Wanted: A replacement for “petty”

Eduardo Bohorquez and Deniz Devrim of Transparencia Mexicana, our national chapter in Mexico, recently published an article arguing for the abolishment of the word “petty” in the term “petty bribery”. They point out that petty bribery in fact generates substantial costs to society, both monetary and non-monetary. For example, surveys find that in Mexico households with the minimum income spend 33 per cent of their monthly income on bribes.

A dictionary definition of “petty” reads “of little or no importance or consequence”. Losing 33 per cent of your salary can hardly be considered negligible. But this is not just a question of semantics. As the article states, the choice of words can “reflect attitudes, influence action, as well as the pace of reform”.

The estimated costs of household bribery in Mexico exceeded 32 billion pesos in 2010.

Which got me thinking: what could be a good alternative to replace “petty”? It should keep the idea of “small” while ideally having a negative connotation (virus?) or being value-free. Just two ideas come to mind for the moment: household bribery and micro-bribery.

Household bribery has several downsides including that a) not just households but also companies are affected by having to pay small bribes and b) it could possibly be misinterpreted to mean a situation in which a parent “bribes” a child with chocolate so they get their homework done.

Micro-bribery has the advantage of being value-free. Also, the prefix “micro” is extensively used within social sciences and development, including contexts in which small amounts have big impacts (e.g. microcredit). On the other hand, colloquially “micro” could be too close to “tiny” and may again run the risk of minimising a significant problem.

Surely there are better ideas out there?

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Max Heywood

About Max Heywood

Max Heywood is Programme Coordinator in the Americas Department of Transparency International.

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10 Responses to Wanted: A replacement for “petty”

  1. Cathie Guthrie 28 June 2012 at 1:46 pm #

    I’m not sure I understand why ‘petty’ needs to be replaced as much as it needs to be eliminated with fines and penalties imposed for bribery, period. How is behavior to change in a sustainable manner when tolerance for bribery, large or small, it allowed to continue?

  2. Maxime Agator 1 July 2012 at 3:09 pm #

    I think one should be cautious when finding a replacement for “petty” bribery.

    Eduardo Bohorquez and Deniz Devrimare are right when they say that “words reflect concepts” : it’s not just the word “petty” that is wrong, it’s the whole concept of “pettiness” of this type of corruption. Their demonstration shows that bribery to obtain basic service delivery is by no way petty, small or minimal : it is “huge”, both in aggregated costs, in proportion of the poorest’ s income and in non-monetary costs.
    Yet, if the replacement of “petty” is to be defined by its “smalness” (as proposed in this post), the risk is to simply change the word while the concept would more or less remain the same. We can hardly forget about Bohorquez and Devrimare’s whole argument just because the bribes happen to be “small” in monetary terms, when taken individually.

    I therefore think that we should opt for a more conceptual change and stop defining this bribery by its size, but rather by an other factor.

    U4 uses the term of “Bureaucratic bribery”, for the “corruption [that] takes place at the implementation end of politics, where the public meets public officials”. In this case, the term is based on when this corruption happens in the policy process.

    Another option would be to focus on the regularity of such acts, by calling it “daily bribery”, for instance.

    We could also focus on those who are the main victims of it, and calling it “grassroot bribery”.

    To me, the word is not so important as the concept that serves as a basis.

  3. Randall Lloyd 2 July 2012 at 12:02 am #

    In this case, I actually wonder whether “bribe” is the correct word. Rich people pay bribes to corrupt officials or to subvert laws or regulations. Poor people are forced to pay officials for protection. Money paid to prevent harassment or worse seems better described as extortion. I don’t think people with minimum incomes would choose to spend a third of their money on “bribes” if they felt they had a choice.

  4. Max Heywood
    Max 2 July 2012 at 5:37 pm #

    Thanks for comments, the key is definitely focusing on the concept and generating action rather than the semantics. @Randall agree an ideal term would also factor in if the case is of “demand side” or “supply side” corruption. @Maxine thanks for multiple suggestions and expanding scope of discussion.

  5. Samuel Rotta 16 July 2012 at 8:47 pm #

    Hi Max, I wrote a post discussing some issues of Eduardo’s article. You can find it (in Spanish) in my blog: http://corrupcion101.wordpress.com/2012/07/13/cuestion-de-tamano-aportes-a-la-discusion-sobre-la-impertinencia-del-termino-petty-corruption/

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