruption undermines trust in government and government-run services, which in turn can hinder effective health delivery and thereby escalate the spread of infectious diseases, especially in emergency situations like the recent Ebola crisis. Continue reading

Trust in Government and Public Health: Corruption and Ebola Revisited

A little while back I did a short post expressing skepticism about some claims that corruption was a significant contributor to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. I agree that insofar as corruption diverts resources from public health and sanitation, or leads to undersupply of necessary medicines and supplies, it is likely to worsen both the frequency and magnitude of public health problems. But I was more skeptical that there was any direct evidence that the admittedly rampant corruption in places like Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria was a major contributor to that particular public health crisis.

Last month I was fortunate enough to moderate a panel on corruption and public health at the World Bank’s International Corruption Hunters Alliance meeting, and the presentations at that panel have altered my thinking about this issue somewhat. More generally, several of the presenters from countries hit hard by Ebola — including Commissioner Joseph Kamara of Sierra Leone’s Anti-Corruption Commission and Commissioner Aba Hamilton-Dolo of the Liberian Anti-Corruption Commission — made a convincing case that corruption has been, if not a primary cause, then at least a significant contributor to the extent and severity of the Ebola outbreak. Of course, there is still relatively little direct evidence, and it’s reasonable to wonder whether commissioners on anti-corruption commissions may be likely to overestimate the significance of their particular issue area for the most pressing immediate crisis facing their nations. Nonetheless, they did make a plausible case that corruption, while perhaps not a direct contributor to the outbreak, has significantly impeded the response.

On this point, Commissioner Hamilton-Dolo emphasized an important argument that I hadn’t really paid enough attention to, even though I quoted Professor Taryn Vian making essentially the same point in my earlier post: in addition to the squandering of public health resources, corruption may also impede the effective response to public health crises by undermining trust in government. The argument, as I understand it, goes something like this: Continue reading

Is Corruption Partly Responsible for the Ebola Crisis?

There’s been an interesting mini-debate over at the FCPA Blog about whether, or to what extent, corruption is partly responsible for the severity of the Ebola crisis in West Africa. Richard Cassin, the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog, argued that it is. He made this argument initially in a post from this past August entitled “Ebola tragedy is also a story of graft.” He offered as evidence the following observations: (1) the WHO and other observers estimate that a very high percentage–perhaps up to 25%–of global spending on public health is lost to corruption; (2) the very high Ebola fatality rates in West Africa have been attributed in part to the lack of adequate intensive care facilities to administer the treatments; and (3) the countries hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak–Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria–are reputed to be highly corrupt, as indicated by their very poor scores on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Many critics who commented on Cassin’s initial post complained that the evidence offered did not in fact support the strong claim in the title that corruption has contributed significantly to the Ebola outbreak. In particular, the critics pointed out that: (1) the fact that a great deal of public health spending generally is lost to corruption does not actually tell us whether corruption was a major factor in the particular case of the Ebola outbreak, and (2) the low ranking of the affected countries on the CPI likewise–even if we concede that the CPI is a decent measure of actual corruption–does not indicate that corruption caused (in any significant way) the Ebola outbreak to be as lethal as it has been; at most it shows a correlation that might be explained by any number of other factors.

Cassin responded with a second post last month in which he rebutted the critics. He acknowledged that while one can never establish with “scientific certainty” that corruption has a causal effect on the severity of the Ebola outbreak, there is powerful circumstantial evidence that corruption is a “gateway” to this and other public health crises (as well as other problems like terrorism and crime), because it siphons off public resources. Cassin cites to a couple of research papers that purport to show that corruption in general has adverse impacts on public health, in particular because it adversely affects access to clean water and sanitation.

While I’m generally sympathetic to Cassin’s larger point, I think that the criticisms are fair ones. Here’s my take. Continue reading