Until recently, the debate about corruption and development has been dominated by identification and measurement of “big time” corruption, notably administrative and political corruption at the highest levels of government.
Yet “big time” corruption is just the tip of the iceberg; “quiet corruption”, is frequently simmering below the surface.
In its latest report on entitled Africa Development Indicators 2010, the World Bank defines ‘Quiet corruption’ as the failure of public servants to deliver goods or services paid for by governments.
The report charges that quiet corruption is pervasive and widespread across Africa and is adversely affecting Africa’s poor in the long term.
The report notes that most studies on corruption focus on an exchange of money – bribes to powerful political designees or kickbacks to public officials.
Conversely, “quiet corruption” although smaller in monetary terms, is particularly harmful for the poor, who are more vulnerable and more reliant on government services and public systems to satisfy their most basic needs.
The report also stresses the long-term effects. ‘A child denied a proper education because of absentee teachers will suffer in adulthood with low cognitive skills and weak health.
The absence of drugs and doctors means unwanted deaths from malaria and other diseases. Farmers used to receiving diluted fertilizers may choose to stop using them altogether, leaving them in low-productivity agriculture.’
Therefore “Quiet corruption” can be just as detrimental to a country’s overall economic growth and development as large corruption and bribery scandals that receive much attention.
In the long run, acts of “quiet corruption” such as teacher absenteeism affect a nation’s ability to compete and prosper in the international marketplace for a long time because if they are widespread, the country’s population will lack the skills needed to compete.
Rwanda performs better in terms of control of corruption, compared to many African countries. The World Bank Enterprise Survey conducted in Rwanda in 2006 indicates that Rwanda performs better in terms of corruption compared to other low income and African countries.
Only 4.4 percent of the firms surveyed identified corruption as a major constraint to doing business in the country. 20 percent of the firms report making unofficial payments to get things done, compared to an average of 48 percent in other African countries.
So far in the fight against “quiet corruption”, the government can be applauded for the radical transport market reform that eliminated entry barriers to the market.
Due to the transport reforms after 1994, prices declined by more than 30 percent in nominal terms and almost 75 percent in real terms, according to the World Bank.
This is largely attributed to elimination of quiet corruption in the transport sector, since no major investment in infrastructure was carried out during this period.
The case of the transport reform clearly reveals that seriously addressing the effect of “quiet corruption” might induce effective gains that conceal any other potential benefit arising from a pure increase in expenditures.
In spite of these efforts, we are yet to see a crack down on “quiet corruption” which is much alive particularly in public offices. For instance, very institutions take record of daily attendance at work or keep track of working hours.
It is not surprising that most civil servants take longer breaks than the usual allocated time for lunch, report late for work or leave too early. Others miss work regularly without explanation. Yet these “petty” acts in the long run affect public service delivery.
In the case of private sector, “quiet corruption” for instance, a delay in issuance of a certain critical document may mean additional cost.
There also still instance of petty corruption reported by the business community in the clearing process of goods. For a small business entity this additional cost may push them out of the market.
The country already has the institutional capacity to fight corruption. But success in fighting “quiet corruption” begins from recognition of the vice as a serious development challenge.
Indeed, although combating ‘big time” corruption is necessary, fighting quiet corruption is critical if government wants to reduce poverty and promote sustainable growth.
Berna Namata is a journalist with The New Times