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TI Language Guide

What Is Corruption?

  1. What is corruption?
  2. What is "transparency"?
  3. What are the costs of corruption?
  4. Can the costs of corruption be measured?
  5. Where is corruption most prevalent?
  6. How does corruption affect people's lives?
  7. What kind of environment does corruption need to thrive in?
  8. Can corruption be seen as normal or traditional in some societies?
  9. Are democracy and corruption (ir-)reconcilable?
  10. Is it possible to fight corruption?

1. What is corruption?

According to Transparency International (TI) definition of corruption, it is the misuse of entrusted power for private gain. TI further differentiates between "according to rule" corruption and "against the rule" corruption. When a bribe is paid to receive preferential treatment for something that the bribe receiver is required to do by law, constitute the former. The latter is the case when a bribe paid to obtain services the bribe receiver is prohibited from providing.

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2. What is "transparency"?

"Transparency" can be defined as a principle that allows everyone to know not only the basic facts and figures concerning performance of the public and private sectors, as well as charitable organizations, but also the mechanisms and processes through which they operate.

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3. What are the costs of corruption?

The cost of corruption is four-fold: political, economic, social, and environmental:

  • On the political front, corruption constitutes a major obstacle to democracy and the rule of law. In a democratic system, offices and institutions lose their legitimacy when they are misused for private advantage.
  • Economically, corruption leads to the depletion of national wealth. It hinders the development of fair market structures and distorts competition, thereby deterring investment.
  • The effect of corruption on the social fabric of society is the most damaging of all. It undermines people's trust in the political system, in its institutions and its leadership. Frustration and general apathy among a disillusioned public result in a weak civil society. That in turn clears the way for despots as well as democratically elected yet unscrupulous leaders to turn national assets into personal wealth. Demanding and paying bribes become the norm. Those unwilling to comply often emigrate, leaving the country drained of its most able and most honest citizens.
  • Environmental degradation is yet another consequence of corrupt systems. The lack of, or non-enforcement of, environmental regulations and legislation allows pollution, over-exploitation of natural resources, and other environmental damage which ravage natural environments.

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4. Can the costs of corruption be measured?

The short answer is "no". Some experts use regression analyses and other empirical methods in order to try to put a dollar figure on the cost of corruption. It is virtually impossible, though, since payments of bribes are not publicly recorded. No one knows exactly how much money is being "invested" in corrupt officials annually. And bribes do not take only monetary form: favors, services, presents and so on are just as common. At most, one can research the correlation between the level of corruption and, say, democratization, economic development or environmental degradation. The social costs of corruption are even less quantifiable. Any estimated social costs in dollars would be inadequate to the task of measuring the human tragedy behind resignation, illiteracy, or inadequate medical care.

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5. Where is corruption most prevalent?

At a first glance, it seems that corruption is predominantly a problem of the South. However, corruption is as much a problem of the North as it is of the South. Recent scandals in Germany, France, Japan, the US or the UK attest to that. It is well-established checks and controls that make the difference in proportion. People are as corrupt as the system allows them to be. Such an environment is more likely in the emerging democracies of the South and East, when administration and political institutions are still weak and pay scales are generally very low, tempting officials to "supplement" their income. In dictatorial systems, meanwhile, administrative and political institutions are nothing but an extension of the usurper's corrupt practices. The North also carries part of the responsibility for the situation in the South due to its role as the bribe-payer. After all, it is largely Northern corporate interests that supply the bribe payments.

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6. How does corruption affect people's lives?

Around the globe, corruption impacts people's lives in a multitude of ways. In the worst cases, corruption costs lives. In countless other cases, it costs their freedom, health, or money. Some bureaucracies only work if they are enticed by additional "rewards". In any case, grand and petty corruption is making life more difficult or outright threatens the lives of many people all over the world.

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7. What kind of environment does corruption need to thrive in?

As indicated above, corruption thrives where temptation coexists with permissiveness. Where institutional checks on power are missing, where decision making remains obscure, where civil society is thin on the ground, where great inequalities in the distribution of wealth condemn people to live in poverty that is where corrupt practices flourish. It cannot be stressed enough that corruption is alive even where political, economic, legal and social institutions are well entrenched.

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8. Can corruption be seen as normal or traditional in some societies?

Critics argue that gift giving and taking in the public realm is a normal tradition in many non-Western cultures. The debate over cultural relativism and neo-colonialism is a contested one. Norms and values are context-bound and vary across cultures. Gift-giving is part of negotiating and relationship building in some parts of the world. But, there are limits in all cultures beyond which an action becomes corrupt and unacceptable. Clearly the abuse of power for personal gain, the siphoning off of public or common resources into private pockets is unacceptable in all cultures and societies.

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9. Are democracy and corruption (ir-)reconcilable?

In a modern democracy, the power of governing bodies is inherent in the political mandate given by the people. Power is entrusted and it is supposed to be used for the benefit of society at large, and not for the personal benefit of the individual that holds it. Thus corruption - misusing publicly entrusted power for private gain - is inherently contradictory and irreconcilable with democracy. That does not mean, unfortunately, that corruption cannot be found in democratic systems. Temptation remains a challenge anywhere. That is why it is all the more important to put in place control mechanisms and establish systemic hurdles to prevent people from abusing their power. Such mechanisms are more easily drawn up and introduced in established democratic systems, however, than in newly democratic or non-democratic ones.

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10. Is it possible to fight corruption?

TI believes that keeping corruption in check is feasible if representatives from government, business and civil society work together and agree on a set of standards and procedures they all support. TI's goal is to define and introduce strategies and mechanisms that make corrupt practices if not impossible, at least unlikely and punishable, both on the national as well as on the international level. A worldwide practice shows that successful anti-corruption policies which reduce corruption onto manageable level necessarily include preventive and detective measures, along with education and public support.

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