Although there is no single agreed-upon definition of corruption, it is widely accepted that it involves the abuse of entrusted power for private gain by individuals or institutions in the public and private sectors. Corruption has negative effects on all levels of society and risks resulting in resources being unfairly distributed and public funds being misallocated. This can lead to reduced public confidence in government and the justice system. Corruption is also a threat to human rights and undermines the rule of law, democracy, and economic development.
Corruption can take many forms linked to different types of behavior, such as bribery, embezzlement, nepotism, extortion, kickbacks, money laundering, fraud, and conflicts of interest.
Bribery: Accepting Something in Exchange for a Favour
If you give someone something of value, such as money, gifts, or favors, to make someone with power or authority do something for you or decide something in your favor, you are engaged in bribery.
Asking for or receiving something in exchange for undertaking an action or making a decision in favor of someone is also bribery. It is a form of corruption that can occur in various contexts, such as in politics, business, and public services, and can have significant negative impacts on fair competition, public trust, and the rule of law.
Example: Imagine a construction company bidding on a contract to build a new government office building. The company’s owner meets with a government official in charge of awarding the contract and offers them a substantial sum of money in exchange for ensuring that the contract is awarded to their company. The official agrees to the bribe and ensures that the contract is awarded to the construction company, even if it is not the most qualified bidder.
Embezzlement: Misplacing, Stealing, or Misusing funds
Using your position, as an employee, trustee, or public official, for your own benefit, such as diverting funds, is an example of embezzlement. It is a financial fraud and a form of corruption that occurs when a person entrusted with someone else’s money or property steals it. Examples of embezzlement include falsifying financial records, creating fake invoices, or diverting money to personal accounts. It is considered a serious crime in many countries and jurisdictions and can result in criminal charges and severe penalties, including fines and imprisonment.
Example: Imagine a finance manager at a company who has access to the company’s bank accounts. The manager begins to siphon off funds from the company’s accounts into their own personal account, slowly over time. They use this money to pay off personal debts and fund their lifestyle. Over time, the amount they have embezzled grows larger and larger, but they continue to cover up their tracks by altering financial records and bank statements.
Nepotism: Favouring Family
Favoring your family members or friends (also referred to as cronyism) by giving them jobs or positions of power that they are not qualified for is nepotism. Nepotism, another form of corruption, can occur in different contexts, such as politics, business, and public services.
It risks reducing transparency and accountability and can work against diversity, creating unfair meritocracies. As such, it undermines fair competition and can lead to inefficiency in different ways.
Example: Imagine a company where the CEO is also the owner’s son. The CEO decides to hire their cousin for a high-level position in the company, despite the fact that the cousin may not be the most qualified candidate. The CEO’s cousin is given benefits, such as a higher salary and better perks, simply because they are related to the CEO.
Extortion: Using Threats to Get Something
If you hurt, threat someone, use blackmail or other ways of intimidating someone to get something, you are using extortion. In many countries and jurisdictions, this it is considered a crime.
Extortion can appear in organised crime, political corruption, and business dealings. Extortion threatens the social order of a society and have substantial negative impacts on individuals; from financial losses to emotional trauma.
Example: Imagine a small business owner who runs a local restaurant. One day, a group of thugs comes into the restaurant and threatens the owner, telling them that they will burn down the restaurant if the owner does not pay them a large sum of money each month for “protection.” The owner, afraid of losing their business, agrees to pay the money.
Kickbacks: Getting Rewards
If in order to secure an undue favour, service or business contract you get illegal payments or rewards, such as regular payoffs, you are using kickbacks, a type of bribery.
Kickbacks can be cash, gifts, or other benefits. They are typically used to influence the decisions of individuals; people who have the authority to grant contracts or approve payments. Kickbacks are illegal in many countries and jurisdictions.
Kickbacks can easily lead to unfair competition, lower levels of transparency and accountability. It is usually also a waste of resources. Also, this form of corruption often impacts public trust, and the rule of law negatively.
Example: Imagine a healthcare provider who is responsible for purchasing medical supplies for their hospital. A medical supply company offers the provider a kickback in the form of a percentage of the sales if they agree to purchase a large quantity of supplies from that company, even if the supplies are overpriced or not the best quality. The provider agrees to the kickback and recommends the supply company to the hospital, even if there are other suppliers that may offer better products at a lower price.
This type of kickback is illegal and can result in criminal charges for both the person offering the kickback and the person accepting it.
Money Laundering: Making Illegal Funds Come Across as Legal
If you are trying to disguise the origins of money or assets that are obtained illegally by making them appear as if they were obtained legally, you are engaging in money laundering. Money laundering is a complex process that involves hiding the true source of illegal funds by transferring them through a series of transactions and financial instruments to make them appear legitimate. This is often done to avoid detection and to integrate the illegal funds into the legitimate financial system.
Money laundering is commonly associated with organized crime, drug trafficking, corruption, and other illegal activities. It can have serious consequences, including undermining the integrity of the financial system, facilitating further criminal activities, and eroding public trust.
Example: Imagine a corrupt politician who receives bribes from various sources in exchange for awarding government contracts to certain companies. To conceal the illegal proceeds, the politician sets up shell companies and offshore bank accounts to transfer the bribes and make them appear as legitimate business transactions. The politician then uses the laundered funds to purchase properties, luxury goods, and other assets, creating a facade of legitimate wealth.
Fraud: Deception for Personal Gain
Fraud involves deceiving others for personal gain. It can occur in various forms, such as financial fraud, tax fraud, insurance fraud, and investment fraud, among others. Fraudulent activities can be committed by individuals, organizations, or even governments, and often involve misrepresenting or manipulating information for personal or financial gain.
Fraud can have serious consequences, including financial losses for victims, erosion of trust in institutions and markets, and legal repercussions for perpetrators. It is considered a form of corruption when it involves abusing entrusted power for personal gain.
Example: Imagine a financial advisor who misleads their clients by providing false information about investment opportunities to encourage them to invest in fraudulent schemes. The financial advisor takes a commission or a percentage of the invested funds as their personal gain, while the clients suffer financial losses when the fraudulent schemes collapse.
Conflict of Interest: Misusing authority for personal gain
Conflict of interest occurs when an individual or an organization has competing interests that could compromise their ability to act in the best interests of others or fulfill their duties objectively and impartially. It often involves situations where personal, financial, or other interests could influence decision-making or actions in a way that benefits the individual or organization, rather than the best interests of those they serve.
Conflict of interest can be particularly problematic in public sector roles, where individuals are entrusted with making decisions on behalf of the public. It can lead to biased decision-making, favoritism, and abuse of power for personal gain, undermining the integrity of institutions and eroding public trust.
Example: Imagine a government official who is responsible for awarding contracts for road construction projects. The official also owns a construction company and awards contracts to their own company or to companies owned by their family members, despite there being more qualified and competitive bidders. This is a conflict of interest as the official is using their position for personal gain, compromising the fairness and transparency of the procurement process.
Corruption comes in many shapes and forms, and it can have serious consequences for societies, economies, and individuals.
Whether it is bribery, embezzlement, nepotism, extortion, kickbacks, money laundering, fraud, or conflict of interest, corruption undermines the rule of law, democracy, and economic development. It erodes public trust, distorts competition, and misallocates resources, resulting in unfair distribution of benefits and disadvantages.
Combatting corruption requires strong legal frameworks, transparent institutions, and a culture of accountability and integrity at all levels of society.
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Morten Koch Andersen
Morten Koch Andersen holds a PhD in International Development Studies from Roskilde University. His research interests are in the fields of human rights documentation, rule of law practices, public authority, corruption, torture and violence, impunity and discretion, and unequal citizenship.
He specializes in the interdisciplinary study of the nexus between corruption, human rights and development, mainly in South Asia.
The key questions of his research are, the paradoxes and dilemmas in:
- The interactions between violent political organizations and their members.
- The effects on impunity on individuals, institutions, and society?
- The motivational aspects of choice making in corruption.
He has several years of experience as programme manager of development cooperation in relation to prevention of torture and rehabilitation of survivors – during and after violent conflict, and in places of detention. I have worked on institutional and legal reform, establishments of support systems, education of health and legal professionals, and of prison and police authorities. He has managed partnership collaborations in Europe, North, South and West Africa.
Currently, he advises national human rights institutes, anti-corruption institutes and universities on the relationships between corruption and human rights, and their implications for institutions, individuals and societies, in Africa, Asia and Caucasus.
He has previously been guest researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, senior researcher at the Danish Institute Against Torture. Currently, he is affiliated researcher at the Center for Global Criminology at University of Copenhagen, external lecturer in Global Studies at Roskilde University and teaches at the International Anti-Corruption Academy.
He has worked with the UNODC on the development of educational material on the nexus between human rights and corruption, and developed web-based educational material on corruption and human rights, and violent mobilization for high school education.
For further updates on his research, please refer to his Research profile: