Widespread graft is hurting Asia’s poorest the most

Widespread graft is hurting Asia’s poorest the most

Melbourne Age * Mark Forbes, Jakarta

THE poor and vulnerable are the biggest victims of a hidden graft
epidemic across the Asia-Pacific, according to a comprehensive United
Nations study.

The report, Tackling Corruption, Transforming Lives, calls for renewed
efforts to combat corruption across the region.

It finds corruption remains common, “ranging from petty corruption to
grand corruption to ‘state capture’ — all of which erode trust in
government and business and discriminate harshly against the poor”.

The report, to be launched by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang
Yudhoyono today, expresses concern about the impact of “street level”
corruption on the poor, saying it limits their access to justice,
education and basic health care. Cleaning up the police, health,
education and environment sectors in the Asia-Pacific is essential, it
states.

There is a danger that pursuing corruption’s “big fish” could obscure
the need to confront small-scale corruption that causes more
day-to-day suffering, it finds.

“Hauling the rich and powerful before the courts may grab the
headlines,” the report says. “But the poor will benefit more from
efforts to eliminate the corruption that plagues their everyday
lives.”

Although “grand corruption” involves large amounts, more insidious is
the petty corruption requiring the poor to often pay small sums, such
as “speed money to issue licences, or to allow full access to schools,
hospitals or public utilities”.

The report says a large proportion of health spending is dissipated by
corruption, with more than 40% of patients forced to pay bribes for
medical treatment in most Asian countries. In some Indian hospitals,
90% of patients have been forced to pay, and in maternity hospitals
mothers have had to bribe nurses to see their babies.

A survey found nearly one in five people in the region had paid a
bribe to a police officer in the past year.

“Across the region, corruption is clearly widespread in justice
systems,” the report says, “with serious implications for the poorest
people, who are least able to pay bribes or engage effective lawyers.”

Major institutional reform was an urgent priority. “Unless countries
are determined to ensure their systems of justice are clean and fair,
they are unlikely to be able to uproot corruption from other sectors.”

Larger scale corruption also impacted on aid and services to the poor,
the report says. “Extending water, sanitation and electricity coverage
is expensive, requiring large-scale investments in infrastructure —
yet up to 40% of this is being dissipated through bid rigging and
other corruption.”

In some countries across the region “state capture”, where large
corporations effectively take over state functions, remains a threat,
the report warns. “In the extraction of natural resources this is one
of the most serious and pervasive forms of corruption,” it says,
estimating that in Indonesia, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea more than
70% of logging is illegal.

The study calls for a seven-stage strategy, including international
co-ordination. Stronger controls over the public sector are urged,
along with international benchmarks for anti-corruption agencies,
freedom of information and openness of government to the public.

“The real price of corruption is not paid in currency, after all,” the
report says. “The true costs are eroded opportunities, increased
marginalisation of the disadvantaged and feelings of injustice.”

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