“Aid work is often done in settings where corruption is common, and in interviews aid workers say that they often encounter civil servants who expect to be bribed,” says Joakim Thelander.

Everyday corruption can assume many forms. A typical example is an aid worker who has to pass through customs with an aid shipment. The individual customs agent then assumes a position of power that he or she can exploit to his or her own advantage. Moreover, there are problems involved in drawing the line. It is often not said expressly that a bribe is involved. For instance, a health care officer may charge a dubious fee. In such a situation it is difficult for the aid worker to know whether it is a bribe or a legitimate cost.

“The aid workers I have interviewed do not condone corruption, but they have tried to make the best of the situation,” says Joakim Thelander. “Even though a setting might be tricky, it often helps to be experienced. Sometimes it’s possible to avoid bribes if you ‘break the ice’ in your relationship with the other party and get him or her not to demand a bribe. And sometimes bribery can be avoided if you are well-prepared and know what the regulations are.”

Though the subject is sensitive, Joakim Thelander had no trouble getting people to interview. The aid workers he has talked to have told him about incidents where they felt it was necessary to pay bribes. In his dissertation he takes up the concept of ‘accounts’¬-how people choose to account for their own involvement in a bribe. There are several ways in which to describe your own behaviour as acceptable.

“These explanations can be that you are in a coercive situation, are in a hurry, or see no other way out,” says Joakim Thelander. “This can be described as a cultural adaptation. If corruption is rampant, it is regarded as difficult to remain untouched. Sometimes it’s also a matter of being influenced by other people. You may have an interpreter who says that you’re going to have to pay.”

His doctoral dissertation is titled in Swedish: Mutor I det godas tjänst? Biståndsarbetare i samtal om vardaglig korruption. (Paying Bribed to do Good? Aid Workers’ Talk about Everyday Corruption.) Summary in English.

Joakim Thelander can be reached at phone: +46 46-222 95 72; cell phone: +46 733-93 08 28; or at Joakim.Thelander@soc.lu.se .