Rotten Logic: what is corruption?

What do we mean when we talk about corruption? And who decides what counts as corrupt activity? Jarni Blakkarly explains.

Last year I was pulled over by an Indonesian police officer for driving a hired motorbike on a highway in a town outside Jakarta. I didn’t know you weren’t allowed to drive motorbikes on the highway, but the officer told me I would be fined regardless.

He pulled out an official-looking booklet, flicked through the pages, took down notes and told me the fine amount, which was the equivalent of roughly AU$100. I told him he was being ridiculous and we settled on AU$20.

How do we measure, and account for, corruption – something that is, by its very nature, supposed to be hidden? 

The most referenced global indicator of corruption is Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI)which each year gives countries around the world a ranking from 0 to 100 (0 being the most corrupt and 100 being the least).

Transparency International then ranks the countries in order of their score, with Scandinavian nations usually topping the rankings and conflict-ridden countries in Africa (Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan) and Asia (North Korea, Afghanistan) usually at the bottom.

Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari retorted that rather than demand an apology for the remarks, he would demand the return of assets stolen during colonisation.

Many have criticised the methodology of the CPI – which gathers data from surveys of business people and so-called ‘country experts’, who are not necessarily residents of the countries in question – as elitist. That’s because the way corruption is perceived in the countries poorly ranked might be quite different from a local perspective.

In Malaysia and Indonesia there is a widespread acceptance of the small payments that are made to speed up bureaucratic processes or to iron out issues. People know it’s corruption, of course, but it’s just a part of life.

At the same time, in Malaysia, there is more public disdain for overt large-scale corruption the blingy kind that just looks bad.

Roughly 200,000 people took to streets in cities across Malaysia last year to call for the removal of Prime Minister Najib Razak, after it was revealed he had an unexplained US$700 million in his bank account. Najib said the money was a no-strings-attached donation from Saudi Arabia and he has stayed on in the top job despite attempts to topple him.

Meanwhile, in many countries, family networks are key to employment opportunities in both the public and private sector. This might be referred to as nepotism in the West, especially when the positions in question are very powerful, but elsewhere in the world many people see it as just helping family members out.

Transparency International has other ways of measuring corruption, such as their annual Global Corruption Barometer, which asks regular citizens various questions about how often they pay bribes and in which parts of the economy corruption is a necessity. But so far the results haven't garnered as much press attention as the Corruption Perception Index.

Why is the opinion of outside independent ‘experts’ prioritised over local data on actual corrupt practices? Looking at the CPI, it’s hard to feel that it serves a strong purpose in terms of reducing corruption or increasing good governance. There is something distinctly uncomfortable about the views of mostly Western outsiders being given authority in the index.

There's often a strong sense of underlying hypocrisy when developing nations are lectured by rich natures on corruption. This was on display earlier this year when former UK Prime Minister David Cameron was overheard telling the Queen that Nigeria and Afghanistan were ‘fantastically corrupt’.

Cameron made the comments ahead of an anti-corruption summit hosted by Britain and needless to say, the comments didn't go down well. Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari retorted that rather than demand an apology for the remarks, he would demand the return of assets stolen during colonisation. 

The point is apt. Many European colonial projects were built on corruption, with colonisers allocating money and power to local actors willing to cooperate with them.

There are glaring similarities to today’s context. Poor, developing nations are criticised for being susceptible to corruption, but much less criticism is directed at multinational companies, mostly based in Western countries, who often facilitate these practices. (Although Transparency International raises the point of how corporations from clean states are implicated in corruption elsewhere, citing the example of the Swedish-Finnish firm TeliaSonera, partly owned by the Swedish Government, facing allegations of bribes made in Uzbekistan.)

How much does finger-pointing at developing nations provide a healthy distraction from our own problems? Assets of corrupt international politicians are recycled through Australia, in bank accounts, donations and assets. Action taken to seize suspect funds is rare.

Our news cycle has featured many stories of dodgy political donations involving both major parties. Repeatedly, both parties have blocked calls for a dedicated federal corruption body. 

Australian institutions have been implicated in overseas corruption allegations, too. Reserve Bank of Australia's former subsidiary Securency, for example, has been involved in a long-running international bribery scandal. Back in 2014, Securency was at the centre of a murky Victorian court case with allegations of bribes involving 17 high-level Asian leaders. A media gag-order was granted, meaning the case can’t be reported on in the Australian media. This doesn't exactly create a strong impression of transparency.

Corruption isn’t part of Australian life for most people in the everyday sense. We don’t have to participate in it to go about our daily lives. But perhaps that makes it easy for us to think of corruption as a problem that exists ‘over there’ in other parts of the world. And maybe we shouldn't let ourselves off the hook so easily.

 

Portrait of Jarni Blakkarly

Jarni Blakkarly is a freelance journalist and radio producer currently based in Melbourne, Australia. He's worked in Australia, Malaysia and Indonesia across a range of local and international publications and networks, with a focus on reporting local and international politics, human rights, social justice, migration and refugee issues, religion, culture and the environment.

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