- Assuming there would be impunity for power abuse, would people from all cultures treat the opportunity equally? Well, a recent study found there is a "culture of corruption" in many countries, as there was a direct correlation between diplomats' abuse of impunity in New York and the level of corruption in their home countries. Most of them refused to pay their parking tickets. Among New York's top ten parking ticket violators are Egypt, Chad, Sudan, Mozambique, Angola and Senegal.
But the study also discovered some honest African diplomats.
In an effort to learn more about how cultural norms effect political corruption, economists Raymond Fisman of the US Columbia University and Edward Miguel at the US University of California gathered data on more than 150,000 unpaid parking tickets in New York - at a total value of US$ 18 million - issued to cars belonging to foreign diplomats at UN headquarters from 1997 to 2002. Some 1,700 diplomats are registered with the UN in the city - they all have immunity from US legal persecution, but they use it differently.
According to Mr Fisman and Mr Miguel, "the act of parking illegally fits well with a standard definition of corruption, ie, the abuse of entrusted power for private gain." This again suggested that "the comparison of parking violations by diplomats from different societies serves as a plausible measure of the extent of corruption social norms or a corruption 'culture'," the authors hold. Indeed, most of the parking violations had happened in an off-duty situation.
When breaking down the violations by country of origin and then comparing this list to the Transparency International (TI) index - that ranks countries on the basis of how corrupt they are - the researchers found a clear correlation. Countries far down on TI's Corruption Index normally also were among those most abusing their diplomatic immunity in New York.
Chad was found at the bottom position of TI's 2005 Corruption Index, earning the dishonourable title of being the world's most corrupt country. Chadian UN diplomats obviously have brought their attitude to New York, being number three on the list of parking violators. Each Chadian diplomat in New York has committed 124 unpaid parking violations between 1997 and 2002, the report showed.
Kuwait however topped the list, with 246 unpaid violations per diplomat, which the oil rich emirate had not paid its fines for. Also Egypt beat the Chadians narrowly, with 140 violations per diplomat. Egypt has relatively 24 diplomats at the UN headquarters compared to Chad's only two.
Going by the methodology of Mr Fismans and Mr Miguel, "Cultures of corruption" seem to be especially present in Africa, as 14 out of the 20 heaviest parking sinners are African countries. Chad is followed by Sudan (fourth, 119 unpaid violations per diplomat), Mozambique (sixth, 111 violations), Angola (eighth, 82 violations) and Senegal (ninth, 79 violations). Between positions 11 and 19, one also finds Côte d'Ivoire, Zambia, Morocco, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Benin, Zimbabwe and Cameroon.
But the study also discovered honest and polite African diplomats in the UN office. Diplomats from Burkina Faso and the Central African Republic had not been involved in any wrongdoing at all during the five-year period. Equally, representatives from Eritrea, The Gambia and Gabon had been involved in close to no incidents. Most of these African countries have a middle-ranking on TI's Corruption Index as well.
A surprising finding was the actuation of several Middle East diplomats - with the noteworthy exception of Kuwait - that had very high rates of parking violations but did pay all their fines although they have immunity. These were in particular Bahrain, Malaysia, Oman and Turkey. The researchers, obviously surprised about this finding, said they had yet to find an explanation to this honest behaviour.
The researchers believe their study should have relevance to understand and tackle the global problem of corruption, because of the "unique" stage on which it plays. "We exploit a unique natural experiment - the stationing in New York City of thousands of government officials from 146 countries around the world - in a setting of zero legal enforcement of parking violations to construct a revealed preference measure of official corruption," they explain.
"We find that this measure is strongly correlated with existing measures of home country corruption. This finding suggests that cultural or social norms related to corruption are quite persistent," they conclude. ""Norms related to corruption are apparently deeply engrained, and factors other than legal enforcement are important determinants of corruption behaviour."
In New York, meanwhile, city authorities are fed up with the large problem caused by some of the diplomats placed there. Since 2002, local police have become tougher in their crack down on cars with diplomatic plates, increasing pressure on them to pay fines or park otherwise.
So far, the results have been positive. Also, the city is using its influence to pressure for less US federal development aid to the worst offenders.
New York authorities however should look to London before complaining too loudly. London Mayor Ken Livingstone accuses the US Embassy of being among the top offenders against British law, saying the Embassy owed London at least US$ 1.6 million only in unpaid charging fees - stemming from a toll of £8 a day that all cars entering Central London must pay. The US Embassy has ordered its staff not to pay the toll, claiming it is a "tax", from which they have impunity.
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