BANGKOK // In South Asia, it is quite common for mothers of newborn babies to have to pay to see their child in the maternity ward. Bribes are often needed to be admitted into a public hospital in some countries. And it is these petty forms of corruption that do the most damage to the poor and are the biggest obstacles to development and the elimination of poverty around the world, says a UN report released today.
The real cost of such corruption should not be measured in dollars but in terms of its effect on the poor, said the report titled Tackling Corruption, Transforming Lives.
“By tolerating all forms of corruption, governments in the region are effectively preventing thousands of people from working themselves out of poverty,” Anuradha Rajivan, who heads a regional UN team on corruption, told The National in an interview before the report’s publication.
“Petty corruption may be relatively small in dollar terms, but its effect on poor people is paramount,” Ms Rajivan said. “Small, but incessant and continuous demands, this corruption has a large impact on poor people’s incomes.
“Hauling the rich and powerful before the courts may grab the headlines, but the poor will benefit more from efforts to eliminate the corruption that plagues their everyday lives,” she said.
Corruption is a constant burden on the poor, like a regressive tax on every aspect of their daily life. The report, by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), documents many examples of this form of corruption.
“One survey of Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka found that health workers often demanded bribes for admission to hospital, to provide a bed, or to give subsidised medication,” the report said.
The subversion of public services – particularly in education and health – robs the poor of a chance to improve themselves and increase their potential income. “It smothers opportunities for the most vulnerable people, limiting their access to education and compromising basic health services,” Ms Rajivan said. “Making it all the more difficult for them to raise themselves out of poverty and reach the development goals set by the UN.”
If Asia is to eliminate poverty in the next 10 years, then governments must tackle corruption head on, according to the UNDP.
“Cleaning up the police, health, education and environment sectors should be a top political priority in the Asia-Pacific region, in order to loosen the stranglehold of corruption on the lives of the poor.”
Cross-national studies in the region have shown that in countries where there are high levels of corruption, immunisation levels are unacceptably low, the UN report said. According to the World Bank, child mortality could be halved with a concerted effort to stamp out corruption. The higher the levels of corruption in a country, the fewer children attend school, the higher the dropout rate and the lower the literacy rates.
The provision of water and sanitation services, telephones and electricity also place an unfair burden on the poor. In many countries in the region, extra charges are demanded for the provision of these services – often called speed money. One survey in Bangladesh, quoted in the report, found that two out of three urban families in Bangladesh had to pay extra to get their water services connected. In the aftermath of the recent cyclone in Myanmar, the residents in the former capital of Yangon had to make extortion payments to get their electricity reconnected, a Myanmar businessman said.
Corruption has long been regarded as so endemic in Asia that there was little that could be done to combat it. “It is part of the culture,” said a retired British businessman in Bangkok on condition of anonymity.
“High street businesses give the police weekly donations to avoid trouble; employees give their bosses presents for employing them, rather than employers giving their workers bonuses for good work.”
For Asia-Pacific’s future though, one of the biggest problems is in the area of environmental protection. The vast tropical forests, extensive mineral deposits and fertile agricultural lands in many parts of the region have been monopolised by unscrupulous companies using corrupt practice to disinherit those poor people who depend on these resources for their livelihoods.
“The profits are so immense and the areas so remote, many private individuals or companies – including multinationals – use the state to rewrite or reinterpret laws, manipulate unclear property rights, and generally undermine public control of natural resources,” Ms Rajivan said.
The misuse and plunder of Indonesia’s forests is costing the country more than US$4 million (Dh15m) a year, according to the UNDP report.
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