This article has been published on Al Jazeera.
The messages are curt as telegrams. “Pregnant woman comes to Athens for a Caesarean section. The doctor requests 500 euro to perform the operation. The husband has only 300. The doctor rejoins with threats.” In the event, the doctor accepted the discount.
The entry is from Greece’s first website dedicated to sharing stories of corruption in the public sector. The response has been impressive – after just two weeks online, the site has logged 40,000 unique visitors and more than $85,000 of bribes.
Sometimes these are enormous: “Five thousand euro were requested to reduce penalties following an audit of company books for the years 1998-2003.” The money was paid. Sometimes the payee is passive-aggressive, such as the doctor who “was careful not to ask for anything, but she sat there in front of me without saying anything. Well…” The doctor ended up happily accepting 800 euro she hadn’t asked for.
Anyone can make an anonymous entry on www.teleiakaipavla.gr, loosely translatable as “Stop it. Period.” Names and dates are not mentioned, but institutions are (the top eight by number of entries are hospitals). The site uses open source code so that anyone can download the archive and verify that information is not being stored that could be used to identify authors.
“What we’ve noticed is how incredible the bribes can be,” says Panos Louridas, one of several volunteers who built the site during their summer leave. “The funniest thing I saw was a hospital patient who had bribed staff to allow his wife to sleep in an empty second bed in his room. It was reported by a patient in an adjacent room.”
Often the bribe is pointless, says Louridas. “On one occasion a man who refused to pay a bribe at a public service got the job done faster than the corrupt official had promised.”
The site is a cast list of the characters that populate daily Greek anecdotes - the tax collector who blackmails a business, the surgeon who sees public healthcare as a private practice, the official who wants a grigorosimo or speed-up fee to avoid undue delays.
Corruption is a big part of Greece’s unrecorded (and untaxed) economy, estimated by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development at a third of the regulated economy over again. That would put it at roughly $90bn this year, dwarfing the deficit of $17bn.
Corruption is also a major hidden expense of doing business in Greece, helping to keep out foreign investment. According to TransparencyInternational’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index, which tracks public and private corruption, Greece tied for 80th place with El Salvador, Colombia, Morocco and Peru. It lags behind every European Union member save Bulgaria, including Eastern bloc nations which have had a mere two decades’ experience at being market economies and democracies.
Why did Greece fail so badly? Kostas Bakouris, the head of Transparency International’s Greek operation, blames former socialist prime minister Andreas Papandreou, who came to power in 1981 on the back of what many saw as a social revolution. “Papandreou essentially tried to do a good thing in empowering a disadvantaged population, but he abolished meritocracy and awarded positions of responsibility to socialist goons,” says Bakouris.
“Society was flattened, principle disappeared, people became selfish and stopped feeling any social solidarity,” says Bakouris. “The prime minister allowed people to take bribes, and the result was that there was inculcated a tendency to sidestep the law.”
Greece’s relative ranking in the CPI index has fallen almost every year since 2001 (when it was 42nd out of 91 countries surveyed); but the problem has got dramatically worse during the crisis. Over the past three years its nominal score fell from a none-too-brilliant 4.7 to 3.4 (New Zealand currently comes first with a squeaky clean 9.5), suggesting that public functionaries have aggressively tried to make up for slashed salaries and benefits.
The government’s medical bills are among its biggest liabilities. The ‘troika’ of creditors, the International Monetary Fund, European Commission and European Central Bank, have demanded about $2.5bn in cuts to pharmaceutical and hospital expenditure this year alone. Greece did set up an electronic prescriptions platform as a way of checking redundancy. But fraud has persisted, with prescriptions remaining at above five million a month, suggesting that one in two Greeks needs medicine at any given time.
“An electronic platform means nothing on its own,” says an Athens-based surgeon who spoke anonymously. “The key is to get doctors to prescribe according to scientific guidelines and get the system to flag excessive prescriptions.”
Hospital supplies are another area where the government wants to clamp down on waste. In the last two years it has reduced its payouts for various kinds of surgery by as much as 90 percent, as if to acknowledge the amount of money it was throwing away on mark-ups to surgical materials.
“Besides customs duties on surgical materials, the importer usually claims a 55-65 percent profit,” the surgeon tells Al Jazeera. “He sells to a distributor who introduces his own markup of 40-60 percent, before bribing the hospital director and individual surgeons another 20-30 percent each. Each markup compounds the previous one, so materials end up vastly inflated. That’s what the government has stopped paying for in its new price lists.”
Corruption, which Transparency International defines as “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain”, does not always take the form of a bribe. A survey conducted for the European Commission last year found that before the crisis Greeks privately paid a staggering $1.2bn a year for after-school crammers – a fifth of the primary and secondary education budget over again. Such supplemental tutoring, known as frontisteria, are considered necessary by most parents, not to give their children an advantage but simply to enable them to get through a curriculum public schools teach semi-competently. What constitutes corruption is the fact that many public school teachers break the law to take second jobs at frontisteria, introducing a conflict of interest.
The conservative-led government of Antonis Samaras has vowed to make the state accountable and transparent. Last month the financial crimes squad sent the case files of 35 politicians under investigation for money laundering and illegal enrichment to the Supreme Court Prosecutor, prompting the parliament speaker, who was on the list, to suspend himself for a few days.
And later this year, Transparency International intends to unveil a roadmap drafted together with the European Commission’s Task Force in Greece, describing how to clean up state services. “The prime minister has seen it as in on board with it,” Says Bakouris. “I believe the political will is there.”
Not everyone is convinced that Samaras and his team will clean up the state. “It is well known that the vast majority of tax collectors is deeply corrupt,” says a former minister who spoke on condition of anonymity. “This shop cannot be easily fixed. You have to break lots of eggs. And this government is not prepared to tackle the public sector.”
Panos Louridas agrees that the government currently lacks teeth. “I don’t think there is a way to reward the 20% of public servants that does an amazing job, or to punish the rest. A sense of honour is not enough to save the public sector. A German civil servant, for instance, is clean because he knows there are consequences – he’ll be fired, or lose his pension.”
Perhaps the greatest hope is in a growing sense that individual actions count. This year, Bakouris says, Transparency International found that “22.5 percent of people who were asked for a bribe refused it. It may be partly due to lack of money, but I would like to believe that it is due to a change in attitude as well. But this is a trickle. It will not help us unless it takes the form of a tsunami.” That tsunami is precisely what www.teleiakaipavla.gr is trying to bring about.