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The Vulnerable Suffer First And Worst

December 9 is the U.N.’s International Anti-Corruption Day. The theme of this year’s observance is “don’t let corruption kill development.” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “When public money is stolen for private gain, it means fewer resources to build schools, hospitals, roads and water treatment facilities. When foreign aid is diverted into private bank accounts, major infrastructure projects come to a halt. Corruption enables fake or substandard medicines to be dumped on the market, and hazardous waste to be dumped in landfill sites and in oceans. . . . Corruption steals elections. It undermines the rule of law. And it can jeopardize security. As we have seen over the last year, it can also have a serious impact on the international financial system.”

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Targeting the weak. Jennifer Hunt of McGill University published a paper in 2006 called, “How Corruption Hits People When They Are Down” (here). Based on research in Peru, she said victims of misfortune, particularly crime, are much more likely than non–victims to bribe public officials and be extorted by corrupt police and judges. When people are desperate, vulnerable, and most in need of public services, she said, corruption increases, compounding the victim’s misfortune. Here’s how she explained it:

For example, victims of crime will want to report the crime to the police, an act that may require a bribe to ensure police cooperation. An illness, accident or assault may lead the victim to use public hospitals, which could involve a bribe to jump a queue or see a doctor. If a household member dies, his or her death must be registered, for which a bribe might be extorted. Burglary, robbery, fraud, job loss, fire, natural disasters, the death of an earner and the bankruptcy of a shop involve the loss of possessions or income, which may impoverish the affected individual or household and lead them to apply for unemployment insurance or welfare. The desertion of the household head can lead to legal issues concerning alimony or child custody, while the creditors of a bankrupt shopkeeper may appeal to a judge. Involvement with the courts may be associated with bribery. . . .

Measuring petty corruption isn’t easy. And pinpointing the impact of graft on victims of misfortune is even harder. But Hunt’s thesis makes sense and her numbers, though limited, back her idea.

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