Last week, The Asia Foundation, the Sant Maral Foundation, and Mercy Corps Mongolia released the fourth semi-annual corruption survey, revealing citizens’ perception of corruption in one of the fastest growing economies in the world. As in the three earlier surveys, corruption was named the third most critical problem, and over 8 percent of respondents believed corruption to be the most critical problem in the country.
Conducted in March 2014, the Survey on the Perceptions and Knowledge of Corruption (SPEAK) surveyed 1,360 households in seven districts in Ulaanbaatar across 21 soums in six aimags. This is the 12th edition of the survey using the same methodology; the first was implemented in 2006. While perception surveys run the risk of presenting what might seem like conflicting interpretations, a comparative analysis of data over time presents undeniable trends for policymakers. With the current economic downturn, it is timely, especially for a government that has prioritized anti-corruption efforts, to review what Mongolian citizens have to say about the levels of corruption, and the efforts of the government and institutions to fight corruption, and the overall impact on their lives at this juncture.
In 2006, the first year that SPEAK was conducted, corruption ranked as the second most critical issue, with 29 percent of respondents citing it as the most critical issue. In 2014, only 8 percent cited it as the most critical issue, although it still ranks third behind unemployment and inflation, respectively. The lowest percentage point reached for corruption as an important problem was in April 2011 when only 5 percent of respondents cited it as so (interestingly the same year Mongolia’s global corruption perceptions ranking in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Index fell to 120th, perhaps the lowest ever in recent memory) and after that it more or less stabilized at and around 8 percent. The other issues that show uptick, albeit by slim margins, since 2012 are national economy, living standards, bureaucracy, and low income. With growing concerns over the double-digit inflation rate of late, it’s not surprising that twice as many respondents rated inflation as a critical problem than in November 2012. But to understand more about the state of corruption in Mongolia, we need to isolate corruption for a closer scrutiny.
Three considerations are critical in combatting corruption: the legal environment, the institutions that are expected to implement the laws, and the culture. The number of respondents in this survey who thought the legal environment is not satisfactory is about 80 percent. We can argue that this might have something to do with either “not knowing anything about the laws” or “a general dissatisfaction about the levels of corruption.” In both cases, this lack of understanding or discontent is because the fight against corruption largely depends on awareness about the laws as well as people’s participation (reporting incidences of corruption, for example) which cannot happen when there is a general dissatisfaction over effectiveness of laws. However, the good news is the perception about the legislative environment has improved when compared to 2006 when it was 89 percent.
Institutions form an important focal point for the public’s attention on this issue. The performance of the Independent Authority Against Corruption (IAAC) is key to its success because it plays a central role in coordinating many corruption-related laws. Although a relatively new institution, the respondents’ perceptions of the IAAC’s impartiality and performance rating are improving: In March 2010, only 7.8 percent of respondents evaluated the IAAC positively, but in November 2012, that number had nearly doubled to 15.6 percent, and in March 2014, favorable evaluations had reached 22.6 percent. Respondents’ expectation for unjust treatment from the judiciary and other law enforcement agencies is about 70 percent. While this number reflects a great need for improvement in this area, both have shown improvements, albeit small, since March 2010 (from 77 and 74 percent, respectively).
Culture plays an important part in any reform efforts, and there are a very few signs of a decline in cultural tolerance to corruption, which is still very high in Mongolia. Nearly 34 percent of respondents still agree that some levels of corruption should be acceptable. There are no fundamental shifts in attitudes since 2006 (decline by two percentage points in eight years). Similarly, nearly 23 percent of respondents would still pay if they are asked for a bribe (same figure in 2014), and only 13 percent will report (declined by 8 percentage points). The good news is if compared with data over time there are small improvements. But there is a little doubt that the current levels of “acceptance to corruption” is very high, and must be tackled through well targeted education programs, public discussions, appropriate training to media, and re-evaluating the ethical contents of education curriculum.
According to respondents, the impacts of corruption on family, politics, and businesses, although show declining trends, are still significant. If the real progress of anti-corruption efforts is to be seen in the reduction in the corruption levels, there is a real reason to be proud in terms of levels of petty corruption. There is a sharp decline in the reported incidence of bribes at the household level, declining from its highest point at 28 percent in September 2006 to 8 percent in 2014. Undeniably, this is important progress. However, it still makes sense to inquire further to the extent to which the result reflects reduction of incidence or a fear of legal sanctions.
The Survey on Perceptions and Knowledge of Corruption (SPEAK) was funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), as part of The Asia Foundation’s Strengthening Transparency and Governance in Mongolia (STAGE) program, which aims to strengthen democratic governance by building a more transparent and accountable regulatory and legislative environment while promoting principles of checks and balances. Read more about the program.
Basanta Pokharel is The Asia Foundation’s chief of party for the STAGE program in Mongolia. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.