The Causes of Human Rights Violations (7): Corruption

comments 13
causes of human rights violations / governance / poverty



Forms of corruption

Corruption can take on many forms:

  • From limited competition when awarding government contracts to the setting up of wasteful mega-projects designed specifically for the corruption opportunities these can yield.
  • From small bribes by ordinary citizens “in order to get things done” to larger payments as a means to escape criminal justice.
  • From the nepotism of a father trying to get his children in a good school to outright kleptocracy (“rule by thieves”) infecting an entire government administration and political class.
  • etc.

However, it always means the use of governmental powers by government officials for illegitimate private gain.

Corruption in itself is not a human rights violation, and there is no right to live in a country that is not corrupt or that suffers no corruption. However, corruption does have consequences for human rights:

  • It harms the economy and can create or exacerbate poverty.
  • It destroys democratic government, even if it doesn’t take the very specific form of electoral corruption (hence it violates people’s political rights)
  • Corruption in the judiciary compromises the rule of law and the effective enforcement of human rights law.
  • etc.

Consequences of corruption

Corruption is anti-democratic :

  • Decisions do not reflect the will of the people but the private will of individuals or corporations who bribe elected or unelected government officials. Government policies serve individual interests rather than the public interest or the interest of the public.
  • Persons engaged in corruption are likely to inhibit the democratic systems that guarantee free flows of information. If these systems can be distorted, it becomes much more difficult to expose corruption, to hold officials accountable and to force them to justify their actions. Such actions can have disastrous consequence for freedom of speech in general.
  • Corruption also undermines the legitimacy of government and can lead to revolt and the outright destruction of democracy.

Corruption is economically unsound and unfair :

  • In a corrupt economy, resources tend to flow to those already in a position of power, while those at the bottom of the economy have to spend a part of their scarce resources on bribes.
  • Corrupt officials lay their hands on a part of the proceeds of natural resources and other sources of prosperity that should belong equally to the whole population.
  • Corrupt governments will be more inclined to set up grandiose but foolish and wasteful mega-projects, because this gives them more opportunities for corruption. They thereby divert public investment from sectors that need it more or that yield more benefits for ordinary citizens.
  • Corruption is a tax on investment, which hampers investment and economic growth. Especially the often all-important foreign investments (the import of technology and knowledge) diminish as corruption increases.
  • Corruption increases the cost of business.
  • It distorts the level playing field, giving an unfair advantage to firms with connections. These firms are perhaps not the most efficient but are propped up by corruption. As a result, the overall economy is not the most efficient.
  • It discourages people to start or expand businesses because potential profits are taken away.

The graph below shows the correlation between low levels of GDP and high levels of corruption (Corruption Perception Index, or CPI, of Transparency International):

corruption perception index and gdp transparency international

Here’s another study pointing to the same conclusions:

gdp and corruption


In 2004, the global cost of corruption was estimated at $1 trillion a year.

Causes of corruption

  • Lack of transparency and free flows of information
  • Lack of a free press
  • Lack of government accountability through a system of democratic elections
  • Inability of civil society or NGO’s to monitor the government
  • Weak rule of law
  • Incentives, such as poverty or low wages
  • Unclear rules of behavior for government officials
  • Resource curse
  • “Old boy networks”
  • etc.

Pervasiveness of corruption

There is corruption everywhere in the world, but some countries perform better than others. This is the country ranking of the CPI (Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International) in 2007:

transparency corruption world map 2007

The CPI measures the degree to which corruption is perceived to exist among public officials and politicians. High numbers indicate relatively less corruption, whereas lower numbers indicate relatively more corruption.


  • Clear rules on what is admissible behavior rather than broad or poorly defined powers
  • Rule of law, law enforcement
  • Eliminate incentives (proper wages)
  • Employee training, competence
  • Free press
  • Democratic accountability




  1. Pingback: Human Rights Facts (53): Good Governance « P.A.P. Blog - Politics, Art and Philosophy

  2. Pingback: Human Rights Maps (2): Pervasiveness of Corruption « P.A.P. Blog - Politics, Art and Philosophy

  3. Pingback: Human Rights Facts (5b): Poverty, Types, Causes, and Measurement « P.A.P. Blog - Politics, Art and Philosophy

  4. Pingback: Corruption Is As Corruption Does : Compatible Creatures - War & Politics & Life

  5. Pingback: Human Rights Facts (15): Foreign Debt « P.A.P. Blog - Politics, Art and Philosophy

  6. Pingback: What is Democracy? (24): Vote Buying « P.A.P. Blog - Politics, Art and Philosophy

  7. Pingback: Marx, Democracy and Human Rights, Ctd. « P.A.P. Blog - Politics, Art and Philosophy

  8. Pingback: Measuring Poverty (4): The Problem of the Definition of Poverty « P.A.P. Blog – Human Rights Etc.

  9. Pingback: Human Rights Facts (165): The Impact of Remittances on Global Poverty « P.A.P. Blog – Human Rights Etc.

  10. Pingback: The Economic Case against Democracy and Human Rights « P.A.P. Blog – Human Rights Etc.

  11. Pingback: Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (3): The Resource Curse? « P.A.P. Blog – Human Rights Etc.

  12. John Smyth says

    This was a great exposition on a topic that never seems to get the traction it deserves. One common mistake we make is to tolerate and excuse corruption as normal. Today’s Wall Street Journal (April 21, 2010) showed how groups of drivers in Moscow use motorcades to embarrass corrupt members of their society. Most of the time, where there is a will to oppose corrupt activity, there is a way.
    The estimate of $1 trillion per year for cost has to be way too low. Corruption makes it harder to build, to invest in a community, to employ people, to predict outcomes, to trust in fair treatment by the powers that be. I would estimate that costs over $1Trillion a year in India alone.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s