By Sally Makomo
MANY studies on governance have consistently shown that the scourge of corruption imposes political, economic and social costs on societies where it is widespread and the costs are unequally distributed.
In the words of former UN secretary-general Kofi Annan, “Corruption hurts the poor disproportionately diverting funds intended for development, undermining a government’s ability to provide basic services, and feeding inequality and injustice”.
When it comes to bribery, empirical research in many African countries have also consistently found that the impoverished are more likely to pay bribes than those who are well off.
Bribery is the act of offering someone money or something valuable in order to persuade them to do something for you.
This is very common both in private and public sector but it is within the public sector where the phenomenon of soliciting and paying bribes is very common and having some very harmful impact on the well-being of poor and desperate people of Africa.
The theory of the powerless poor characterises individuals in poverty as being an ‘easy target’ for extracting bribes because they have less understanding and knowledge of their rights to receive services, less status and money to demand their rights and less political influence to see that they are delivered.
This perspective emphasises that poverty is a proxy for a lack of power. When confronted by demands for a bribe from public officials, the poor are less capable of resisting.
Poor people are more likely than the better off to pay bribes because they lack the capacity to resist public officials demanding money.
It is very common in Africa to find many poor people unable to afford privately provided services and as a result they are forced to use public services. In relying on the state more often, the poor become more vulnerable to bribery from some unscrupulous and corrupt public officials.
In many progressive western countries where democratic oversight institutions are very strong, having to pay a bribe for life-saving medicine and official documents like passports and drivers’ licences would for many people seem unthinkable but it is the reality for more than a quarter of African citizens, according to the results of many surveys into corruption on the continent.
For example, the Afrobarometer Research Institute has consistently pointed out in their research findings that almost half of all people in many African countries say they paid at least one bribe each year to get basic public service from a school, health clinic or state documents office or to get help from or avoid a problem with the police.
In countries such as Zimbabwe, it is very common for many people to pay some bribes to the police to avoid heavy traffic fines. Since the Afrobarometer studies only asked about selected services, the total across all public services has always been higher.
The frustratingly disturbing phenomenon is that the poorest group of respondents are twice as likely as the wealthiest to have to pay a bribe for services. This problem is not getting any better as numerous data has also shown that the proportion of people who pay a bribe for one of the public services is rapidly increasing.
For example, Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer – Africa 2019 has found more than half of 47,000 citizens in the 35 countries surveyed believe their nation is becoming more corrupt (with paying bribes to public officials becoming more institutionalised) and that their governments are not doing enough to tackle the problem.
The report says: “Paying a bribe as another form of corruption is hindering Africa’s economic, political and social development. More than this, it affects the wellbeing of individuals, families and communities.”
The badly affected, in many cases are the poorer section of African societies. From what have been posited, one can safely argue that corruption constitutes a major problem in many African countries with its inherent drivers such as bribery increasing transaction costs and creating insecurity in the economy. This malpractice aggravates problems of underground economies, thus exacerbating the difference between the rich and the poor.
In the long-term, it creates obstacles to service delivery thus creating obstacles to economic and political reform. All these factors cause very considerable losses of human welfare.
In short, corrupt acts of bribery are visible but silent killers of the poor people in Africa.