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To make people buy into fighting corruption, we first need to know how to sell it

Indonesia’s anti-corruption campaign ‘Jujur itu hebat’ (honesty is great) calls for people to rise as ‘heroes’. But how many of us want to be the nail that sticks out to get hammered? dzoro/flick, CC BY-NC

To make people buy into fighting corruption, we first need to know how to sell it

Since the fall of Suharto’s authoritarian and corrupt regime in 1998, Indonesia has carried out campaigns against corruption. But they don’t seem to be working very well. Why is that?

Corruption is evil?

Anti-corruption campaigns in Indonesia follow a dominant worldview that see corruption as something evil. Campaigns against corruption in Indonesia paint it as an extraordinary crime carried out by greedy people.

But in preaching anti-corruption messages, these campaigns neglect local cultural norms and values. In designing anti-corruption campaigns, we import an understanding of practices labelled as corrupt from Western countries, which generally value individualism and are not averse to conflict.

It’s difficult to apply these notions in local anti-corruption campaigns without taking into account the complexities of values, such as collectivism and social harmony, that exist in countries like Indonesia.

This lack of cultural sensitivity in preaching against corruption has created fear and discomfort, demonised certain cultural practices and genuine intentions, with an outcome that is far from desirable. A greater sensitivity to context is needed to effectively change people’s behaviour and attitudes towards corruption.

Nuance in talking about corruption

I look at corruption from the point of view of the individual actors. These are people who encounter issues of corruption daily and have to decide what to do. For my research I interviewed people in government and business, as well as anti-corruption campaigners in Indonesia.

The people I interviewed talk about corruption with nuance. The dominant view of corruption as “evil” is there, but it’s distant from their own lives.

They talk about corruption that is “out there” as opposed to their own practices, which they consider as “not corruption” or “less corrupt” and therefore “not evil” or “less evil”.

They see a spectrum of “badness” in practices associated with corruption. The dominant view in looking at corruption has often missed this important insight.

From my interviews, I find people attach the label “corruption” only to practices that are seen in excess or in a magnitude that they consider unacceptable to them.

They determine corruption based on how “severe” the act is, which depends upon group or social norms. This means the label “corruption” does not stand on its own; it is always seen in relation to other practices.

I also found that when people talk about difficulties of disengaging from “old” corrupt practices, they don’t talk about “abusing power”. People talk more about relationships and caring about others.

People I interview use words such as “kita orang Timur” (we – people of the East), “uang ketupat” (rice cake money), “bantu” (help) and “berharap” (to expect) to illustrate that certain practices such as giving gifts to officials exist to protect relationships. Removing them would create social tensions. It could also threaten people’s jobs and livelihoods.

Some that I interviewed argued that for “orang kita” (our people) or “orang Indonesia” (Indonesians) it is a natural call to give thanks to officials.

Others said they had to turn a blind eye to questionable practices because this is what is expected of them to keep their (and other people’s) jobs.

Using a different lens

I use care or relational ethics as a lens to better understand people’s attitudes towards corruption. This view, which builds on the work of feminist psychologist Carol Gilligan and other scholars, challenges the dominant ethics theory that views individuals as free agents.

In ethics theory, individuals are expected to apply abstract standardised universal principles not only to hypothetical scenarios but also to real and often highly conflicted situations in life.

According to relational ethics, people do not make decisions based on standardised principles. Instead they base decisions on what they think is best for others and their relationships with others, emphasising the connectedness and dependencies in human life.

People affected by issues such as corruption rarely think in a linear manner as described in decision-making models. In making decisions people don’t usually go through a step-by-step process of defining the problem, identifying the criteria and risks involved, developing alternatives and eventually making a supposedly well-informed decision.

They are more likely guided by previous experiences and this is where identity and social relations play their role in institutionalised corruption. What I am seeing in my ongoing analysis is that, for people who don’t engage in corruption, their identity is built around being a change agent, being a pious person, being an example for others. Those who do engage or become complicit in corruption may see themselves as “living the norm” and see the practice as the only way “to get things moving around here”.

Talk is cheap

One of the taglines in Indonesia’s anti-corruption campaign is “honesty is great” or jujur itu hebat.

The campaign calls for people to rise as “heroes” and to fight corruption to the best of their abilities, even if this include jeopardising their livelihood and other people they care about. But how many of us want to be the nail that sticks out to get hammered?

I do not intend to defend “corruptors”. I would argue, however, that identifying existing biases and limitations is just as crucial as the effort of improving governance itself.

The dismissive approach to local understandings of norms and culture is not helpful. If we want to make people really buy the anti-corruption fight, we first need to know how to sell it.