Accustomed as we are to criticizing politicians and other state officials for engaging in corruption, we often pay little attention to, or acknowledge that corruption is deeply woven into the fabric of Caribbean society. When we do address issues of corruption, we focus on vote buying, principally around elections. While this is necessary, acts of corruption perpetuated by ordinary citizens are equally mind boggling as the awarding of contracts and the many major political scandals that we read about. Bribery is just one form of corrupt behaviour perpetuated by ordinary citizens which is too often considered harmless.
If we were to undertake a national or regional poll on citizens’ experience with corruption, we may well be astonished by the number of people who have first-hand experience with corruption either taking the form of paying or receiving a bribe. When we do not participate in bribe giving or taking, how many of us use our influence to get a service or something done? What seems innocuous is actually corruption, but we get justification for its continuation – I am doing my friend a favour. So I ask, what about the others in the community who are not your friends? Are they not entitled to the same service? The problem is that in one form or another most citizens can engage in ambivalent complicity in corruption.
Transparency International’s 2017 report on People and Corruption: Citizens’ Voices From Around the World shows that one in nearly every four public service users paid a bride annually. While the average bribery rate in the Caribbean is placed at 29 percent, only 5 to 10 percent of citizens in Trinidad and Tobago reported that they had paid a bride, compared to 20 to 30 percent in Jamaica.
Based on interviews conducted from 2014-2017 with 162,136 adults in 119 countries, territories and regions around the globe, the report notes that globally the police and elected representatives (such as members of parliament, congressmen, senators etc.) were perceived as the most corrupt – followed closely by government officials, business executives and local government officials. Interestingly, Transparency International reported that in the Americas, 46 percent of the sampled population perceived both the police and elected representatives as the most corrupt public institutions.
So, for those who steal electricity and water for example with impunity, and those who aid them in doing so in negation of their duty, how do we treat such occurrences? We are not referring here to persons who lack access to water (especially the very rural poor in places like Guyana, Belize, St. Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Grenada, Dominica and Jamaica), or engage in water theft, but to the blatant form of water illegality that routinely occurs on the part of those who have legal access to water and who can also afford to pay for its consumption.
How do we really begin to control corruption when there is widespread belief that bribe giving and taking by ordinary citizens is acceptable? It is unlikely that any policy which is aimed at reducing the incidence of corruption will be effective if the majority of the population accepts corrupt behaviour.
Drawn from the discipline of Sociology, one dominant explanation for the acceptance of corruption by individuals is based on the desistance theory, which focuses on the so called curvilinear relationship between age and involvement in criminal acts. According to the theory, there is a direct relationship between age and criminal acts, with the likelihood of such acts decreasing with age. Consequently, desistance theorists contend that the decline in crime occurs because factors associated with age reduce or change the actors’ criminality. This is based on the assumption that individuals (citizens) have more to lose as they grow older if the crime is discovered and prosecuted. In combination with the tendency of the older generation to experience a greater level of traditionalist values (such as religion), older individuals would be less accepting of corrupt practices.
The disciplines of sociology and psychology also provide us with a possible second explanation, in the form of social learning theory, which emphasizes the role of different associations in shaping the involvement in deviant behaviour. The theory essentially argues that one of the routes through which behaviours are learned by individuals is differential reinforcement path.
Simply put, it means that learned behaviours are derived from individuals’ assessment of the anticipated or actual rewards and punishments for their acts. When applied to corrupt acts, especially in the form of bribery, this is associated with the danger of being discovered and of suffering the consequences. These consequences can range from losing status among peers to being prosecuted; having to pay fines to cover the damage produced, and so on. This, of course is not uniformly applied and depends on socio-economic location, so that individuals from some social categories might perceive the costs associated with being caught as being too high in comparison with the potential gains.
Of course we know that there are few laws, and where they exist, they are infrequently enforced so that there is a reasonable chance of not being caught. Theoretically then, the lack of enforcement will raise the incidence of corruption. When combined with the sanctioning of actions such as vote buying (illegal under the election law in most Caribbean jurisdictions) by sections of the political elite, it is not surprising that bribery continues and will continue to define the political landscape in the region.
But the theory will have us believe that individuals with a higher socio-economic status might perceive a high cost for getting involved in corruption due to the danger of losing the privileges of their position or of losing the esteem of their peers. This cost might be perceived to be not so high for the individuals with low occupational status and low income, who might see the potential gains (e.g., material resources such as goods, money or jobs) as being more beneficial. Based on this, it is tempting to argue that individuals with higher socio-economic positions will show less tolerance of corruption than individuals with lower socio-economic status.
The narrative on vote buying in the region, for instance, tends to focus almost overwhelmingly on persons of lower socio-economic backgrounds as being more prone to this particular form of corruption. Indeed, the research conducted by my former colleague, Sociologist (not political scientist) Cecilia Karch Brathwaite (now deceased), and Dwayne Devonish (management specialist) seem to confirm this. Based on their research conducted two years after the 2013 general elections in Barbados, 45 percent of persons between the age of 18-34, compared to 22 percent of individuals between the age of 35-49, and 17 percent over the age of 50 would be inclined to accept a gift or payment in exchange for their vote. Devonish concluded that “… as age increased, vote buying was deemed less attractive.” Further, the research of Karch Brathwaite and Devonish revealed that the unemployed were more likely to accept gifts for a vote than the employed.
A third line of inquiry is the level of trust in governmental institutions and the pillars of the national integrity system. Where there is a high level of trust in governance bodies that enforce the rule of the law, it is anticipated that it would engender the trust that societal rules are reinforced by the state, ensuring that every member has the same chances and opportunities and that violators of the law are indeed punished. Under such circumstances, the expectation is that there would be a greater likelihood that acts of corruption would be exposed and that the integrity system would not only detect but control and punish offenders. In that vein I ask: Do we have trust in the EMB of Barbados that transgressions against the bribery and treating provisions of the Representation of People Act will be enforced when the chief executive and chief legislator has publicly encouraged electors to violate the law which the administration is duty bound in a democratic country to observe and enforce? These are strange times! So what hope do we have for change?
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill)