Fighting bribery – a hopeless cause?

Bribery by UK firms – not particularly comfortable/easy viewing, but last night’s ITV programme Exposure: No Bribes Please! We’re British! showed us again that we Brits are not as clean as we would like.  We may prefer to present ourselves as representatives of the nation with the strongest anti-bribery legislation in the world, but again we are shown that we have a very long way to go if we are to clean up the dark and murky deals.

So what is the source of the problem? Why are there an estimated $1 trillion bribes paid a year?  To take a common advocacy phrase – ‘going upstream’ why do so many people, organisations, public servants worldwide participate in bribery (at the grand scale, and at the petty bribery level)?  Each case obviously differs, but common reasons could include:

  •           There is some personal/organisational benefit.
  •           They can get away with it.
  •           It is culturally accepted – and there is apathy and indifference to it.
  •           Poverty – citizens may participate in bribery to get access to much needed public services.  Public servants may feel the need to demand bribes in order to supplement their very low income.
  •           Human nature?

Maybe it is a hopeless situation.

A Zambian euphemism for bribery ‘Drop something and I will step on it’.    Photo credit: Tearfund/Jay Butcher

 But, what if….

1.  It was not in a person/organisation’s interest to be involved in bribery – whereby the risk of a severe penalty outweighed the possible benefit?

2.  If people and organisations couldn’t get away with it – legislation and enforcement were strong.

3.  If communities started challenging bribery – by refusing to participate in it and reporting the instances they encounter, knowing the damaging effects of bribery on their society.

4.  If businesses took collective action and refused to give-in – no matter what.

A few things that can make a difference

Strong anti-bribery legislation – legislation, enforcement and strong penalties can help act as a deterrent both to companies and individuals. Over time, legislation can also support changes in culture and practice (I here think of the UK’s smoking ban).  But many States still fail to have strong legislation in place, despite making international commitments to the contrary.

Communities and churches can bring a bottom-up approach.  Community initiatives are crucial in the fight against bribery – both to report instances and so that people can collectively take a stand.  Today, Micah Challenge are launching their EXPOSED campaign, mobilising churches worldwide to tackle corruption – including through challenging bribery in their local community.  Perhaps, eventually there will be less indifference to the issue.

But enforcement is essential. We have yet to see the real impact of the UK Bribery Act.  The Act itself has been a huge step forward, but if people and organisations still think they can get away with it, then bribery will no-doubt continue.  This was highlighted in last night’s programme – the American’s appear one step ahead of the UK in ensuring strong enforcement.This is why the UK’s Serious Fraud Office needs sufficient resourcing and for cases to be brought to court – otherwise nothing will change.

I believe there is reason for hope – and that perhaps, one day, bribery will be less pervasive.  The essential ingredients of a strong legal and regulatory framework, coupled with bottom-up community initiatives are possible. The last few years have seen increased momentum and assertiveness to tackle bribery – both by civil society, governments and business.   The challenge we have is to ensure that the corruptors (and/or their facilitators or those that may benefit) don’t hinder progress.  Preventing and condemning bribery needs to become a global norm.   Not easy, but I’m up for the challenge – are you?


  1. Melissa, I helped a little in the making of the documentary and was fleetingly on it. I used to work with Global Witness and work with TI. Bribery is less pervasive – England in the 18th Century was completely corrupt and while it now tends to export significant amounts of bribery I believe that we are making inroads. The first danger is that the western consensus will be offset by the rise of newly developing nations like China and India, Brazil and South Africa where corruption is extensive. The second is that the continuing recession tends to push issues like corruption into the background as governments pursue “growth” and employment issues. That is why this documentary and whatever else we can do are so important – to continuously keep the issue in the minds of governments and companies.

    • melissalawson says:

      Hi Jeff. Thanks for your comment. It was great to see the documentary and I hope there will be more like this to keep the issue on the agenda. Completely agree that generally on anti-corruption, the BRICs are a real challenge and concern (and you could also add the Next 11). How do we build momentum in these States to bring and pursue change at national and international level (or at least not block anti-corruption measures, transparency etc). That said, on bribery, China has quite strong legislation – just perhaps the penalty is something beyond what we would endorse! But again in all cases, enforcement is key.

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