Bribery remains a fact of life for many people in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, but most citizens believe they have the power to make a change, according to a newly released report from global watchdog group Transparency International.
The Berlin-based NGO polled around 11,000 people across nine MENA countries and found that, despite recent advances, the majority believes corruption has increased: from 26 percent of Moroccans to 92 percent in Lebanon.
About 30 percent of those polled said that they had to access basic public services by bribing officials. If that figure holds across the entire MENA region, that would mean that about 50 million people, the majority of whom are poor, feel they must pay bribes in order to have access to basic public services. In five countries, the rich reported being far less likely to have to pay a bribe: 63 percent of poor Sudanese citizens versus 38 percent of wealthy ones, for example, and 23 percent versus 12 percent, respectively, in Algeria.
“It’s as if the Arab Spring never happened,” Transparency International (TI) chair José Ugaz said in an agency release. “Leaders who fail to stop secrecy, fail to promote free speech and fail to stop bribery also fail to bring dignity to the daily lives of people living in the Middle East and North Africa. Peoples’ human rights are seriously affected.”
Law enforcement and justice systems were especially likely to be corrupt, according to the report. Overall, one in three people interacting with the courts had faced a bribe, slightly more than the one in four who paid off police.
Only around 20 percent of those who paid a bribe in the past year say they reported it. Of those, almost 40 percent met with a reprisal from authorities, and fewer than a third say authorities dealt with their complaint.
Government and tax officials win the least trust, with 45 percent of respondents saying they think most or all are corrupt. Traditional leaders and religious leaders, however, were viewed as more trustworthy: just 29 percent and 19 percent of respondents believed most or all of them are corrupt.
But most are hopeful that things can change.
Even though some of the momentum from events like the Arab Spring has subsided, and corruption and bribery are rampant in the MENA area, many concerned citizens believe they can fight back. More than half agreed with the notion that “Ordinary people can make a difference in the fight against corruption.”
The main weapons in the fight against a stacked system are reporting crooked situations and the refusal to pay off bribes, respondents say, despite fear of intimidation.
For long-term change, however, reporting channels need to be strengthened, from press freedoms to whistleblower protections, according to TI. The report suggests that governments take a bigger role in weeding out the more unscrupulous members of their agencies, commit to implementing anti-corruption standards, strengthen justice systems, and work to make ordinary citizens, and the media, feel safe.
“Only if governments in the region are ready to make a fundamental shift in their mindset to allow for meaningful participation by citizens and civil society in public life, and stop using repression or intimidation against them, will the fight against corruption stand a chance,” the authors conclude.
Worldwide, however, a January TI report finds that more countries' public-sector corruption is improving than worsening.
"The 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index clearly shows that corruption remains a blight around the world," Mr. Ugaz said at the time. "But 2015 was also a year when people again took to the streets to protest corruption. People across the globe sent a strong signal to those in power: it is time to tackle grand corruption."