Bureaucratic formalism in the fight against corruption has a number of negative effects. One of them is presumption of indiscriminate guilt against all civil servants. Despite the fact that most of them are doing their duty with complete honesty, all of them are essentially under suspicion. The control mechanisms established by anti-corruption laws in many countries in relation to civil servants, especially at the lower rungs of the career ladder, can sometimes be frankly redundant, writes Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov.
On December 9, at the initiative of the UN, International Anti-Corruption Day is celebrated. It is timed to coincide with the UN Convention Against Corruption, which was opened for signing on this day in 2003. Usually the UN every year comes up with a kind of motto for the events of this international day. This year it is being commemorated under the motto: “Your right, your role: Say No to Corruption”. Earlier, for example, there were slogans such as: “Everyone pays with corruption”, “Zero corruption — one hundred percent development”, “Break the chain of corruption”, etc. It has become clear that that the best of them can, with active PR promotion, gain a foothold in the subconscious of many, and therefore the benefits of using them are obvious.
Usually the UN on this day holds a series of events dedicated to various aspects of the fight against corruption. This year, in mid-December, unless a new strain of coronavirus intervenes again, the ninth conference of the countries participating in the Convention Against Corruption is scheduled to take place in Egypt. In addition to UN forums, the anti-corruption initiatives of non-governmental organisations are often timed to coincide with December 9. So, it is usually on this day that Transparency International presents its latest edition of the Global Corruption Barometer, where countries are ranked according to their level of corruption.
Undoubtedly, the significance of this memorable international day is high. It allows policymakers to emphasise the global importance of the problem of corruption and the need to combat it. A special role here is played by initiatives in this area which are aimed at young people, and are designed to instil in future generations a rejection of corrupt practices. The UN educational programme in this area is also significant; a network of academic anti-corruption courses has already been created and is operating quite effectively; these are conducted for civil servants in a number of countries. An important feature of them, in accordance with the provisions of the UN convention, is their emphasis on a broad understanding of corruption, as not only as receiving/giving a bribe. Corruption is characterised as any abuse of power — a lack of proper competition in state orders, embellished or falsified reports and audits, the use of official status for personal purposes, or everything that in the Soviet vocabulary was connoted by the capacious word blat.
At the same time, as we already wrote in another publication on the Valdai Club website about another UN date, the International Day for Tolerance, the memorable day itself does not solve the problem. First, as a rule, it is rarely noted beyond a fairly narrow circle of activists, as well as international officials who see themselves as obligated by protocol to celebrate a particular date. This is regrettable, since the real resonance in global public opinion stemming from these dates, alas, is still small. Second, the very specificity of a memorable day sometimes leads to the feeling that one or another global problem is remembered only once a year. On December 9 we fight corruption, on November 16 we call for tolerance, and on all other days we forget about both. Naturally, this is not a reason to cancel these days altogether, they are extremely important, but nevertheless some decline from such one-day peaks and in attention throughout the rest of the year takes place.
It is especially worth noting the question of how this institutionalised fight against corruption (both at the international and at the state level) and civil protests against it are combined with each other. In many countries, especially in those that are low in various anti-corruption ratings, one of the main reasons for civil discontent with the authorities is precisely corruption. Along with mistrust of the election results, it is corruption that serves as a pretext for rallies and manifestations of civil protest. In such cases, the authorities sometimes perceive civil actions that are anti-corruption in a broad sense as a direct political challenge. They react harshly to it. In a number of countries, especially in the developing world, where there is no feedback between society and the elites, and where the mutual distrust of citizens and authorities is high, independent civil initiatives to combat corruption may not be welcomed by elites. “Do not interfere with the state to fight corruption” — this is, perhaps, the message that can be heard. In any case, a close relationship can be noted there between corruption and public distrust of elites.
The next important aspect, which, in our opinion, has not bypassed all these international and state programmes to combat corruption, is formalism and, to a certain extent, hypocrisy. This also applies to the same educational programme on the fight against corruption. In a number of countries, obtaining certificates of completion of such courses is either mandatory or highly desirable for civil servants. However, does the number of certificates reduce corruption? More likely no than yes. The courses were attended, the correct words were pronounced and repeated in the exam, but courses are one thing, and real life is quite another. Corrupt practices in a broad sense continue. And this allows us to raise the difficult question of systemic hypocrisy in the fight against corruption. This hypocrisy is extremely difficult to get rid of.
This bureaucratic formalism in the fight against corruption has another negative effect. This is in fact a presumption of indiscriminate guilt against all civil servants. Despite the fact that most of them are doing their duty with complete honesty, all of them are essentially under suspicion. The control mechanisms established by anti-corruption laws in many countries in relation to civil servants, especially at the lower rungs of the career ladder, can sometimes be frankly redundant. And in a situation of “control for the sake of control” — another manifestation of the above systemic hypocrisy — this objectively reduces the motivation of officials to work effectively and feel satisfaction with their work. At the same time, it’s a paradox, when you move from the bottom up the career ladder, this everyday control begins to soften its draconian character more and more, and at the very top floors it is sometimes not noticeable at all. As a result, a small middle-class official turns out to be a switchman and a hostage of this control over corrupt behaviour.
When analysing the problems of corruption, there is one more aspect, which is rather politically incorrect. In studies of the early historical stages of the mafia, when it was attributed to a “patriarchal” and paternalistic character, one can sometimes see arguments that, given the ineffectiveness of the state in social protection and ensuring justice, the mafia network took these functions into its own hands, and created a virtually parallel social apparatus to that of the state. Which, let’s be frank, brought the inhabitants of these territories not only terror, but sometimes also benefits. Their real social security was strengthened. Only, it was provided not by state taxes, but by the “taxes” of the mafia. Exactly the same system of functions parallel to the state and “taxation” can be seen today in the example of many ethnic diasporas.
In this context, in a number of studies, it is possible to trace the phenomenon of sufficiently massive support for corruption at the grassroots level, which is perceived as illegal, but in practice a necessary form of self-organisation within society in conditions where the state is ineffective. One example is when a person is required to have another bureaucratic piece of paper (or, amid our modern digital conditions, another QR-code) — which are significant only within the framework of the systemic hypocrisy that we mentioned. Then, we agree, for many it is easier to give a small bribe/gift to a low-paid and super-controlled lower-level official who is afraid to take any initiative in order to get it without problems. There’s also the option of giving the bribe/gift to a low-paid doctor from a state clinic, exhausted by bureaucracy, so that he or she will provide better treatment. The same could be said of a low-paid traffic police sergeant. We agree that there are many such everyday cases. Naturally, all this does not correspond to the spirit and letter of the anti-corruption convention. Naturally, these are all offences, and some are criminal in nature. But let us again agree that in conditions where the state is ineffective, more commonly in developing countries, this kind of “popular” corruption at the grassroots level is quite in demand on both sides, precisely as a form of self-organisation of society — the very grassroots in the real world. This “popular” corruption in this perception is by no means the same as the “anti-people” corruption associated with the embezzlement of millions and billions from the budget “above”, which often goes unpunished.
It is well-known that the participants in international conferences on the fight against poverty live in five-star hotels at the taxpayer’s expense while those conferences are being held. To what extent this contributes to the solution of the problem is a separate question. Naturally, the temptation to house anti-poverty fighters in homeless shelters during these conferences, or put climate change fighters in the desert or permafrost may seem too radical. However, this thought experiment obviates that a significant part of both international and national budgets for the fight against corruption, poverty, climate change, intolerance, etc., is spent catering to the very establishment and elites whom many hold responsible for these social ills.Whether this solves the problem is a rhetorical question. It is clear that such conferences are needed. With proper media support, they enhance the global PR effect and draw attention to the problem. However, there we find the initial hypocrisy that has already ruined many sound initiatives, and there is a fear that it will ruin this one again. If this, unfortunately, is the case, then the fight against corruption and corruption itself will develop in absolutely parallel and independently of each other.