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Why do so many Irish people think that corruption is widespread in our country when it really isn't?

It is hard to quantify grand corruption but the fact is that what evidence we have speaks against Ireland being a particularly corrupt country, writers economist and corruption expert Dr Robert Gillanders.

CORRUPTION IS OFTEN, though not universally, defined to be the abuse of public power for private gain.

Surveys from countries that are widely perceived to be corrupt tell us that in some countries, people regularly pay bribes to access basic services and firms must grease palms in order to file taxes and obtain permits.

For example, a recent survey of households in sub-Saharan Africa reveals that 8.3% of people have had to pay a bribe to avoid problems with the police, a staggering statistic given that 70% of people say that they have had no contact with the police.

In Yemen, 64% of firms report having been asked for a bribe in the past year according to World Bank data.

The same survey, which sadly does not include Ireland, reveals that bribe paying is not unheard of in some EU countries, with 9% of Bulgarian firms and 4% of Croatian firms admitting to having been asked for a bribe.

Ask yourselves this: have you ever heard of anyone having to pay a bribe for things like this in Ireland? It surely happens, as even in Sweden 2% of firms confess to having been solicited for bribes, but it is not common, let alone a normal part of doing business in Ireland.

However, when asked as part of a recent Eurobarometer survey, 68% of Irish people expressed the belief that corruption is widespread in our country.

The same survey reveals that only 5% of people say they have actually witnessed acts of corruption or been a victim of corruption in the year leading up to the survey. Only 7% of Irish people claim to know someone who has taken a bribe.

So why do so many Irish people think that corruption is widespread in our country?

Part of the explanation could do with the nature of corruption in Ireland. Different countries have different mixes of grand and petty corruption.

It is hard to quantify grand corruption but the fact is that what evidence we have speaks against Ireland being a particularly corrupt country.

Expert assessments collated by Transparency International rank Ireland as the 19th-least corrupt country (out of 180).

This puts us between the US and Japan and several spots ahead of France.

The World Bank puts us in the 91st percentile in terms of control of corruption.

Given these international rankings, could it be the case that Irish people do not understand what corruption is?

It is not unusual to hear people cry “corruption” during public debates and discourse over real and scandalous policy failures such as the housing, homelessness, and health crises.

Without excusing these tragic and costly failings, it is important to correctly identify the cause of a problem.

Incompetence, indifference, ideology, and inefficiency are not synonyms for corruption.

Diagnosing a problem correctly is vital for effective treatment. One would take a very different approach to fix the health system if the source of the inefficiency was, say, embezzlement or bribery, as opposed to interest groups operating within the scope of the law.

Likewise, while corruption has been shown to be associated with poverty and inequality, there are likely better strategies for dealing with these problems in Ireland than interventions designed to root out and punish corrupt public servants.

Trust is an essential economic lubricant as it serves to reduce transaction costs and facilitate cooperation.

If I trust you, I am more likely to sell you goods on credit or employ you to do a job that is hard for me to monitor.

The perception of corruption has been found to decrease the trust that people have in each other and therefore an unwarranted perception that Ireland is a corrupt country could put a drag on economic activity.

Trust in politics and politicians is also important in terms of a country’s stability and capacity to improve itself and these forms of trust are understandably undermined by the perception that public officials are acting illegally, or at least immorally, in their own self-interest.

Misuse of the term corruption holds further risks.

The first is that by having false expectations about the extent of corruption, we can undermine efforts to fight what corruption we do face in Ireland.

The recent coverage of the Garda’s anti-corruption unit suggests that the “discrepancy” between the Eurobarometer poll and the volume of reports received could be used to scale back anti-corruption policing.

The threat of being caught and punished is a powerful deterrent to corruption. Another danger is that a perception of corruption can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If corruption is seen as the norm, people will not have to work as hard to justify asking for or offering bribes.

Ireland should be particularly wary of such changes in policing and culture.

By international standards, Ireland is blissfully, and profitably, free from the day-to-day burdens that corruption imposes on individuals and firms.

This is important as Ireland’s economic model relies on foreign direct investment and there is plentiful and strong evidence that suggests that corruption repels multinationals.

We should be proud and mindful of our reputation. 

Dr. Robert Gillanders is an economist and corruption expert from DCU’s Business School 

Dr Robert Gillanders
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