Jakarta: A few hundred baht here, a few thousand rupees there — a United Nations report released on Thursday said “petty corruption” is a massive drain on Asian economic growth and hits the poor the hardest.
Vicious circle: Mumbai’s Dharavi slum. The report says small-scale corruption limited the access of poor Asians to education and basic health services, locking them into cycles of poverty. PHotograph: Madhu Kapparath / Mint.
The sort of bribes many Asians pay as a matter of course are worsening child mortality rates and perpetuating poverty across the region, the report said. “Petty corruption is a misnomer,” said Anuradha Rajivan, who led the team which compiled the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) report, titled Tackling Corruption, Transforming Lives.
“Dollar amounts may be relatively small but the demands are incessant, the number of people affected is enormous and the share of poor people’s income diverted to corruption is high.”
She said too much attention focused on the “big fish” in anti-corruption drives and not on the low-level vice that affects countless Asians daily.
“Hauling the rich and powerful before the courts may grab headlines but the poor will benefit more from efforts to eliminate the corruption that plagues their everyday lives,” she said in a statement accompanying the report.
UNDP assistant secretary general Olav Kjorven, launching the report in Jakarta alongside Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, said it was the poor who paid the price for corruption.
“Development is ultimately about expanding the choices that people have to lead the lives that they value,” he said. “Corruption strangles these choices especially and disproportionately for the poor and vulnerable, meaning that fighting it needs to be a priority.”
The report said small-scale corruption limited poor Asians’ access to education and basic health services, contributing to high infant mortality rates and locking people into cycles of poverty.
Across the Asia-Pacific region, it said politicians were seen as the most venal element in society, followed by the police and judiciary.
Nearly 20% of people claimed to have paid a bribe to the police in the past year in the Asia-Pacific region, it said.
In South Asia, many people had to pay bribes to gain admission into hospital and even for mothers to see their newborn babies. Up to a third of drugs sold in certain countries were expired or counterfeit.
One survey found nurses in India’s Rajasthan state were at their posts only 12% of the time. In an unnamed South-East Asian country, senior health department jobs could be bought for $100,000 (Rs42.8 lakh), the report said.
“Ghost teachers” and even “ghost schools” — where government funds are lost on non-existent services — were examples of corruption in the education sector that meant fewer children in school and higher illiteracy rates.
Yudhoyono said that despite a string of corruption arrests and convictions since his election in 2004, much more needed to be done. He called for greater multilateral cooperation and an end to “corruption havens” around the region, a veiled jab at countries such as Singapore and China, where high-profile Indonesian corruption suspects live in exile.
“I have time and time again said there needs to be bilateral and multilateral cooperation. There should be no safe haven for corrupters that take away state assets and live peacefully in another country,” he said.
Indonesia is one of the world’s most corrupt countries and ranks 143rd on Transparency International’s global corruption perceptions index, level with Russia, Togo and Gambia.
Kjorven said the need to free poor Asians from corruption was even more pressing in the face of the global food crisis, with the price of rice rising as much as 70% in the past year.
“The reason for this global food crisis is manifold but one thing is clear, corrupt practices in how agricultural lands, the environment and natural resources are managed are making the situation worse,” he said.
Meanwhile, natural resources that should provide a foundation for economic and social development were being destroyed by illegal activity.
In Indonesia, less than a quarter of logging operations worth an estimated $6.6 billion were legal.