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Psst, We'll Pay You A Bribe If You Read This Story

People all over the world pay bribes because they think the benefit — better health care, education for their kids — is worth the cost. Ryan Kellman/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Ryan Kellman/NPR

People all over the world pay bribes because they think the benefit — better health care, education for their kids — is worth the cost.

Ryan Kellman/NPR

Your child is sick and requires admission to the hospital. As the clerk tut-tuts over the shortage of beds, he casts a speculative eye over his clipboard. The situation becomes clear: It's time to break out the wallet and cough up a bribe. Again.

Paying bribes for essential health services might seem alien to most of us in the Western world, but it's a fact of life for an estimated 1.6 billion people around the globe, according to a new book.

Paying Bribes for Public Services: A Global Guide to Grassroots Corruption found that nearly a quarter of the world's population has had to pay bribes for access to public services, such as health care or education, or to police officers after being stopped. The authors — Richard Rose of the University of Strathclyde and Dr. Caryn Peiffer of the University of Birmingham — based their findings on surveys and interviews involving more than 250,000 people in 119 countries.

On a continentwide basis, Africa seems to be where hands were out the most, with 29 percent of respondents saying they'd been forced to pay bribes one time or another. Latin America wasn't far behind, with 22 percent of respondents paying bribes. Europe (at 4 percent) and America (5 percent) had the lowest overall rates.

But continental figures can mislead, says Rose. "From country to country, within continents, we found major differences. Thus, it is wrong to claim Asian values or African culture as the chief cause of corruption."

In Africa, 63 percent of respondents in Sierra Leone reported paying bribes compared with only 4 percent in Botswana. In the European Union, 29 percent of people reported paying bribes in Lithuania while fewer than 1 percent of Britons said they'd had to bribe a public official.

One thing seemed nearly universal: Almost everybody (at the paying end) resented it. "The great majority of people in every country think bribery is wrong," says Rose. "They pay because the alternative is doing without health care or a better education for their children." The professor agreed to answer some of our questions by email — and we didn't even have to offer a bribe.

Why is grass-roots bribery such a factor in the developing world?

Government spending in many of these places took off before the establishment of rule of law for distributing services fairly. By contrast, in developed countries, the rule of law was established in the 19th century well before the big spending welfare state programs were introduced, so systems were in place for distributing services fairly.

Moreover, developing countries have been much quicker to give all their citizens free entitlement to social services [in theory], but some have not appropriated sufficient funds to provide services for all. The resulting scarcity means public officials can use the payment of bribes to decide who gets what there is.

The European contribution to global corruption is in the bribes that multi-national corporations pay to political elites to obtain big-bucks contracts for such things as building dams or supplying military aircraft.

What are bribes paid for?

In education, teachers sell high marks on examinations and even degrees. In health care, a family may scrape to pay a bribe to get a hospital treatment for a family member — and then find it is expected to pay more for the medicines needed for post-operation recovery [due to the short supply].

How can countries cut down on bribery?

Countries may be better able to learn how to reduce bribery by looking at their neighbors rather than importing advice from Western aid agencies or management consultants. Western advisers often set impossible targets based on best practice. [Rose's co-author, Caryn Peiffer, points to several tactics: public shaming on the "I Paid a Bribe" website launched by Transparency International in Kenya, and the 40 percent pay raise given to Zambian civil servants in 2007 so they'd be less likely to seek bribes.]

There are obstacles to change. Absence of elections means governors are not accountable. Lack of rule of law in handling money also means that courts and police can be used to intimidate critics. There is also resignation: People pay a bribe if the alternative is to do without what they want.

Can bribes ever be helpful or are they always harmful in some way?

When it is done to speed up delivery of a permit or a passport, this does not do any harm except for the cost of being exploited by an official.

If a bribe is paid to get a place in a good school to which a youth is not entitled, then it harms the family whose child is excluded. Bribes paid to evade taxes impose higher taxes or poorer services on those who do pay taxes.

Are bribes always cash?

Cash is the normal form. In poor countries, goods in kind may be given, such as a chicken. There is a gray area between something given as an expression of gratitude, e.g. flowers or homegrown produce, and something that has a real value, such as a breeding animal.

Why is there such a difference in the level of bribery in some African countries?

In African countries that were formerly British colonies, more attention was given to institutionalizing procedures for fair treatment than in former French colonies. Greater freedom of the press makes it harder for governors to hide bribery and the availability of more public services reduces bribery. In countries where ethnic fractionalization is politically salient, such as Nigeria and Sierra Leone, bribery rates are higher.

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