Corruption: 10 Possible Causes

Transparency International annually publishes its Corruption Perception Index. It includes a range of countries, from the least corrupt to those with the most widespread corruption. There are too many countries with a low grade.

Why is it that in some countries not only the perception, but actual cases are on the rise? I believe there is probably a variety of independent causes of corruption. Identifying those causes is the first step toward implementing steps to prevent and deter the phenomenon.

Corruption: 10 Possible Causes
Corruption Perception Index 2013, form Transparency International. Click to enlarge.

I would like to throw out 10 possible causes, and raise a number of questions for consideration:

  1. Personal greed that leads to an unfettered desire for money or power, with no regard whatsoever to moral boundaries. The underlying anthropological cause is the innate human impulse to own external goods, when it is not subject to personal integrity. Is personal integrity less valued than it used to be? Is there a need for religious or other types of motivation that were once stronger?
  2. Decline of personal ethical sensitivity, either due to lack of education or negative learning experiences, developed by downplaying perverse conduct in the past. Should ethical education be put under review? Is it time for a personal reassessment with sincerity and repentance, to learn more about its influence in promoting positive learning?
  3. No sense of service when working in public or private institutions. This is seen, for instance, in those who use politics for their selfish interests, instead of serving the common good through politics. How can we promote politicians and leaders with a true service-oriented spirit?
  4. Low awareness or lack of courage to denounce corrupt behavior and situations conducive to corruption. That is the case of someone who is aware of corruption and stays quiet. They simply cover for the corrupt individuals, perhaps thinking that it is not their problem, or perhaps out of cowardice, so as not to make their lives more complicated. Would it help to promote a culture of denouncing corruption?
  5. Cultural environments that condone corruption. Such as defending or even admiring crooks (“you have to be pretty smart to evade taxes”). Or rationalizing false arguments with no moral basis (“everyone does it”; “take advantage while you can”; “life is short”). Who ought to promote that culture? Social leaders? Everyone?
  6. Lack of transparency, especially at the institutional level, but also in less formal organizations. Knowing that what you do is seen by everyone, wouldn’t that deter acts of corruption?
  7. Regulations and inefficient controls. Increased regulations and control mechanisms are probably not the answer. They are costly and tend to stifle initiatives and administrative dynamics. But why not have better regulation and more effective control in areas prone to corruption. Is that so difficult?
  8. Slow judicial processes. In some other countries, we would have to add “and unreliable” to that statement. Swift processes can have a greater exemplifying effect than those that, by the time the sentence comes, the crime already is nearly forgotten. Justice requires appealing processes and warranties, but not if it means slowing down the administration of justice. Do we need more judges, but also better processes?
  9. Lack of moral criteria in promotions. Corruption is prevalent when there are no criteria for proven integrity and responsibility in the promotion. Such criteria are ignored when someone is promoted simply because of their loyalty to whoever is in charge or those in control of the party. Or if it is only their strategic or organizational skills that are evaluated. Obviously, someone can be wrong when making a promoting someone, but there should be no problem distinguishing between a simple mistake and culpable ignorance due to negligence or a lack of ethical assessment. Is it an issue of ethical shortsightedness?
  10. Downplaying or reacting mildly to corruption charges. Little power of decision within organizations to penalize acts of corruption to set examples creates an environment conducive to perpetuating corruption.

In sum, there are various reasons — personal (1 to 4), cultural (5, 6), institutional (7, 8) and organizational (9 and 10) — applicable, on a greater or lesser scale, to different cultural and geographical environments. And we can clearly see that a proper diagnosis of the causes will bolster the fight against corruption.


Domènec Melé is professor in the Department of Business Ethics at IESE and the holder of the Chair of Business Ethics at IESE. He earned his doctorate in Industrial Engineering from the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya and his Ph.D. in Theology from the University of Navarra. In addition, he holds a degree in chemistry from the Universitat de Barcelona. Over the last 20 years, Prof. Melé has researched and written extensively on the areas of business ethics, business in society and Catholic Social Thought.


3 thoughts on “Corruption: 10 Possible Causes

  1. A key report and analysis to understand how corruption actually prevents any growth strategy to succeed both in emerging and developed economies. As long as leaders will fight for themselves and ethics remain a secondary option, we have very few chances to bring help to those who critically need it. We should bring back ethics at the heart of policies and development.

  2. The are 2 group of factors that cause and promote corruption: direct and indirect factors. Direct factors are:
    – Regulations and authorizations (regulations in contacts between citizens and bureaucrats);
    – Taxation;
    – Spending decisions;
    – Provision for goods and services at below market prices;
    – Financing of parties;
    Indirect factors:
    – Quality of the bureaucracy;
    – Level of public sector wages;
    – Penalty systems;
    – Institutional controls;
    – transparency of rules and laws, etc.

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