Twenty years ago, corruption was still largely a taboo issue when it came to discussing development challenges. Since then, a remarkable change has occurred.
In 2010, a BBC News poll found that corruption was the most talked about issue in the world. A few years earlier, in 2005, the United Nations Conventions Against Corruption (UNCAC) had come into force, representing a global consensus that corruption could not be ignored.
Rather, it has to be tackled head on to stop it from "["¦] diverting funds intended for development, undermining a government's ability to provide basic services, feeding inequality and injustice and discouraging foreign aid and investment" as then UN Secretary Kofi Annan wrote in the foreword to the convention.
In Vietnam, the Communist Party and the government have repeatedly recognized corruption as a major impediment to the country's development. In 2005, the Law on Preventing and Combating Corruption was passed. Since then, Vietnam has signed and ratified UNCAC and the National Anti-Corruption Strategy Towards 2020 stipulates a clear objective to prevent and gradually eliminate corruption.
But how much has changed in people's daily lives? Unfortunately, it seems that too few concrete improvements have occurred. This risks fuels growing public skepticism and apathy, making it even more difficult to reduce corruption. Transparency International's 2013 Global Corruption Barometer (GCB), the largest worldwide survey of citizen views and experiences of corruption shows how urgent the problem has become and what can be done about it. For Vietnam, the data highlights the need to encourage and increase citizen engagement to tackle corruption effectively.
Globally, one in four people paid a bribe last year. The police, judiciary, registry and land services top the list of the most affected sectors. In Vietnam, 30 percent of the respondents reported having paid a bribe, mostly to the traffic police, the health system and for land services. In effect, the institutions that are key to safeguarding people's livelihoods and well-being are the ones most affected by corruption.
This echoes the findings of the latest Governance and Public Administration Performance Index (PAPI) study and the 2012 survey of citizens', firms' and officials' views of corruption by the Government Inspectorate and the World Bank. These results are not to be taken lightly.
Bribes can put people's lives at risk, for example when they undercut safety regulations. Corruption in land management hits poorer parts of the population in particular. In education and health, it threatens to undermine equal access to and the quality of public services that are key to Vietnam's future development.
The problem is clearly serious, and the data indicates the need for bolder and more broad-based efforts. Confidence among Vietnam's urban residents in the effectiveness of government's anti-corruption efforts has declined significantly between 2010 and 2013, dropping from 36 percent to 21 percent.
At the same time, people now appear to feel less empowered than a few years ago to resist corruption. In 2010, 68 percent of urban respondents said that ordinary people can make a difference in fighting corruption; this figure has now fallen to 42 percent. Does this mean that there is no hope to overcome bribery and stop the damage it is causing to society? Absolutely not, but it is critical to reverse the trend towards indifference by demonstrating clear results and by increasing people's ability to contribute to change.
Government and citizens both have important roles to play to stop corruption. When asked about their views on priorities for action, Vietnamese respondents cite the sanctioning of perpetrators, improving the integrity of public officials, and better protection of victims, witnesses and whistleblowers. This spells out an ambitious program for policy-makers and public officials. There is also a need to deliver concrete results by increasing transparency and accountability in the sectors where bribery is a daily experience for people. If citizens can access public services in a timely manner without paying bribes and reported wrongdoing is addressed, trust in the effectiveness of anti-corruption efforts can be regained.
Yet, citizens can play another role refusing corruption wherever possible. Of the Southeast Asian countries surveyed in our report, Vietnam and Indonesia, at 13 percent share the second lowest percentage of people saying that they have been asked to pay a bribe. However, while 71 percent of Indonesians go on to say that they refused to pay a bribe at least once, only 27 percent of Vietnamese report ever having done so.
It is necessary to better understand why so few people in Vietnam refuse to pay bribes. In our survey, one indication is that urban respondents increasingly see bribes as the only way to obtain a service. In healthcare, this can mean access to lifesaving treatment.
Yet, some people do not pay bribes and not everybody accepts bribes. In the short time that I have worked in Vietnam, I have heard various stories from people who refuse to offer envelopes for routine government services, even though others might. When asked about the consequences, a typical answer was "I had to wait longer," which resonates with similar responses given in our survey.
But are there enough such positive stories yet? Our survey finds that in Vietnam 50 percent of bribes are paid to either "speed things up" or to "get a cheaper service." Not all bribes are paid because they are required. Some are offered only in the interest of those who pay them, while others suffer because they are not willing or unable to bribe.
It is ultimately the government's job to set and enforce rules to sanction those who pay for unfair advantages or to bend the rules. But everyone can encourage integrity by saying no to corruption, and by encouraging colleagues, friends and family to act with integrity.
If corruption is indeed one of the most talked about issues in the world today, it is important what people are saying about it. Calling the problem by its name was a major step forward and remains important. The next challenge is to overcome cynicism and acceptance that corruption has become the norm. Inspiring stories about people who say no to corruption and clear evidence of results will make a more positive contribution.
The majority of people around the world believe that they can make a difference against corruption. If governments give people the tools and protection they need to do it and if people use these, the most talked about issue in a future global poll might be how corruption has been stopped.
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By Conrad Zellmann *
*The writer is the deputy executive director of Towards Transparency, the National Contact of Transparency International (TI) in Vietnam. The opinions expressed are his own.