On Changing Social Norms to Deter Corruption

By: María Eugenia Ibarrarán

April 13, 2015

Human Behavior, Catholic Social Thought, and Global Development

Corruption is a longstanding problem that affects industrialized and developing countries as well as different types of organizations at the national and international level. Corruption is a true barrier to development in many growing nations because it increases costs and therefore limits access to goods and justice. Corruption is usually regressive in that it imposes a higher toll on those that are worse off and do not have the means to bribe or to defend themselves, thus becoming an instrument that enhances poverty and inequality.

Some believe that corruption is due to low salaries that push public officials to take bribes. However, others argue that no salary is high enough to fully insulate someone from taking a bribe. As Dr. Basu stated in his lecture, low salaries are not the drivers of bribes or corruption, considering how often it occurs in high political spheres with well-paid officers.

Corruption has two sides to it, the giver and the taker, and to some extent implies voluntary participation. Dr. Basu outlined three conditions that may have a significant effect in lowering corruption. First, a determined stand by the government to make tough decisions to reduce it; second, a change in the mindset and human psychology so people understand corruption is not acceptable; and third, a change in laws and how bureaucrats intervene to address this problem.

Public pressure through social networks can also play a role in exposing both the givers and takers. However, exposure will not be enough if the way people think about corruption, namely in its “wrongness” and its “unavoidability,” is not altered. Push for this change has to come first and foremost from civil society. Expecting change to come from the government would require a well-intentioned politician with broad support to make this happen, which is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Incentives may accelerate this new mindset. As Dr. Basu discussed, if the giver and taker face the same cost of bribery, neither are prone to denounce. However, if the giver has an incentive to say something, the taker will have to pay a higher price. Additionally, as social norms condemn bribery and corruption at large, then the costs to the taker are even higher.

Exposure and an internal change in social norms unfortunately may not be enough in many countries, and here is where other actors may be of help. Multilateral organizations and well-respected governments should also push for less corruption. But this is something that, as Dr. Basu said, we can only hope for since it takes courage to fight such practices that in many cases also benefit agencies that protect the status quo.
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