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Corruption hits Asia-Pacific’s poor the hardest, UN says in new report

Corruption hits Asia-Pacific’s poor the hardest, UN says in new report

Pervasive corruption is a stranglehold on the lives of the Asia-Pacific region’s poor, limiting their access to education and health services, according to a new United Nations report released today, which also highlights innovative ways in which communities are striving to fight the problem.

Launched today in Jakarta, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) report, “Tackling Corruption, Transforming Lives,” notes that anti-corruption efforts usually focus on exposing the ‘big fish.’

But it is ‘small fry’ corruption – from the salaries of fictitious teachers to doctors demanding cash payments from poor, pregnant women to deliver their babies – that impacts people’s day-to-day lives and threatens the achievement of the global targets aimed at halving poverty by 2015, known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

“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,” says Anuradha Rajivan, Head of the UNDP Regional Human Development Report Unit.

“Petty corruption is a misnomer,” she adds. “Dollar amounts may be relatively small but the demands are incessant, the number of people affected is enormous and the share of poor people’s income diverted to corruption is high.”

Combating corruption makes more political sense now than ever before, especially in sectors like water and electricity, health and education, as it “not only confers credibility to the government, it also greatly promotes everyday citizen satisfaction,” stresses the report.

In the Asia-Pacific region, politicians are seen as the most corrupt group in government followed by the police, with the judiciary running a close third, according to the report. Nearly one in five people claim to have paid a bribe to police during the previous year.

In addition, giving bribes for admission to a hospital – or for new mothers even to see their babies in a maternity ward – is common in South Asia. “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 subsidized medications,” says the report.

The report also shows that higher levels of corruption are correlated with fewer children attending schools and higher dropout and illiteracy rates. An extreme type of education corruption is found in ‘ghost teachers’ who may be on a payroll but never set foot in a classroom, and even ‘ghost schools’ exist.

At the same time, the report highlights how some communities are fighting the scourge. For example, in the rural, one-teacher schools of Rajasthan, India, where teacher absentee rates have topped 40 per cent, a local non-governmental organization came up with a novel solution that required teachers to take a photo of themselves with the students at the beginning and end of each day using cameras with tamper-proof date and time functions in order to get their maximum salary. As a result, the number of days that children were actually taught each month increased by one third.

Enacting, and enforcing, the right anti-corruption legislation has also made a difference in countries. In China a law was introduced in 2006 stipulating that staff members of schools and hospitals would face criminal penalties for seeking bribes or receiving kickbacks. The former Commissioner of the State Food and Drug Administration was subsequently convicted on charges of accepting more than $850,000 in bribes.

The report suggests a number of ways to tackle the problem of corruption, including raising salaries for doctors, teachers and other civil servants so they do not have to rely on bribes to make a living, and using information technology and e-governance to make administration more transparent.