Religion and Attitudes Towards Corruption in a Globalised World

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Heather MarquetteHeather Marquette is Senior Lecturer in Governance in IDD. Her areas of research include comparative politics; political development; African politics; state-building and governance in difficult environments; corruption, good governance and ‘moral politics’; donor approaches to anti-corruption reform; discourses on citizenship; and applied political analysis. She directs IDD’s International Political Economy of Development programme and is the academic director of the Governance and Social Development Resource Centre.

There has been growing interest in looking at the underlying anthropological and cultural reasons for why corruption might occur, and a growing understanding that technical, management-led approaches to anti-corruption are not providing the level of success desired.  There is a clear need to look as well at why individuals choose to be corrupt and how their values and attitudes towards corruption are shaped.

The basis for the increasing attention given to the religion-corruption nexus stems from the argument that fairness and honesty form the basis of many religions.  It is sometimes assumed that religious leaders may be recruited to the fight against corruption and that religious people are less likely than non-religious people to engage in corruption.  (see, for example, Beets 2007)

However, contrary to these assumptions, many of the most corrupt countries in the world (according to TI’s Corruption Perceptions Index) also rank highly in terms of religiosity (using indicators such as those used in the Pew Global Attitudes Project). So why is it that apparently religious people seem to engage in corruption to the point where it becomes a ‘way of life’ in many countries?

Corruption as a collective action problem, regardless of religion

Recent research at the Quality of Government Institute at the University of Gothenburg argues that corruption needs to be seen as a ‘collective action problem’. This means that corruption is seen to be so widespread in society that ‘even if most individuals morally disapprove of corruption and are fully aware of the negative consequences for the society at large, very few actors show a sustained willingness to fight it.’

Malawi: Resist, Reject, Report Corruption

Malawi: Resist, Reject, Report Corruption. Photo by John Duffell.

Our own research draws a similar conclusion. All of our respondents offered very robust definitions of corruption, and very few of the respondents tolerated any form of corrupt behaviour. There was a very strong sense of moral outrage in both countries regarding corruption. In India, this tended to be voiced along secular lines, with respondents emphasizing the impact of corruption on poverty, on growth, on trust in government, and in society in general. Nigerian respondents, on the other hand, tended to see corruption as a lack of the fear of God and drew very clear links between religion and corruption.

However, almost all of the respondents in both countries saw corruption as being so deeply entrenched within the system – ‘systemic corruption’, as it is known – that there was little sense that individual action would make any difference. As such, individuals are left with a typical collective action problem, where choosing not to engage in corruption is seen as illogical or even ridiculous.

In addition, respondents often did what is called ‘othering’, seeing corruption as something that other, immoral people do, while what they might do is simply making the best of a bad situation. They clearly separated public and personal morality when it came to their own behaviour but not when it came to condemning the behaviour of others. For some respondents, there was a sense that in a corrupt system, choosing not to be corrupt put one’s own family at a serious disadvantage compared to others.

Summarising some of the responses, this means that, for example, when I have to pay a bribe, I do so because the system – which is external to me – is corrupt; there is thus no conflict with my own values, religious or otherwise, because I am only doing what is unfortunately necessary in this system to get by. On the other hand, the person sitting across the desk from me with his hand out for a bribe, or my neighbour who pays for unfair advantage, must not be ‘truly religious’, because they are demonstrating a clear lack of ethics.

In corruption terms, this is called ‘demand side’ and ‘supply side’ and is where position is important. Because the few are on the ‘demand side’ – those public officials who demand or accept bribes, embezzle public funds, or so on – it is easy for those who do not have similar positions to condemn them as being unethical and untrue to the tenets of their religious beliefs. However, because the many are on the ‘supply side’ – those who offer or give bribes, seek favour, and so on – more respondents were hesitant to condemn this behaviour as unethical and unreligious.

Corruption, religion and (lack of) trust

The sense that corruption is pervasive and widespread has led to a real lack of trust both in the state and in society more widely. Research on trust and religion shows that religion may be problematic in this sense, because religion helps build intra-group trust but not inter-group trust. Collective efforts from religious leaders cutting across religions and regions may be more helpful than looking to individual religious leaders or communities who may blame others within their community for corruption and create or escalate inter-group tensions.

In a country like Nigeria, where there is widespread religious competition and conflict along religious (and often also ethnic) lines, trying to enlist religious leaders in the fight against corruption could be extremely problematic. Leaders might use the same process of ‘othering’ to persuade their followers that being uncorrupt marks them out from corrupt ‘others’ in different religious traditions and communities, which could inflame existing tensions.

In a country like India, where there is a clear majority religion, this is less of a concern, but diffusion of religious messages on anti-corruption where there is no regular meeting place, no clear religious leadership, and no religious dogma would be very difficult, to say the least.

In either case, the ability of religious organisations to play a positive role in fighting corruption was seen as directly related to their own perceived or demonstrated ethical behaviour. There was a great deal of scepticism among respondents in both countries of religious organisations’ ability to play this role because there is so much evidence of corruption within religious organisations themselves.

Interestingly, in both countries respondents felt strongly that religion should make people less corrupt and certainly should impact upon their behaviour and attitudes but often see it as part of an overall ‘package’ of moral upbringing coming out of the family. There was a call for better values education – possibly but not always necessarily involving religious organisations, but that this needs to come early in life to have an impact.

India Against Corruption- Bangalore

India Against Corruption- Bangalore. Photo by Pushkar V.

Corruption and values in a globalised world

Values education would face stiff competition, however, from other messages in society that value material success: something strongly felt in both countries, particularly by our younger respondents. Blame for rampant corruption was put squarely on ‘consumerist’ and ‘materialistic’ aspects of modernisation and globalisation. In India, this was often called the ‘excessive “having more” syndrome’. Respondents evoked the times when flaunting wealth was considered bad behaviour and claimed that this was no longer the case. Indeed, in both countries there was a sense that people increasingly bragged about the scale of their own corruption in order to make themselves look successful.

People were said to indulge in corruption in the name of God or undertake to ‘make God a stakeholder in corruption’ by constructing temples or donating ill-gotten wealth to charity. Religious donations, rituals, and ceremonies were seen increasingly as ways to display wealth.

A director of an Anti-Corruption Bureau in India explained, ‘I definitely feel that this propensity to acquire more and more wealth, without bothering about the means of acquisition, is resulting in a tremendous amount of corruption in the society. This includes the competitive spirit, the demands made by young people from their parents or made by them on themselves to acquire wealth, and the general acceptance in the society of people with money, without looking into their professional accomplishments. That is contributing to a lot of corruption and permissiveness in society.’

Consumerism and ‘worshipping’ of wealth and material success were seen as the problem, but most respondents said that this was not the same thing as being ‘modern’. In India, certainly, being ‘modern’ is seen as being ‘progressive’ and ‘open’. You can be ‘modern’ while wearing traditional clothes, being religious, and living simply; conversely, you can be ‘traditional’ and live opulently and display wealth. Consumerism, in most of our respondents’ minds, was not linked to ‘modernity’ but to globalisation and liberalisation. As the latter is often prescribed as part of anti-corruption strategies, particularly in terms of breaking down ‘traditional’ kinship and patronage networks, this suggests that part of the ‘solution’ for corruption could also be part of the ‘problem’!

Most respondents called for a return to ‘simple living, high thinking’ as an antidote to hyper-consumerism and to hyper-corruption. It was argued that this is true for all faiths and in fact is not just true for the religious but is part of the ‘human condition’. If this is true, then a possible way forward for anti-corruption policymakers and activists may be to link corruption to other issues to do with the excesses of consumption, such as the environmental movement, and to the debate about over-spending and how it might have contributed to the current economic crisis. In both of these there is already a vocal and mobilised faith-based constituency (among others) that may lend its voice to the fight against global corruption. This may also provide the collective action solution to a collective action problem. However, when religious organisations themselves also look to gain wealth and project material success, and when people pray to God to make them richer and more successful, even this may prove difficult to achieve.

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