In their book ‘Political corruption: concepts and contexts‘, Johnston & Heidenheimer attribute the phrase ‘folklore of corruption‘ to the economist and Nobel laureate Gunnar Myrdal. This phrase refers to the set of perceptions, preconceptions and beliefs people in a society have about corruption and what ethical frameworks they refer to to judge the ‘corruptness’ of a given situation or behavior (i.e. whether such or such behavior constitutes an act of corruption). This is an interesting concept for many reasons; the most important and evident of which is perhaps the fact that social preconceptions of corruption are tightly linked with the trust / distrust the public feels towards public institutions, businesses and the government in general. This feeling of trust/ distrust impacts on the public’s willingness to cooperate with anti-corruption measures and is therefore an important factor in the success and sustainability of any corruption fighting policy.
When we consider the Algerian ‘folklore of corruption‘, we will realize that the way the Algerian average citizen perceives corruption is very confused in the sense that everyone knows that corruption is wrong but no two Algerians would agree on what given behavior really constitutes corruption or at least harmful corruption which could ruin the country. Algerians apply the term ‘corruption’ to a variety of scenarios, but for some, some forms of corruption are not really harmful or are even necessary to get things done. The most disingenuous will deny that some of the palm-greasing they undertake constitutes corruption and here local culture and traditions of hospitality and gift-giving help in confusing matters. So clearly, the judgments people make are very complex and often contradictory because they resort both to long-held traditions and even religious values which are absolute whilst at the same time indulging in all sorts of rationalization and motives-attribution which are relative to their everyday experiences, difficulties and problems they encounter. So people’s perceptions of corruption are not clearcut distinctions of the right/ wrong sort but rather a continum of various shades of opinions reflecting sophisticated and complex judgments of right/ wrong of the wrong but necessary and right but problematic sort.
It is therefore surprising that there has never been (to the best of my knowledge) a campaign in Algeria to educate the public about corruption. The national newspapers are rife with news stories about the government going after corruted public officials (goign after its own even), but nobody seems to realize that corruption of the scale that our country suffers from cannot be eradicated without educating the public and closing all routes, no matter how small, which may lead to corruption. Such campaigns are necessary as indicated by efforts deployed in this sense by international organizations such as the World Bank for example (here is a document published by the World Bank which tackles definitions of corruption and is well-illustrated with specific examples and realist scenarios). In Algeria, people are often left to their own devices, and many resort to asking imams or seeking religious advice and even manipulating it to suit their own agendas. Clearly, there is an ethical dimension to corruption but what more does religion have to say on it than it’s wrong? What is needed is a more sophisticated and nuanced debate about the political, social, economic and legal meanings and consequences of corruption so that people really understand how it may affect them and their families and whatever they care about.
I end this post by some definitions of the most common types of corruption with illustrative examples:
Bribery: the promise, offer or giving (directly or indirectly) of any benefit that improperly affects the actions or decisions of a public official. A bribe may consist of money, inside information, gifts, entertainment, a job, company shares, sexual or other favors. A bribe may also consist of receiving an illegal favor or unlawful commission as extra compensation for performing official duties (may commonly be known as ‘tipping’). It may also consist of political parties or the government receiving money or ‘illegal contributions’ in exchange for not interfering with the activities of those providing the illegal contributions.
Example: (1) a traffic officer accepting cash in order not to issue a traffic fine, (2) after a passport is issued, the recipient pays a tip or gratuity for the service received, (3) politicians who extend protection to companies in exchange for contributions to political campaigns.
Embezzlement: theft of resources by persons who are entrusted with authority and control over them and the conversion of public property for private use.
Example: hospital staff stealing medecines to sell them to private pharmacies.
Fraud: criminal deception involving deception and tricking others in order to obtain an unjust advantage or a gain.
Example: inflating petrol receipts which will then be reimbursed.
Intimidation: where an entity threatens the public, a section of it, a person or a company to change a viewpoint, to do or not to do something.
Example: a company receives threats that its products will be sabotaged unless it agrees to follow certain instructions.
Extortion: coercion, often under the threat of physical harm and violence, to hand over an unlawful advantage or benefit material or immaterial.
Example: a person is threatened with arrest unless they pay a border official in order to be let inside the country.
Abuse of power: using one’s vested authority in order to improperly benefit or give undeserved preferential treatment to any group or individual or using vested authority to discriminate against any group or individual. Favoritism and nepotism fall under this category.
Example: (1) an elected official responsible for maintaining roads assigns the road repair crews to his village/ city or origin and neglects other areas in similar need of road repairs (favoritism), (2) a head of department at a university appoints his daughter to a position within the university even though more qualified and suitable candidates applied for the same position (nepotism).
Conflict of interest: acting or failing to act on a matter where an individual has an interest or where another person or entity which has a relationship with this individual has an interest.
Example: a person considers tenders for a contract and awards the tender to a company where his wife is a director.
Insider trading: engaging in transactions or acquiring commercial interests which involve the use of privileged information that a person possesses as a result of their position to provide an unfair advantage to another person, entity or to themselves.
Example: a municipal officer knows of residential land which is about to host a business development project and he informs a family member to buy it in order to resell it later at a premium price.
There are many more ways corruption manifests itself, and every example here is perhaps a daily occurence not only in Algeria but everywhere to various degrees. However, the most urgent thing is not necessarily to know them all nor to seek to eradicate them (it would be impossible) but rather, as a first and urgent step, to educate the public to learn how to distinguish between corruption and other similar scenarios which arise from widely accepted and even approved of behaviors such as gift-giving to express gratitude, love or allegiance, standing by friends and family or even helping those in need without consideration for their aptitudes or the harm they could do to the public or a given sector (for example allowing practically anyone to become a teacher, an imam or a doctor). Most of all, the public needs to understand how and why corruption in all its subtle forms is harmful to individuals, society, the country and even humanity.