Opinion: all countries and institutions are vulnerable to corruption to some extent but not all take steps to punish and deter it

There is much that we should take on board from the recent allegations and subsequent investigation into potential corruption in An Garda Síochána. The first is that we must never be complacent because corruption exists even in countries with the least corruption. According to Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, Denmark is the least corrupt country in the world. However, last year a senior official at the social ministry was found to have embezzled $17 million. In Sweden, which also ranks near the top of that index, nearly 2% of firms reported being solicited for bribes in 2014. Corruption is everywhere.

The second thing to note about corruption is that the burden of corruption tends to fall most heavily on disadvantaged and vulnerable groups. This is evident in both the Danish embezzlement story and the allegations regarding members of An Garda Síochána providing information to gangs involved in the drug trade. If these allegations are true, communities and individuals already suffering from the illicit drugs trade, and all of the direct and indirect ills that come with it, had their well-being sacrificed in favour of the interests of a narrower group. The abuse of public power for private gain, corruption almost always entails the self-interested behaviour of a few harming the welfare of the many.

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From RTÉ One's Nine News, RTÉ crime correspondent Paul Reynolds reports on the Garda Inspectorate's plans to examine internal counter-corruption practices

 Corruption takes many forms, but all corruption seems to favour "haves" rather than "have nots." Evidence from sub-Saharan Africa makes it clear that it is the poor that are targeted for petty corruption and bribery.  In Peru, evidence tells us that unfortunate people, in particular victims of crime, are more likely to pay bribes as they both need public services more and are desperate. An important study concludes that corruption undermines the growth rate of income for the poor. While corruption harms educational outcomes for boys and girls, Transparency International UK have pointed out the stark differences in the percentage of girls missing out on secondary education between the most and least corrupt countries. 

We also have compelling evidence that corruption not only facilitates but incentivises tax evasion. Faced with a corrupt government, people can pay off tax inspectors and are less willing to pay their taxes as they expect that it will be embezzled or misused by a corrupt elite.  A similar sense of mistrust can see corruption undermine support for redistributive policies. By harming the tax take and political support for redistribution of income, the burden of corruption falls on the poor.

Given these well documented effects of corruption, it should come as no surprise that we also have strong evidence that corruption leads to greater inequality. Several studies have demonstrated a large and significant association between corruption and standard measures of income inequality in cross country data, with more corrupt countries displaying a more unequal distribution of income. The same seems to be true within a given country. US data show that more corrupt states have more income inequality.

Corruption takes many forms, but it always seems to favour the "haves" over the "have nots"

We also have evidence that corruption leads to worse health outcomes, particularly for the poor and the young. A study from the Philippines found that corruption hurts outcomes for the poor more than the wealthy. Even more striking are the conclusions regarding outcomes for children. More corrupt areas have lower immunisation rates and lower vaccination rates for new-borns. Bribery, embezzlement and poor infrastructure arising from other forms of corruption conspire to rob children of a fair start in life.  These mechanisms, to use far too dry a term, help understand the extreme differences in infant mortality that we can observe between the most and least corrupt countries.

Countries that are more corrupt are also more vulnerable to natural disasters in the sense that the loss of life is greater, all else equal. Once again bribery, embezzlement, and incorrect decisions regarding infrastructure provision and construction combine to increase the risks faced by the poor – in this case with fatal consequences.  The fatal consequences of corruption are also evident in China where a study found that politically connected firms have five times the worker death rate compared to non-connected firms.

READ: corruption and "the tone at the top"

The final thing we should take away from the recent investigation in Ireland is that Garda management is taking corruption within the force seriously. All countries and institutions are vulnerable to corruption to some extent but not all take steps to punish and deter it. This determination to fight corruption is also clear from the announcement of a new unit to investigate corruption. It is vital that such a force has guaranteed institutional support and the resources to do its job.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ