Why Do Mongolians View Corruption as Acceptable?

I finally got around to reading the USAID’s report, Mongolia: Trends in Corruption Attitudes. Here are a few tidbits from the report:

  • 90 percent of the public reports that corruption is common
  • The higher the income the greater the reported inclination and incidence of bribe paying
  • Respondents claiming that some corruption is acceptable increased from 14.3 percent to 19.5 percent – almost one-fourth of the population.
  • Those who make more money have a greater inclination to pay bribes
  • Teachers, doctors, and civil administrators are the top three recipients of bribes, with bribes to teachers making up 39.3 percent of reported incidents

The USAID report helps put some concrete to what was already known – Mongolia is a society steeped in corruption. The report helps to shatter at least one myth about corruption, and also sets off a loud alarm about Mongolia’s future.

First, there is a long-held myth that corruption, or the need to engage in corruption is primarily facilitated by poverty (or in the worldview of some: suffering). Low income and high unemployment, it is thought, are the primary motivator for bribe-paying and taking. Yet the report would seem to indicate something more sinister. According to the report, when it comes to recognizing corruption in its various forms, Mongolia citizens know what they are facing. “Not surprisingly, the higher the income and the better the education, the greater the awareness. And as unsurprisingly, the higher the income the greater the reported inclination and incidence of bribe paying” (“Awareness and Understanding,,” Page 2). It might be argued that it is only natural for those with higher income to pay more bribes because they are more often targeted as having more money. Yet the report also indicates quite clearly those who have a higher standard of living also have, “The higher the inclination to pay a bribe to overcome regulation and bureaucracy, and to accept corruption” (Ibid, Emphasis mine). The fact of the matter is that according to the report, nearly 20 percent of the population views “some degree of corruption” as “acceptable.”

Rising income, status, and quality of life, it seems, have not done anything to stem the tide of corruption. One would think that if poverty or suffering facilitated corruption that getting out of poverty would weaken or eliminate it. The trends show otherwise. Poverty and suffering are not the cause of the corruption problem. It’s more basic than that, which I will address shortly.

Second, it is hard to see how Mongolia will be able to successfully battle corruption when those who hold the responsibility for raising, nurturing, and protecting the next generation routinely practice it. When westerners living in the west think of corruption they usually think of government agencies, elected officials, etc. And while Mongolians also think of such people as synonymous with corruption, on a practical day-to-day level they report having to pay bribes most often to teachers (39.3%), doctors (37.6%), government clerks (34.1%), and policemen (22.7%) in that order. If teachers who are training our children are among the most corrupt, then what can be expected of the next generation? Worse yet, Mongolians report paying bribes to teachers because they have “no choice.” Don’t pay the bribe and your kid will be flunked, or suffer other setbacks. If teachers are giving parents “no choice” but to pay bribes like a form of educational protection money, then one can’t help but wonder what kids are learning from these same corrupt educators.

Mongolians face a two-fold problem. They are vulnerable to the most corrupt who hold the power of the services they so desperately need, but they also give corruption a free pass, with an increasing number of people believing that corruption in some form is “acceptable.” Add to this that greater affluence does nothing to solve corruption, but only presents more opportunities to exercise corruption’s evil, and you wind up with a society so steeped in corruption that only something radical has any hope of changing the status quo. Some thought that passage of Mongolia’s new anti-corruption laws would make a dent, but the statistics indicate otherwise.

A friend of mine regularly repeats a rule he applies to his business: “You can never make a good deal with a bad person, and you can never make a bad deal with a good person.” How simple, and how true! Good people, that is, people with good character do not need a set of rules or guidelines to enable good behavior. And rules and guidelines won’t necessarily prevent bad behavior (though they can have a helpful restraining influence). No one ever had to pass a law to prevent a good man from doing the right thing.

Mongolia’s efforts at implementing anti-corruption legislation are good. A good law is like a dog, it needs a set of sharp teeth. But if the person holding the leash lacks good character, the law can often be unleashed with bad results. Worse yet, it may simply be left in a cage.

Mongolian society has primarily been informed by the worldviews of Atheism and Buddhism; but they don’t seem to be able to affect the kind of character in society that makes corruption a source of personal shame. If these worldviews actually had that ability, then one would expect with such a long history here that corruption’s acceptability would not be on the rise. The same is true in other nations primarily informed by these worldviews.

The Scriptures regard corruption as sin – a moral problem. This means that corruption happens first and foremost because the heart of man is naturally corrupt and wicked. We have a natural propensity to want to do the wrong thing – especially if we think we will benefit from it. The affluent and the common are equally corrupt, though the corruption of the affluent tends to have wider and deeper effects. Since we are all corrupt people, societal corruption cannot be finally solved with the band-aids of new regulations and punishments. They can help put up a few roadblocks, but they can’t prevent the driver from looking for a new route. They cannot solve the problem. Corruption can only be solved when people make a personal decision that corruption is so morally offensive that they will not participate in it at any cost. When we view corruption as personally offensive and destructive to personal character, then we will take pains to avoid it and consistently condemn it in deeds as well as words instead of the situation we have now – excusing it and finally accepting it as so much of Mongolian society seems to have done.

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