Petty graft pervades society
by Thu Huong Le
The domestic media of-ten grapples over major corruption cases that deal with huge amounts of money and involve high-ranking officials, such as the PMU 18 scandal.
While such headline-grabbing stories must be reported, petty corruption has not received the same level of attention compared to the "big fish".
Sure, the media has talked about the practice of giving envelopes in hospitals, schools and elsewhere, but a recent report released by the United Nations Development Programme in Viet Nam last week put petty corruption in perspective.
A nationwide survey called the Provincial Governance and Public Administration Performance Index (PAPI) 2011 suggested that a typical Vietnamese person pays on average VND7.5 million (US$366) per year in bribes, an amount seven times higher than the current minimum wage.
Considering the country's growing population of 86 million, petty corruption might not seem so petty anymore if we think about the money blown away on small-scale bribes every year.
Giving envelopes here has become so common that we very often consider it "normal." The PAPI just reconfirms that petty corruption is a systematic error.
It reconfirms that it is hard to walk a straight road here.
Among the 13,600 citizens polled for the survey, 31 per cent considered paying a bribe crucial in receiving adequate medical care and reportedly paid between VND5 million ($240) to VND30 million ($1,430) in medical bribes each year.
Nearly 30 per cent admitted to paying bribes to secure employment in the public sector and others in applying for land use rights or for their children to receive better treatment in schools.
A third of those polled said they had been evicted from their land, but only 9 per cent said they had received compensation close to market value.
The complexity of reducing petty corruption, considered a national disease, touches on many intertwined aspects of the system: administrative reforms, salary and remuneration policies, inflation, education and a stricter, more transparent legal system. Therefore, it cannot be dealt overnight.
Last month, the Government reported it had simplified more than 2,800 administrative procedures in the first quarter. The number was impressive, but burdensome administrative procedures continue to be the prime engine that drives petty corruption.
Besides announcing that administrative procedures have been cut or simplified, efforts must be made toward non-paper transactions, monitoring the performance of civil servants in handling resident requests and complaints, perhaps through public cameras, and punishing those who accept envelopes in exchange for promises of faster service.
We can prevent local-level officials and those who handle administrative procedures from asking for bribes if they know the risk of being caught and paying fines is not worth it.
Salary and remuneration policies must be performance-based. Many would be deterred from receiving bribes if they were not so overloaded by thousands of requests on a daily basis. With high inflation driving up the cost of even the most basic necessities, it is hard for officers at lower levels to stay clean with a monthly salary of a couple of million dong.
Petty corruption cannot be avoided in overcrowded classrooms and hospitals because it is common sense for people to want faster services and better treatment. For that to stop, no anti-corruption campaign would work unless we put forth more resources to release the stress on central hospitals and increase the salaries for school teachers.
Education and a stricter legal and judicial system are also necessary. Children need to learn about petty corruption in classrooms. A stricter legal and judicial system must punish those at the top who wither away millions of dollars, setting an example for those at lower level. People who receive bribes worth a couple of hundred of thousand dong would be made to feel their acts were not worth their while.
In addition, private sector development should be encouraged to share the burden of providing services such as healthcare and education. When service providers are concentrated in one hand, the drive for petty corruption is inevitably higher.
Obviously, petty corruption is not confined to Viet Nam alone. In 2008, the UNDP released a report titled "Tackling Corruption, Transforming Lives" which said that petty corruption was a massive drain on Asia's economic growth and hits the poor hardest.
Small-scale corruption limited poor Asians' access to education and basic health services, contributing to high infant mortality rates and locking people into cycles of poverty.
Therefore, while we have been proud of our improvements in reducing the poverty rate, petty corruption is draining away the poor's basic services.
If the system creates a space for corruption to flourish, then we will never reach sustainable growth. Currently, even the most upright of people have to learn the art simply to survive. — VNS