Having to pay a bribe to get something accomplished can be an unpleasant experience, and in many places around the world, such situations arise frequently. International relations research into corruption typically examines high-level corruption: when top officials take advantage of their positions to enrich themselves with large sums of money. The harm this does to a country is clear.
Yet low-level, or everyday, corruption involves more people and, even though less money is involved in each individual case, causes significant harm as well. Everyday corruption refers to exchanges between ordinary people and employees of the organizations that provide the services people need at one point or another, such as hospitals, schools, police departments, universities, or tax administrations. In a corrupt exchange, the official receives an unapproved compensation for performing job-related duties or providing additional benefits to the citizen. When this happens, it reduces the fairness in how the organization deals with people. It also makes the relevant laws or policies less effective. At the same time, everyday corruption may be the best way people have to get their important needs met (and so it is not always the official who initiates a corrupt transaction).
With two other faculty members, Profs. Vicki Claypool of Political Science and Marina Zaloznaya of Sociology, I have been studying patterns of everyday corruption in three countries: Russia, Ukraine and Georgia. In this post, I will share a few of our findings, including some that come from work done by a current UI International Relations major, Mary Elizabeth Snell, who worked on a fellowship from the UI’s Center for Research by Undergraduates.
To understand everyday corruption better, we had a leading polling firm in each country conduct a public opinion survey with a representative sample of the country’s citizens in 2015. Respondents answered a variety of questions about their views of corruption, their political and social opinions, and whether they had been asked for or given a bribe, gift or favor to an official in the preceding year.
Among the findings to emerge from the surveys is that the three countries, despite their similar histories, have very different levels of everyday corruption. We asked everyone to indicate whether, over the preceding year, they had been asked to provide a bribe, gift or favor by an official or had provided one unasked. In Georgia, those who told us they had done so came to 4.7%, about one out of twenty. In Russia, the equivalent number was 19.7%, one out of every five Russians and over four times as many as in Georgia. Everyday corruption in Ukraine is even more common than in Russia: 26.7%. Although efforts to reduce corruption have been undertaken in all three countries, only Georgia has had some success in recent years in fighting it.
So, what explains the differences among these countries, or any set of countries for that matter? Many factors come into play, but an important one is how the country’s citizens view everyday corruption. In particular, what is their normative view–that is, what actions do they think are proper and improper? To understand this, we asked people how they view four different ways that a person might try to influence an official. Figure 1 shows what percentage in each country finds it always or sometimes acceptable to give money, to deliver a gift, to do a favor or to use connections. In all three countries, a majority of people disapprove of bribing with money (the blue bars on the left for each country). The non-monetary forms of influencing an official all receive substantially more support than that. The most widely accepted form of influence-seeking in all three countries is to give a gift. Beyond these common patterns, the chart makes clear that Georgians have the least tolerance for efforts to influence officials, particularly but not solely by means of a bribe. None of the techniques is supported by a majority of Georgians. Russians find each technique more acceptable than Ukrainians do. Despite their shared Soviet past, then, the people in these three countries do not view everyday corruption in the same way.
Because many scholars have argued that everyday corruption helps people accomplish things they could not without it, we asked our respondents which of two possible worlds they would prefer: a) one in which no public servant ever took a bribe or other special compensation, they just followed procedures; or b) one in which public servants do sometimes take something in order to provide special service. In the former world, people might find themselves out of luck in getting something they need, but impartiality would be more scrupulously observed. In the latter world, people would have a way to get around regulations when it really matters. In all three countries, large majorities said they would prefer bureaucratic officials to act impartially and never take bribes. In Georgia, 83% of the population chose the no-bribes world, while 89% did in Ukraine. Russians again showed that they have a somewhat higher acceptance of everyday corruption, with 72% choosing the no-bribes option.
So these are not societies where people view everyday corruption as a good thing on the whole. They would prefer to live in a society without it. Why, then, in their view, does their society still have it? To shed light on this, we asked why “people in my country” give bribes to officials. We asked for the first and second more important reasons from among five options: a bribe is the easiest or fastest way to get things done, the officials demand it, everyone else does it, they feel grateful to the official, or they feel sorry for the official. Figure 2 shows the responses. In all three countries, the most commonly cited reason is that giving a bribe is the easiest or fastest way to accomplish what they need. Two-thirds or more list it as the most or second-most important reason. They are indicating, in other words, that while they do not approve of bribery, sometimes they cannot make the bureaucracy work for them without it. Indirectly, they are placing the blame on the organizations which do not function well enough to serve people without bribes. In Ukraine and Russia, the other frequently cited reason even more directly blames officials: bribes are paid because citizens are being extorted for them.
To sum up: everyday corruption is an important phenomenon in all three countries, but its frequency is quite different in each one. And despite the difference in frequency, some core attitudes about corruption are shared in common. For instance, while bribery is illegal, and a majority of people in all three countries would prefer a bureaucratic system that does not pressure them to bribe, many of these same people still bribe officials when they feel they must. We hope our findings will contribute to knowledge about these countries and eventually provide a foundation for policymakers to reduce corruption.