Guest Column

The Right Kind of Generosity

By Tony Preston 9 December 2014

It’s fair to say that some level of corruption exists everywhere. That, sadly, reflects the human condition. But not all governments and societies are equally imperfect either. The latest version of Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index came out on Dec. 3. Of the 174 countries measured, the UK and Burma occupied places 14 and 156 respectively. This index is not definitive but it allows us to see how countries are perceived to be performing in tackling, or not tackling, corruption.

There is a view that corruption is a fixation of developed countries; a stick to beat developing countries and to congratulate themselves on their supposedly superior moral values. But protests and campaigns show that people in developing countries do care about corruption. Indeed, if you believe that things like the provision of public goods and services, the protection of basic rights, the preservation of functioning markets and of the rule of law are important for development, then you have a clear case for corruption mattering.

And corruption isn’t just a moral issue. If good economics is about the most efficient allocation of resources, then corruption tends towards the opposite: it depletes a country’s wealth, diverting revenue and resources from the public purse to corrupt pockets. Corruption thwarts efforts to alleviate poverty, disproportionately impacting on the poor and disadvantaged who literally can’t afford to take part in this illicit game. Corruption is therefore not just stealing; it can also amount to the rich stealing from the poor.

Corruption is also a transaction cost. The World Bank estimates that corruption adds at least 10 percent to the cost of doing business – a cost usually passed on to customers. Maybe some think that corruption is somehow a victimless crime: the company gets its contract, the official or politician gets his or her kickback, and life goes on—business is business, so what? But when contracts are awarded on the basis of personal gain, then everyone suffers. Bribery and corruption mean decisions are made for the wrong reasons and that the public good is suppressed.

What can we do to tackle corruption and keep it to a minimum? There are two overarching approaches. Firstly, minimise the opportunities for it to happen through strong institutions with good systems that catch and bring offenders to book and, secondly, create a culture which unambiguously teaches that it is wrong to be corrupt and enables people to blow the whistle on corruption when they see it.

What does this mean in practice? Well, it includes having an incorruptible and demonstrably politically neutral judiciary. It includes having a fearless, trusted anti-corruption agency with the right mandate and full political and public support. It means replacing opaque procurement mechanisms with transparent tendering processes; it means wherever possible putting services online; and it means regular intrusive oversight.

But I would argue that the cultural aspect of tackling corruption is even more important than these mechanisms. If any state official is not given, and then repeatedly reminded of, a code of ethics that stresses integrity, honesty and impartiality as prime values, then it won’t be surprising if they don’t live up to them.

Another vital question is whether those caught indulging in corruption are charged and if found guilty are they severely punished? Proper sanctions can have a huge deterrent effect. The opposite of that—in effect, impunity—can send an equally powerful message: namely, that such behaviour is somehow acceptable, unremarkable, or at least unpunishable. It’s a choice ultimately—between a zero tolerance and a ‘we tolerate anything’ approach.

Burma was recently voted the joint most generous country on earth—deservedly in my view. My hope is that this light of generosity can shine on the darkness that provides cover for corruption.

Tony Preston is head of the British Embassy’s Prosperity Team. This article has been published to mark International Anti-Corruption Day on Dec. 9.