Why do we collude with corruption when it costs us billions of shillings?

A culture of entitlement has led to State capture of lives, means to livelihoods and projects, and a lack of accountability by those in power

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By Kevin Motaroki

“When I was growing up, I always felt my father didn’t know how to do things “easily”, and I actually lacked respect for him because I found that every time we were in a difficult situation, he would take the difficult road. He wouldn’t give bribes… He didn’t know how to do it. I just couldn’t understand him, as a child, and when I compared him with other parents, who gave money to get things done, I wondered, ‘why can’t he just do it?’ I didn’t understand until very late in life that my father abhorred corruption, and found it really difficult to ‘buy’ people… He could not, or did not know, how to play the game.”

In an age where “bites”, “tea” or “sweetener” – euphemisms for bribe – are a way of life, it is difficult for anyone who refuses to give bribes to get things done, or even access some basic services.

Research by the University of Buckingham estimates that 1.6 billion people globally have to pay bribes just to access everyday public services. Why do so many people collude in corruption, rather than resist it? What moral calculations do we make when we engage in bribery?

While the commonest allusions to bribery range between several hundreds to thousands, bribery, a form of corruption, and just like it, exists in much larger scales. The system, according to a report by the BBC, is built to “ask no questions.” Over time, it has become normal not to query bribery.

“There are two ways of defining corruption,” according to Professor Eleanor Pippidy, who designs anti-bribery projects for governments around the world. “One is to define it at an individual level, where the social norm is integrity, with corruption being deviation from the norm, and another is to define it as systemic, as a widespread social practice, which means whoever is powerful takes more than his/her due share of public resources.”

Research by the campaign group Transparency International shows the scale of the problem: there are more than 120 countries presently, where corruption is the norm, and integrity the exception. In most countries, to get work done, one needs some form of connection; one who lacks that connection bribes to get served.

Social psychologists say people often engage in corruption because they think others are engaged in it. This sort of belief can become a vicious cycle so that even where people would prefer not to bribe, they consider themselves individually well-off if they engage in corruption themselves. Such a narrative can lead people to rationalise their own corrupt behaviour – people do what they can justify. 

A lot of people describe the situation as something that requires some savviness- being clever or cunning – and often use refrains such as, “it was clever to do it.” Those who don’t engage in bribery describe the situation in moral terms – right or wrong.

Research by the University of Buckingham suggests that 1.6 billion people globally pay bribes just to access everyday, public services. At the same time, according to TI, in 120 countries, corruption is the norm and integrity the exception.

Getting ahead

If one schooled in an institution where they got ahead by paying teachers – say to get better grades – the question of whether one does get ahead by engaging in corruption does shape worldviews from very early on. Their experiences of “better results” through bribery erode the idea of fairness.

Corruption is not an act one undertakes individually; when we engage in it, we are creating a network of people who expect favours from each other. If you have benefitted from corruption, then your social network is likely to expect a similar favour back from you. 

When younger people see that corruption helps one get ahead, then they are more likely to behave so themselves, when they have an opportunity to; this perpetuates the problem within society.

When society tells us that a given behaviour is okay, then we stop caring about whether or how it happens. When we fail to consider something as illegal – often because consequences are lacking – we stop caring if it is immoral.

According to psychologists, when the we think of our unethical behaviour as ‘benefitting’ others, we come to think of our conduct as morally acceptable. We even might think of ourselves as altruistic. (

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