A Low-Cost, No-Tech Solution to Petty Corruption: Stickers

On a recent trip to Myanmar, I was surprised to find that all of my dining receipts came with government stickers on them. It turns out that these stickers are a solution to a tax fraud problem. Restaurants are supposed to charge sales tax, but the government has limited capacity to ensure that the tax collected from patrons actually reaches the government. So the government sells stickers to restaurants that say the price the restaurant paid, and restaurants post these stickers on each receipt for the amount of the tax. Compliance is secured through a combination of direct enforcement and public pressure. This low-cost, low-tech solution ensures the flow of money to the government instead of the pockets of unscrupulous business owners.

The same innovation could be applied to combat petty corruption, helping to ensure that the money from various charges paid by citizens—from license fees to road tolls to other government service charges—flows to official coffers rather than bureaucrats’ pockets. In any situation where an individual has to pay the government – from garbage collection to healthcare to speeding tickets – demanding a stickered receipt could ensure that the government agent doesn’t pocket some (or all) of the payment. Moreover, using these stickers would have a more subtle secondary benefit: fixing the price of government services. Consider a citizen who applies for a driver’s license and has to pay a cash fee. The bureaucrat in charge of processing the application not only has an incentive to not only pocket the cash, but also to exaggerate the size of the license fee in order to have more to steal. The stickers help ameliorate this problem, because a citizen who demands proof of payment in the form of stickers diminishes the incentives of the bureaucrat to inflate the price.

Of course, while the sticker system helps address petty embezzlement, it does not (directly) address the problem of petty bribery. A bureaucrat could demand an additional bribe on top of the official price for a service. Or a government agent could offer to not impose some charge or fine in exchange for a bribe paid directly to the official. The classic example here would be a police officer offering to look the other way on a traffic offense in exchange for a payment. Nonetheless, the sticker system may also help to curb these sorts of petty bribery, for a few reasons: Continue reading

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