Corruption may manifest itself in similar ways across countries and over time – bribery, extortion, embezzlement, influence peddling, nepotism, and so on – but the underlying causes can be different and the areas that corruption attacks can vary across geographic region and over time.
In many countries, the use of public office for private gain is viewed as a matter of their traditional and cultural heritage. It is often difficult to toss off approaches to the use of wealth, power and influence that have become accepted and commonplace. Often, these practices can exist side-by-side with legal structures which prohibit them.
(ANTICORRUPTION ASSESSMENT HANDBOOK, FINAL REPORT, B.I. Spector; M. Johnston; S. Winbourne, USA Agency for International Development, 2009 at usaid.gov)
Political finance-related corruption manifests in a variety of ways. In some cases, the political party in control abuses state resources. In other cases, political party and campaign funds come (in large amounts) from private businesses that benefit from large contracts or privatization. Such funds may be laundered and provided by wealthy donors desiring to capture control of political parties or to buy a seat in parliament. Further, these donors may have ties to undesirable elements, such as organized crime or terrorist networks. The lack of disclosure regulations in many transition countries may allow the aforementioned problems to become systemic. No democracy is immune from the dangers of political corruption.
(MAP Guide to Applying Lessons Learned, J. Carlson; M. Walecki, International Foundation for Election Systems , 2006 at ifes.org)
The most common definition of corruption in the economics literature is the misuse of public once for private gain. While private gain is typically interpreted in terms of monetary benefit, it can potentially include non-monetary benefits such as improved chances of reelection and helping friends or members of their social or ethnic networks obtain public resources. The usual interpretation of misuse is the use of once for illegal purposes, but it is occasionally construed more broadly as the misallocation of public resources in ways that enhance the official's private returns.
A common explanation for this observation is that corruption is a social norm/habit that is much more pervasive in low income countries. That is, on average citizens in low-income countries are relatively more willing to condone corruption and less likely to want to use their electoral power to vote out the corrupt. The presumption is that this has, in turn, reduced economic growth in these countries. Corrupt behavior is a choice made by specific individuals who make or implement policies and is at least partly a rational response to the structure of the political or economic environment. In this environment citizens' choice to vote for the corrupt may reflect the economic constraints they face rather than a willingness to condone corruption.
Individual political behavior and political outcomes in any society are constrained by its political institutions. Political institutions provide the structure for collective decision-making, and define the context for resource redistribution and public good provision by governments. An important potential constraint on corruption is the democratic political process which gives voters the opportunity to dismiss corrupt politicians and to support laws that constrain corruption.
An individual's income and educational attainment might also affect her ability to monitor/punish those who are corrupt. One may argue that the relatively rich and educated are better able to punish politicians by, for instance going to court, and therefore should pay fewer bribes. In addition, the rich may be less dependent on public services and so should be better placed to avoid interactions with corrupt individuals. On the other hand, if individuals engaged in corrupt practices undertake price discrimination then the rich should, on average, pay higher bribes. Finally, if corruption is rife in business activities which are regulated (rather than in public service delivery) then the rich and more educated may actually be more exposed to corruption.
(Understanding Political Corruption in Low Income Countries, Rohini Pande, Harvard University, April 15, 2007at hks.harvard.edu)
Political or grand corruption takes place at the highest levels of political authority. It is when the politicians and political decision-makers, who are entitled to formulate, establish and implement the laws in the name of the people, they themselves are corrupt.
Political corruption is when political decision-makers use the political power they are armed with, to sustain their power, status and wealth. It is when policy formulation and legislation is tailored to benefit politicians and legislators. Political corruption can thus be distinguished from bureaucratic or petty corruption, which is corruption in the public administration, at the implementation end of politics. Petty corruption has also been called “low level” and “street level” to name the kind of corruption that citizens will experience daily, at times, in their encounter with public administration and services like hospitals, schools, local licensing authorities, police, taxing authorities and so on. The distinction between political and bureaucratic corruption is rather ambiguous.
Political corruption has even more substantial political repercussions, because it affects the manner in which decisions are made. Political corruption implies the manipulation of political institutions and the rules of procedure, and it consequently distorts the institutions of government. Political corruption is a deviation from the rational-legal values and principles of the modern state, and leads to institutional decay. The basic problem of political corruption is the lack of political will to encounter the problem: the power-holders do not wish to change a system of which they are the main profiteers.
In some cases, political corruption might take place in higher places without the general public coming across it in their daily life, or ever knowing about it. Political corruption might be incidental, controlled or concealed, as in most consolidated liberal democracies. Likewise, bureaucratic corruption might take place at the implementation end of public administration without necessarily being a part of the political system or having political repercussions. This happens in particular when a clean and strong government has been able to purify the corridors of power, but not every inch of the public service so that certain services or bureaux are (still) polluted.
However, widespread and systematic bureaucratic corruption and political corruption tends to go along and to be mutually reinforcing. Political corruption is usually supported by widespread bureaucratic or petty corruption, in a pyramid of upward extraction. And corruption in high places is contagious to lower level officials, as these will follow the predatory examples of, or even take instructions from, their principals.
(Corruption: definitions and concepts, Analysis and definition of corruption and its common forms, I. Amundsen, U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Centre, 2000 at cms.eldis.org)