//Using religion to dent corruption : C. Gopinath

Using religion to dent corruption : C. Gopinath

Perhaps the way to make an impact on corruption in society is to be able to argue that eschewing bribery is part of the package of ‘good behaviour’ that is expected from the devotee. Pope Benedict XVI, the head of the Catholic Church, paid a visit to Angola and other countries in Africa during March. In his speeches, he made the usual appeals for more human rights, eradication of poverty, and also took a stand against corruption. He called on the people and government to ‘excise corruption once and for all’ in Angola and in the various countries he visited.

Angola is a developing country of about 20 million, and has the usual characteristics of most developing countries. Although blessed with natural resources and oil wealth, almost two-thirds of the people live on less than $2 (Rs 100) a day, with a government-business elite cornering all the wealth. But Angola is also deeply religious, with over 60 per cent devoutly Catholic, and is also among the group of countries that Transparency International considers amongst the most corrupt. Can a religious leader’s appeal make a dent on corruption?

Corruption is like a virus in society. It keeps showing up in all countries but if not kept in check, it can slowly cause a collapse of all systems that are required for modern societies to function. Most countries try to fight corruption legally by passing laws that make bribe giving and taking illegal. However, implementation is weak in many, few cases are brought to court, and there is also the problem of procuring reliable evidence.
Misallocation of resources

Economists have long argued that corruption leads to misallocation of resources; that is, investments go into areas that have lesser priority or funds are spent ineffectively, because a pay-off has mis-directed them. Some have argued that widespread corruption can cost a nation as much as 1 to 2 per cent of its annual growth rate. Businessmen have always been rather ambivalent towards corruption, treating it as a cost of doing business. The social effects of corruption have also been severe; it causes lack of trust in leadership, there is suspicion of all decisions, politicians are held in contempt, while cynicism begins to impact relationships.

What about religion? Do religious leaders have a role to play in combating the virus? Religion comes into consideration when we consider the moral dimension of bribery. Bribery causes inequities and hence is widely accepted as a ‘wrong thing’ to do, like telling lies.

Most religions have ethical and moral prescriptions for their followers, and perhaps they can be harnessed to provide a solution to corruption. After all, religious leaders are advising people on how they should lead their lives, how to show love and compassion, eschew ostentation, and so on. But if we just look at India and Italy, countries where people who hold strong religious beliefs, they are also societies where the scourge of corruption is quite widely prevalent.
Wide variety of motivations

The problem is that people follow a religion arising out of a wide variety of motivations. One taxonomy would categorise these motivations as intrinsic and extrinsic. For instance, the intrinsic reasons for following a religion would be the religion itself, where it is seen as a good thing to do, and provides a level of satisfaction. An extrinsic reason for following a religion could be for the benefits it brings, such as satisfying social needs. Most often, there is a combination of the two.

Another motivation could be whether the follower is looking for ‘this worldly’ or ‘other worldly’ benefits. Thus, if the follower is looking to understand what is going to happen to him after this life, then he may downplay admonitions of how he should behave here and now.

Thus, the link between religion and ethical or moral behaviour is weak and needs work to make religious appeals effective. While it may be spectacularly successful, it is difficult to arrange a thunderbolt from heaven to strike down the devotee when he commits a transgression. A strong case needs to be made to bring corruption within the scope of religious impact.

A friend’s recent experience is informative. An official had demanded a bribe for granting permission for some urgently needed sewage work to be done in my friend’s house. With no other recourse, and at his wits end, he went to the official’s office one morning to hand over the money. He was early and the official arrived soon after. When my friend hurriedly offered the envelope to get it over with, the official smiled warmly, asked my friend to wait, and then proceeded to pay obeisance to all the pictures of gods on the wall behind his desk.

Once done, he offered my friend some of the prasad and then settled down to commence his daily business which included receiving the envelope! He clearly perceived no conflict between his behaviour and his beliefs.

Tendency for self-deception

Psychologists provide us another explanation for human behaviour that can have an impact on this situation. The reason, they say, is the individual’s tendency to comfortably engage in self-deception. People often declare their intent to behave more ethically than they actually do. And after the event, they believe they actually behaved more ethically than they did.

And for some, the ‘everyone does it’ justification can serve to reduce their perception that bribery is a serious ethical violation. We also see this situation in organisations where codes of ethics and ethics training for employees have not eliminated unethical behaviour.

Perhaps the way to make an impact on corruption in society is to be able to argue that eschewing bribery is part of the package of ‘good behaviour’ that is expected from the devotee, along with love, compassion and so on, that will bring peace on earth and hopefully a better afterlife. That is where the appeal of the Pope and other religious leaders can make an impact.

We see millions of the devout in India glued to their television sets where almost every channel has a programme broadcasting sermons from some religious preacher or the other.

If we could rope these preachers in to stress bribery and corruption as behaviours that would attract that thunderbolt from heaven, or at the very least, reduce one’s chances of a reserved place up there, that would be one more powerful channel of influence that can be put to work.

(The author, Gpoinat C  is professor of international business and strategic management at Suffolk University, Boston, US.)

Courtesy : The HINDU Business Line, Apr 13, 2009,