Bribe versus Gifts

By Narayan Manandhar


A GIFT must be Genuinely offered in appreciation for something done well. It must be Independent from your functioning in the future. It must be Free of obligations. It must be Transparent. You must be able to declare the gift in a completely transparent way, to your organization and its clients, to your professional colleagues, and to the media and the public in general.


First, an anecdote: A couple of years back, it was rumored that in a wedding dinner party of a business tycoon’s son in Kathmandu the invited guests were requested to not bring any gift in kind but if they were in anyway planning to offer gifts, they were politely requested to bring them in cash. This awkward invitation could easily raise the hairs of many readers. Are you asking for a bribe or a gift here? Hang on a minute! The business tycoon was strategically using the son’s dinner party as a platform to raise funds for a non-governmental organization. Now, tell me how many of our so-called successful entrepreneurs have such philanthropic visions?

How would you differentiate between a gift and a bribe? “If you present a bottle of Champaign it will be a gift; if you present a crate of Champaign that could be a bribe.” This is The Economist’s practical way of differentiating between a gift and a bribe. This criteria could have a limited application, especially, in our context, where even a small amount of money for chiya pani (tea expense) or a packet of branded cigarette could easily grease the palm of the bureaucrats.

Once, I informed the participants to an anti-corruption gathering about CIAA in-house code of conduct not to accept a gift exceeding Rs 5,000. Participants amusingly reinterpreted this threshold to mean bribe anything less than Rs 5,000 as an acceptable gift or a legitimate bribe. Some other cultures do have such threshold limit. I suppose it is $25 in Germany.

In fact, there could be a very thin line of demarcation between a bribe and a gift. Many bribes could be wrapped as a gift. Gift does not entail a situation of reciprocity—quid pro quo situation. Bribes are demanding. Failure to perform after taking bribe could invite negative reciprocity, that is, retaliation. Therefore, it is less risky to take and/or give gift than a bribe.

Personally, I like to see bribe being located at an intermediate position in a continuum where at one extreme you can put extortion and at the other gift. Bribe becomes extortion when it is demand driven. If a medical doctor asks for a bribe inside an operation theater or an emergency room, it is clearly a matter of extortion. You have been blackmailed to pay the bribe. Bribe could turn into a gift, if it is supply driven. People have asked me whether tips paid to a waiter in a restaurant is a bribe or a gift. Normally, it is not a bribe. It is a gift as there is an element of voluntariness or the absence quid pro quo situation.

However, if tips were given with some strategic objectives in mind like manipulating the restaurant bills then it is definitely a bribe. Susan Rose-Ackerman likes to differentiate between a tip and a gift—both not having explicit quid pro quo—former being paid to the agent while latter paid directly to the principal. This brings to fore one more distinguishing feature of bribe. Bribes are paid to an agent, not to the principal.

General Obasanjo, former President of Nigeria and also a former president of Transparency International—Nigeria Chapter, likes to use transparency as a distinguishing feature. You might feel difficult to churn this concept in a situation where bribes are demanded openly. A gift is normally made in public (open) while bribes are kept secret. How would you react to a news item if your gift is reported in the next day’s newspaper? If you do not mind then it is a gift. If you are offended, then it could be a bribe. The amount involved is immaterial here. Remember, when we present a gift to the foreigners they normally prefer to open it upfront, admiring the gift, howsoever nominal value it may be of. Talking about our own culture, we hardly prefer to open the carefully wrapped gift in public.

A toolkit on managing conflict of interest produced by OECD (2003) has invented an acronym for GIFT to mean (1) Genuine, (2) Independent, (3) Free and (4) Transparent. First, the gift must be genuine, that is, offered in appreciation for something which you have done well, in accordance with your functions as a public official, without any encouragement.

Second, gift must be independent in a sense that it does not affect your functioning in the future.

Third, it must be free from any obligations to the donor, or for his/her family or affiliates.

Fourth, it must be transparent. You must be able to declare the gift in a completely transparent way, to your organization and its clients, to your professional colleagues, and to the media and the public in general.

The treatment of gift could be a tricky issue in the world of business. It is customary in many instances to offer gifts, provide hospitality and favors to cultivate business deals. One could easily be in a morally slippery slope. The business companies are now recommended to have a clear policy on gifts, hospitality and other expenses. Normally, such policies demand timely reporting of gifts, sanctioning from the proper authority and spelling of maximum limits. How many of our political leaders, ministers and officials have reported the gifts they have received during their tenure? It is time now to think of having some policy on gifts received and/or conferred by our public officials.

Source: Kathmandu Post, Sunday, December 23, 2007

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