A welcome global shift against corruption

A world survey by Transparency International shows rising resentment against corruption – and for people acting on it. One of the most effective tools: higher levels of education.

A demonstrator burns a caricature of Rio de Janeiro Gov. Sergio Cabral near other protesters wearing Guy Fawkes masks during a protest in front of his residence July 4. Tens of thousands of Brazilians have taken to the streets since June, fueled by grievances ranging from poor public services to corruption.

Surveys of global opinion are rare enough. Even rarer are those that reveal how honest much of humanity can be.

A new poll by the anti-corruption watchdog group Transparency International finds that two-thirds of people who have been asked to pay bribes say they refused to pay at least once. Two out of 3 of those polled say ordinary people can make a difference in curbing corruption. In fact, those who believe in a citizen’s ability to act on corruption have refused to pay bribes more often than those who don’t.

These encouraging signs of people power are important because the survey also showed more than half of people consider government to be ineffective in fighting corruption. Police, judges, and political parties top the list as the most corrupt. Religious institutions are seen as the least corrupt.

This pessimism helps explain a number of mass protests against corruption, such as those in India two years ago and in Brazil in recent weeks. The Arab Spring began when a Tunisian vegetable seller refused to pay a bribe to a policewoman.

The survey by Berlin-based Transparency International asked 114,000 people in 107 countries about their experiences with corruption. A majority say it has worsened since 2010. These perceptions reflect more than moral concerns or feelings of unfairness. Corruption can hold back an economy. In Mexico, for example, the poorest households spend a third of their income on bribes, according to one study.

In its report, “Global Corruption Barometer,” Transparency International also focused on the tools that citizens are using to proactively take a stand  against corruption. One of the more clever ones recently sprung up in India, where a group distributes fake bills with a zero denomination. Citizens who are asked for a bribe can hand over the “zero currency” as a form of silent protest.

“Efforts to stop corruption started in earnest in the early 1990s, at a time when corruption was a little-talked-about secret,” the report states. “Twenty years later, the Global Corruption Barometer 2013 shows that people recognize all too well the extent of the problem and are ready to tackle this issue themselves.”

While civil society organizations like Transparency International advocate for better laws and enforcement, a number of academic studies indicate the best way to curb corruption is to raise a country’s level of education.

A 2012 global study by researchers at the University of Memphis and Villanova University found a strong correlation between the number of children in school and corruption levels. This argues for more investment in education than in antigraft regulations. A 2005 Harvard study found American states with higher levels of education are less corrupt. The more-educated citizens are willing to pay attention to corrupt activities and better able to take action against those officials, it concluded.

Education equips people to be part of the solution but also helps them better understand how an economy needs honesty to grow and how government must treat all citizens fairly. Polls and protests prove the point.

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