Foreign Policy Blogs

What “Extending a Hand to the Poor” Too Often Really Means


An anti-corruption campaign sign in Liberia. Photo by Geneva52, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

An anti-corruption campaign sign in Liberia. Photo by Geneva52, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Irish playwright Brendan Behan once opined that, “I have never seen a situation so dismal that a policeman couldn’t make it worse.” Behan was hardly an unbiased commentator, having misspent his youth in activities that assured a mutual antipathy between the literary giant and the law enforcement community, but the findings of Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer 2013 suggest that his sentiment would be endorsed by many facing dismal situations in the world’s poorest countries.

The recently released results of the world-wide survey found that 27 percent of the 114,270 people questioned reported having paid a bribe in the past 12 months to at least one of eight types of agencies or services. And among those who reported having paid a bribe, the single largest group – 31 percent — said they had made an illicit payment to the police. The judiciary was the next most-cited government entity or service, at 24 percent, followed by registry and land-related agencies or services at 21 percent each.

Not surprisingly, the countries in which the highest percentages of people reported paying bribes tended to be among the poorest and/or most-dysfunctional of the 107 nations included in the research project. While only one percent of survey participants in Australia, Denmark, Finland and Japan said they had paid off an official in the prior 12 months, 84 percent of those in Sierra Leone and 75 percent of those in Liberia reported having had to “pay to play” in that period. (Seven percent of interview subjects in the United States reported having paid a bribe, putting the U.S. in the same 5-9.9 percent incidence range as Bulgaria, Estonia, Italy, Slovenia, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.)

Of the 14 countries in which a majority of survey respondents reported having paid a bribe in the prior 12 months, ten are categorized by the United Nations Development Programme as being marked by low human development, and seven are assigned “Alert” status, the most-critical one employed, on the 2013 “Failed States” Index compiled by Foreign Policy magazine and The Fund for Peace. (See table, “Fellow Travelers: Corruption, Poverty, and Poor Governance,” below.)

The report, authored by Transparency International researchers Deborah Hardoon and Finn Heinrich, notes that even the so-called “petty bribery” that is routine in nations where the efficient provision of services and the rule of law are lacking comes at a terribly high price for the poor. “A survey in Mexico finds that the cost of bribery has a regressive effect on Mexican households hurting the poor the most, with an average income household spending 14 per cent of that income on bribes and those with the lowest income spending 33 per cent.” The authors note that the toll corruption takes on the poor can be measured not only in the percentage of income devoured by bribes that are paid but also by the costs incurred when a bribe can’t be paid. To illustrate that point, they provide an example from Morocco, where the government introduced a program to clear a slum area and relocate its residents to better homes: “Ahmed, living in a slum with his wife and two children, was entitled to a new plot of land. But the public officials responsible for administering the programme used their position of power to allocate land only to those people from whom they could extort money. Unable to pay, Ahmed, his wife and two children were left homeless when their slum was destroyed.”

The research conducted by Transparency International – a Berlin-based civil society organization established in 1993 – found that almost one-third of respondents would not report an incident of corruption, with 45 percent of that group saying that reporting the incident would not make any difference and 35 percent citing fear of reprisal.

A slight majority, 53 percent, of respondents see corruption as having increased in the past two years, with perceptions of heightened corruption particularly acute among those in Algeria, Lebanon, Portugal, Tunisia, Vanuatu, and Zimbabwe. By contrast, a majority of participants in Belgium, Cambodia, Georgia, Rwanda, Serbia, and Taiwan said they think corruption has lessened.

On the bright side, 67 percent of people surveyed globally said they believe that ordinary people can play a meaningful role in the fight against corruption. Alas, that brightness may be not so much a ray of hope as the silver lining in a darker cloud: the figure is down 5 percentage points from Transparency International’s 2010/2011 Global Corruption Barometer, and the proportion of respondents who believe in the anti-corruption efficacy of the average person fell by more than 20 percentage points in several countries, including Burundi, Hungary, Iraq, Lebanon, Luxembourg, Morocco, Pakistan, Slovenia, and Yemen.


Fellow Travelers: Corruption, Poverty, and Poor Governance

Country % of Respondents   Reporting Having Paid a Bribe in Prior 12 Months1 2013 Human   Development Indices Rank (Out of 186; Lower Is Better) And Rating2 2013 Failed States Index   Ranking (Out of 178; Lower Is Worse) And Status3 
Sierra Leone 84% 177 – Low Human   Development 33 – Alert
Liberia 75% 174 – Low Human   Development 23 – Alert
Yemen 74% 160 – Low Human   Development 6 – Alert
Kenya 70% 145 – Low Human   Development 17 – Alert
Zimbabwe 62% 172 – Low Human   Development 10 – Alert
Cameroon 62% 150 – Low Human  Development 27 – Alert
Libya 62% 64 – High Human  Development 54 – Warning
Mozambique 62% 185 – Low Human  Development 59 – Warning
Uganda 61% 161 – Low Human  Development 22 – Alert
Cambodia 57% 138 – Medium Human  Development 41 – Warning
Senegal 57% 154 – Low Human  Development 64 – Warning
Tanzania 56% 152 – Low Human  Development 65 – Warning
India 54% 136 – Medium Human  Development 79 – Warning
Ghana 54% 135 – Medium Human  Development 110 – Warning


Sources 1: Transparency International Global Corruption Barometer 2013, 2. United Nations Human Development Programme, “Summary, Human Development Report 2013, The Rise of the South: Human Progress in a Diverse World.” 3. Foreign Policy and The Fund for Peace, 2013 Failed States Index,




Tom Garry
Tom Garry

Tom Garry is an analyst and writer who examines how capital flows affect everything from the stability of Euro-zone governments to the basic needs of families in developing nations, and from the bankrolling of terrorist organizations to the redistribution of power in our multi-polar world.

He has a master’s degree in financial economics from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where his thesis focused on the exchange-rate policies of Latin American countries, and a master’s in political science from American Military University, where his thesis examined resurgent Russian influence in the Eastern European nations of the former Soviet Union. He received his bachelor’s degree in international relations from American Military University.

When he’s not “following the money,” Tom’s other areas of focus extend from business marketing and consumers’ financial decision-making to religion, governance, and diplomacy.

Great Decisions Discussion group