Myanmar Should Adopt Formal User Fees To Displace Petty Bribery

Corruption is part everyday life in Myanmar. While the wealthy can use bribery to get around the law, for the vast majority of Burmese citizens, bribery is necessary to get things done even when the law is on your side. The term “tea money” exists in common parlance to describe the small bribes necessary to obtain even the most basic of services—bribes that are so ubiquitous that many people don’t think they count as corruption. The imposition of unofficial, discretionary and discriminatory “fees” means that formally public services are in practice “privatized.”

One explanation for the persistence of this petty corruption is that both the national government and the regional governments lack the revenue necessary to provide the public services that, under Myanmar’s Constitution, the government is supposed to provide. According to the Asia Foundation, “Decades of deliberate neglect of Myanmar’s tax-administration system have left the country with one of the lowest tax takes in the world [….] Myanmar’s tax revenues in 2016–17 were only 6–7% of GDP. This compares to 10–20% of GDP for countries at similar levels of income.” The country does earn significant revenue from natural resources, but these rents have gone into the pockets of military elites; other revenue sources are severely limited. When the demand for government services and benefits outstrips the supply, people become willing to pay extra for the promised public goods. The idea that these extra fees are acceptable is exacerbated by the fact that Myanmar’s lower-ranking public servants earn very low official salaries. But allocating public services on the basis of bribe payments is not fair, equitable, transparent, or efficient.

In an ideal world, Myanmar would reform its tax system, collect adequate revenue, pay its public servants decent salaries, and be able to provide all of the goods and services to which its citizens are legally entitled. But while we can all hope Myanmar works toward that goal, nothing like that is going to happen anytime soon.

A more practical short-term solution is to raise the official administrative fees—or “user fees”—for public services. Continue reading

Expediting Corruption: The Dangers of Expediters in Licensing Markets

The scheme was as simple as it was brazen, and as brazen as it was frightening. On April 24, 2018, a New York City jury convicted attorney John Chambers of bribing New York Police Department (NYPD) personnel in exchange for gun permits for his numerous clients. Calling himself a “gun license expediter,” Mr. Chambers acted as an intermediary for individuals hoping to pass the necessary background check and obtain the mandatory permit in order to legally own a firearm in the city. But in a decentralized scheme involving numerous individuals inside and outside the police department, NYPD officers approved hundreds of licenses while skipping background checks, shortening license suspensions, and waving through applications containing glaring red flags—including improperly approving licenses for individuals convicted of illegal weapons possession. In return, the officers received expensive gifts, tickets to sporting events, lavish vacations, envelopes stuffed with cash—and even free guns.

At the center of the web of bribery were so-called “gun license expediters” like Chambers, who advertised their ability to help clients navigate the demanding and complex process of obtaining, renewing, or retaining a handgun license in New York City. Several of the expediters indicted in the scandal were retired police officers who had served in the NYPD Licensing Division, bribing former colleagues after leaving the police force in order to open their own expediting businesses. Fees varied depending on the difficulty and timing of the requests, but clients were routinely charged thousands of dollars per license—on top of the hundreds of dollars in mandatory city-imposed application fees. By leveraging experience, relationships, and sometimes illegal gifts, expediters such as Chambers were able to not only expedite but also to influence the outcome of applications.

In response to the revelations, the NYPD announced substantial changes to its licensing program. First and foremost, the department barred any expediter from physically visiting the Licensing Division on behalf of a client—instead requiring that all applicants appear in person to submit their own paperwork. (Expediters, however, would presumably not be barred from contacting members of the Licensing Division or directing their clients whom to talk to when they arrive.) Second, the department mandated that all gun permit approvals could only be made by the top two officers in the unit. Despite these seemingly sweeping changes, the new policies sidestep the root causes of corruption in this instance—which reveal the danger of expediters in general. Continue reading

“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 UK Aid Impact Commission’s Review of DFID Anticorruption Programs Is Dreadful

Last week, the United Kingdom’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact (ICAI) released its report on the UK Department for International Development (DFID)’s efforts to fight corruption in poor countries. The report, which got a fair amount of press attention (see here, here, here, and here), was harshly critical of DFID. But the report itself has already been criticized in return, by a wide range of anticorruption experts. Heather Marquette, the director of the Developmental Leadership Program at the University of Birmingham, described the ICAI report as “simplistic,” “a mess,” and a “wasted opportunity” that “fails to understand the nature of corruption.” Mick Moore, head of the International Centre for Tax and Development at the Institute for Development Studies, said that the report was “disingenuous[]” and “oversimplif[ied],” and that it “threatens to push British aid policy in the wrong direction.” Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, called the report a “wasted opportunity” that “has failed to significantly add to our evidence base,” largely because “ICAI’s attitude to what counts as evidence is so inconsistent between what it asks of DFID and what it accepts for itself.”

Harsh words. Are they justified? After reading the ICAI report myself, I regret to say the answer is yes. Though there are some useful observations scattered throughout the ICAI report, taken as a whole the report is just dreadful. Despite a few helpful suggestions on relatively minor points, neither the report’s condemnatory tone nor its primary recommendations are backed up with adequate evidence or cogent reasoning. It is, in most respects, a cautionary example of how incompetent execution can undermine a worthwhile project. Continue reading