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Debate: Is bribery ever acceptable?

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Is it ever acceptable to pay a bribe?

Background and context

Corruption is operationally defined as the misuse of entrusted power for private gain. Facilitation payments, where a bribe is paid to receive preferential treatment for something that the receiver is required to do by law (e.g. an official processing a license application), constitute "according to rule" corruption. Corruption "against the rule", on the other hand, is a bribe paid to obtain services the receiver is prohibited from providing (e.g. a policeman ignoring a crime or favourable marking of a student’s examination paper). The phenomenon of corruption has complex reasons that include flaws in legal system, the lack of democratic traditions and political accountability, social and economic difficulties, and low pay for public officials. Corruption affects people's lives in a multitude of ways. In the worst cases, corruption costs people’s lives. In countless other cases, it costs their freedom, health, or money. It is becoming an international problem due to increasing level of globalisation and international trade. Transparency International (TI) – the biggest organisation that fights corruption on a global level - believes that keeping corruption in check is only feasible if government, business and civil society work together and agree on a set of standards and procedures they all support.

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Argument #1

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Yes

People are often made to give bribes to officials because of unfavourable economic, social or bureaucratic conditions. Officials may refuse to serve clients unless they are paid. In those countries where state institutions are extremely corrupted, refusal to give a bribe may cost financial losses for business representatives or even health and liberty for citizens who need medical service and access to justice.

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No

The position of civil society plays a key role in reducing corruption. Its action in taking a moral stand against corrupted officials is an important precondition for effective anticorruption policy. Hence, citizens who put up with the necessity to give a bribe become a part of the problem. It is not just the case of public officials abusing their positions, but of people who are tempted to choose the easiest way out. Recent developments in Kenya show how quickly expectations can change once people begin to make a stand.

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Argument #2

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Yes

"Survival" corruption, practised by public servants, is usually the result of small salaries, perhaps in highly inflationary economies, which do not allow them to make a living. Without bribery, public administration would collapse altogether as no one would have any incentive to get anything done. Thus the level of corruption is determined by the poor economic situation of the country as well as by the policy of the government.

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No

In every society there will be those who try to "beat the system" and if the society has moral or political vulnerabilities, there will be more of them. Bribery cannot be justified because it is a serious crime, which undermines the principles of democracy and leads to economic harm as well as social tension by keeping the poor poor. Many officials practice corruption to recoup the cost of buying their position, which perpetuates corruption and puts their interests ahead of those of society.

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Argument #3

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Yes

Bribery is often inevitable for foreign companies that invest in those countries, where corruption is widespread and the conditions for business development are unfavourable. It illustrates that bribe giving is just a result of political system with weak democratic traditions. That is why many companies from Northern countries, where corruption levels are low, tend to practise bribery in the South.

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No

The North also carries part of responsibility for the situation in the South due to its role as the bribe-payer. After all, it is largely Northern corporate interests that supply the bribe payments. They defraud the citizens of developing countries who get a less good deal as a result, as well as the interests of shareholders at home whose money is diverted into the pockets of foreign officials. This shows the necessity of treating the bribing of foreign officials as a criminal offence in companies’ home countries. It also requires the publication of all payments relating to foreign deals.

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Argument #4

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Yes

The bribery of foreign officials cannot be fought by international means efficiently if the level of corruption at the national level is high. It depends on the political will of national governments, the activities of civil society and other social conditions that exists inside the state. This explains why only a few cases are investigated under the OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials. In most OECD countries the political will to prosecute major bribery cases is lacking. This explains why international efforts to combat corruption are inefficient.

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No

International standards on prosecution of companies who bribe foreign officials may encourage positive changes in national legislation as well, thus eliminating legal flaws to combat corruption. Different national rules and standards for combating corruption are not sufficient in the era of global investments and international business transactions. Variation between national standards enables corruption to spread. Companies wishing to hide illicit transactions may attempt to take advantage of weaker standards, wherever they are found. That is why international efforts to ensure the prosecution of the companies that bribe foreign officials are necessary in the current situation.

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Argument #5

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Yes

Foreign companies simply adapt to the political and economic conditions that exist in different countries. You cannot blame them for high level of corruption, which is the inner problem of the state. Involvement of business representatives in anti-corruption actions may contradict their interests by providing access to commercially sensitive information. If bribery was banned, companies would be unable to operate, resulting in less investment and so less development in some countries.

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No

The risk of corruption demand greater transparency from business. Companies have a big impact on the social environment and they have a responsibility to address it. Co-operative actions between the business sector and state institutions are essential for effective anti-corruption policy. These actions are possible only because of whistleblowers, who are brave enough to expose cases of corruption. In turn they need a legislative environment that protects their interests. The OECD convention is an important step forward in this sphere.

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Argument #6

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Yes

Norms and values differ between countries. In many non-western societies gift taking and giving in the public realm is a matter of traditions and customs. Moreover, gift giving is a part of negotiations and relationship building in some parts of the world. It is hypocritical for the west to target developing countries for this as many so-called democracies are hopelessly compromised by business interests through political funding and lobbying.

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No

In different cultures the lines between the acceptable and unacceptable are drawn differently. However, there are limits in all societies, beyond which an action becomes corrupt and unacceptable. The abuse of power for private gain and the siphoning off of public or common resources to private pockets should be illegal and unacceptable in all cultures and societies.

See also

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