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In this blog, Pr. Richard Rose and Dr. Caryn Peiffer present their latest research on bribery in the public sector

A total of 1.6 billion people around the world are affected by bribes paid for public services each year. Whereas ordinary people are not involved in grand bribes paid for big capital-intensive contracts for building bridges or airports, they immediately feel the impact of a head teacher wanting a bribe to admit their child to a good school or a doctor wanting cash to give prompt treatment for a painful condition.

In our latest research, we look at Barometer surveys of more than 250,000 people in 119 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America and identify significant differences in the payment of bribes between countries on every continent; and between services and individuals within each country.

Contact with public services is a necessary condition of being vulnerable to paying a bribe. The average family has contact with two or three different public services each year. Some provide good goods, such as health care and education, while others involve obligations, such as getting a document for a house or dealing with the police. Health care is the public service for which bribes are most likely to be paid because it is the most frequently used public service. Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer finds that 63 percent of families deal with doctors, clinics or hospitals each year and 10 percent pay a bribe. However, the police are the service for which bribery is most widespread. Whereas only one-sixth of those in contact with the health service pay a bribe, more than one-third in contact with the police must do so. The number of bribes is less because three-quarters avoid any contact with the police in the course of a year.

A person's position in the life-cycle has a big effect on the payment of bribes. Middle-age people are most often in contact with the education system as they are most likely to have school-age children. Among those who have contact, almost one-sixth report paying a bribe in the past year. Since children are in school for up to a dozen years or longer, the cumulative effect is higher. Gender differences have an indirect effect on bribery, since men are more likely to have contact with the police, while women are more likely to care for other family members in school or needing health services.

Bribes paid for 'retail' services that people receive are usually described as petty and ignored when economists estimate the effect of bribery on a country's Gross Domestic Product. However, the impact of corruption on health care and education should not be ignored, since these are primary resources for human capital promoting economic growth.

The world is not divided into two sets of countries, with one set consisting of countries in which no one pays a bribe and in other countries "everybody" paying a bribe  Surveys invariably find that bribery varies among people within a country. A minority does not have  annual contact with public services, a majority has contact but does not pay a bribe, and  global average of 24 percent have contact and do pay a bribe.

Among more than 100 countries, the highest level of bribery is found in Liberia, where 77 percent pay bribes; Azerbaijan, 74 percent, and Haiti, 67 percent. At the other extreme, one percent or less report paying bribes in the UK, Finland, Australia and Japan. This does not mean that the latter countries are free of all forms of corruption. In Japan political parties receive payments in big bucks and in the UK some MPs are ready to take cash for using or abusing their office.

Those who rely on anecdotes or impressionistic journalistic accounts for estimating bribery challenge survey evidence by saying that people will hide the payment of bribes because it is illegal or shameful. A common way to hide an activity is to reply don't know to an awkward question. However, less than one percent of Global Corruption Barometer respondents do so when asked about paying bribes. This is far less than the 20 percent who do not answer questions about income. There is little or no significant difference in reporting bribes among people who think paying a bribe is wrong and those thinking it permissible to do so. Since those thinking bribery is wrong are a big majority of survey respondents, more than three-quarters of people who report paying a bribe have done so even though they think it wrong .

The good news is that in almost every country and every service a majority of public officials deliver services honestly. Paradoxically, complaints about red tape and slowness in response are evidence of bureaucratic officials behaving in accord with the rule of law. Those who do take bribes stand out because they are bad apples rather than being typical of teachers, doctors or local government clerks.

* Professor Richard Rose is director of the Centre for the Study of Public Policy at the University of Strathclyde Glasgow and Dr. Caryn Peiffer is a fellow of the Developmental Leadership Program at the University of Birmingham.


Richard Rose and Caryn Peiffer, Paying Bribes for Public Services: a Global Guide to Grass-Roots Corruption (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015),  ISBN 978-1-137-50966-6

Author : Richard Rose and Caryn Peiffer

20 Mar 2015

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