Concrete Information on Corruption Paints Depressing Picture

I have written about corruption in various contexts in the past, most recently comparing the context of anti-corruption movements in India and Mongolia. In that post, I wrote that, “Petty corruption, systemic corruption, as well as grand corruption appear to be wide-spread if not endemic in Mongolia.” “Wide-spread if not endemic” is the phrase I have used generally to refer to corruption. Yet, concrete information is obviously preferable to such a vague generalization.

This is where I was delighted to see the publication of the Asia Foundation’s most recent (2015) “Annual Survey on Perceptions and Knowledge of Corruption (SPEAK)”.

Why I Have Some Faith in the SPEAK Results

The Asia Foundation has been engaged in Mongolia since the early days of democracy and has built up multiple programs and strong expertise.

The SPEAK survey itself builds on the Mongolia Corruption Benchmarking Survey that was conducted annually from 2006 to 2011. Since 2012 it has been known as SPEAK. If you look at the report, you will find a detailed methodology section that focuses on a “multi-stage, random sampling procedure … with probability sampling in an area cluster. ” (p. 9). Essentially what this means is that more and more specific geographic areas are selected at random to ultimately give interviewers a starting point for face-to-face surveys from where they proceed by a further random rule. Ultimately this yielded over 1,360 sampled households, 560 in Ulaanbaatar and 800 in the countryside.

The fact that this is an annual survey gives me even more confidence in it as it allows to compare longer trends that are impacted less by daily news and other swings in political mood.

Of course, there are lots of sources of error in this kind of methodology, though hopefully not of systematic error.

It is worth noting that this is a survey of perception of corruption, not of corruption itself, as is true of most instruments that deal with corruption though there have been promising attempts at measuring actual experience of corruption with experimental methods.

Answers I am Looking For

To me, the most pressing questions about the perception of corruption are: 1. how widespread is it?, 2. is corruption improving or deteriorating?

Ultimately the answers to these questions can inform and lead to a discussion of how corruption can be addressed best.

How Widespread is Corruption?

Since the beginning of these surveys in 2006, over 80% of the respondents have agree (agree or somewhat agree) with the view that “corruption is a common practice in Mongolia” (Figure 1.4, p. 12). Somewhat oddly, the number of respondents who reply “don’t know” or decline to answer has gone up over the years from a low of 1,4% in 2006 to 6.4% in 2014 (4.7% this year).

For 2015, 64.6% agree with “common practice” and 20.7% somewhat agree for a total of 85.3%. To me, that settles the question of whether corruption is endemic of not with an emphatic, “Yes!”. Yet, the number of respondents who identify corruption as a major problem has held steady around 8%. Whereas corruption has been identified by the third-most number of respondents in the past, it has now been surpassed in mentions by “national economy”. Unemployment, inflation and national economy are mentioned as the single major problem by 49.5% of respondents. “It’s the economy, stupid!”

Does the fact that most see corruption as a common practice, but that few people identify it as a major problem, an indication of resignation regarding anti-corruption efforts, or a lack of recognition of the losses related to corruption? Or does it follow from the SPEAK finding (p. 16) that respondents see corruption having an impact on their personal life only to “a small extent” and that this impact appears to be receding over time.

Along the lines with the perception that the impact of corruption is greatest in politics, respondents have identified the following institutions/facets of political life as the most corrupt: 1. land utilization, 2. political parties, 3. mining, 4. national government, 5. parliament. This is a marked and worrisome change from previous surveys that had never led to a listing of the national government, nor of parliament among the top 5 of corruption. The fact that political parties were ranked the second-most corrupt also suggests that this is not a matter of the actions or perceptions of a single party (though the DP obviously has a majority in parliament and in cabinet), but of political parties more broadly. In the eyes of Mongolians, their main political actors are corrupt!

Is Corruption Waning?

For the country’s sake, anyone ultimately is inspiring to be Scandinavian in the absence of corruption, but is Mongolia moving towards that goal? The longitudinal nature of the SPEAK data allows is to assess this to some extent.

I already discussed the shift toward political parties, the government, and parliament in perception of worst institutions above. This shift seems to be paralleled by the general sense that things are getting worse in Mongolia over the past several years. The graph on p. 20 of the report (Figure 4.1) illustrates this nicely by charting responses to the question of how corruption has changed in the previous three years. The number of people who responded that corruption had increased a little or a lot was declining from 2010 until 2014 to a low of just under 40% and increased sharply in 2014-15 to just under 60%. Not a good trend line, particularly since respondents are also less optimistic about the fight against corruption in coming years.

When it comes to families payment of bribes, however, the development is more positive. In fact, Figure 9.3 (p. 37) shows a decline in the number of respondents who acknowledge having paid a bribe in the past three months from 28% in 2006 to 7% in the most recent round of surveying. This is one question where SPEAK is not just about perceptions but aims to ask about behaviour. There are obvious challenges in interpreting this figure given some (presumed) tendency by respondents to underreport bribes, however, the overtime trend does suggests a decline, unless the awareness of bribing as unnecessary or immoral has risen massively and no other responses in the survey suggest that.


As a four-time election observer and given the looming 2016 and 2017 elections, I’m obviously interest in perceptions of corruption in the context of voting (pp. 13-16). The survey asked respondents to identify their expectations of fairness and transparency of the election in five stages: preparation and registration, campaign finance, campaigns, vote counting, and reporting of results. Of these respondents have the greatest confidence in the fairness of the campaign with 45% expecting fairness to a moderate or large extent. By contrast, they have least confidence by far in campaign finance with a whopping 40.5% reporting no expectation of fairness at all, and an additional 17.3% expecting a small extent of fairness.

Other Observations

Because SPEAK covers a variety of topics in addition to corruption, there are some interesting findings sprinkled throughout the report.

For example, the listing of “Major Problems” (pp. 11-12). Surprisingly (to me), inflation got fewer mentions this year than in 2014, and much fewer than in 2013 (down to 10.9% from 21.5%). I find this surprising since inflation is often mentioned in conversations with Mongolians as the factor that makes the current economic turmoil most tangible in daily life next to employment concerns. But even concern about unemployment (the most frequently mentioned major problem) is roughly steady across the past three years.

What is to be Done?

Given the ultimate aim of reducing corruption, the question arises of how achieving this aim might be expedited in some fashion.

In my conversation with MAAPPS student Asim, I concluded that a popular movement has to proceed political action. All the questions in the SPEAK data about the IAAC (Independent Authority against Corruption – АВЛИГАТАЙ ТЭМЦЭХ ГАЗАР) suggest that expectations of this regulatory approach and of enforcement of already-existing laws and regulations are high. But, while such enforcement will punish offenders and thus offer some deterrence, it seems to me that it’s a change in politicians’ (and others’ mindset) that’s most needed. As the German proverb has it, “Der Fisch stinkt vom Kopf her” (i.e. a fish rots from the head), so its society’s head that needs to be addressed.

But, more avenues to bring concrete evidence of corruption to the public’s view is needed. The media in Mongolia seems to be largely involved in finger-pointing and outlandish accusations, rather than concrete instances of corruption. This is certainly the case with electoral fraud and manipulation, but also extends to other areas. Transparency is only as good as the use that civil society and the media put information to. This is very clear in the case of the important Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative, for example, which has been making information about revenue streams transparent for some years. Legislation extending the EITI seems to be in parliamentary limbo at the moment, but the information that has been made available through the EITI has not been used enough by civil society and the media to have the desired effects. This is why some level of social mobilization appears to be required.

I personally believe that such mobilization would also have to occur in the political realm, whether through established forces like the Civil Will Green Party or a generational change in either of the long-standing larger parties, or through new political movements (it’s not at all clear whether this might be one of the aims of the new National Labour Party).

About Julian Dierkes

Julian Dierkes is a sociologist by training (PhD Princeton Univ) and a Mongolist by choice and passion since around 2005. He teaches in the Master of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He tweets @jdierkes
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