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Gift giving and bribery, two sides of the same coin?

Former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat (left) and Yorgen Fenech (right).

Who doesn’t enjoy receiving a gift? And how often have we found ourselves fretting over what kind of gift to present to a friend, to a family member or even to a child?

Gift giving is a universal phenomenon that has deep anthropological and sociological roots throughout history. It is so ingrained in our interactions from a young age that we rarely stop to examine what the significance of gift giving is and why it is often intertwined with more nefarious intentions.

On a very basic level, we give or exchange gifts with individuals or groups of individuals with whom we want to have some form of social relationship (not necessarily romantic).  People see no harm in gift giving and it is generally viewed as something positive. It is associated with kindness and selflessness.

Giving or receiving a gift is legal. Bribery, on the other hand, is almost universally condemned, and its practice is considered undesirable, harmful and destructive. A bribe is associated with immorality and is considered illegal.

A neighbour greeting a new resident with a cake is a clear example of a gift. A driving license instructor receiving money to issue a licence without the applicant taking the test is a clear example of a bribe.  The problem is that in between these two clear cut examples lies a sea of ambiguity, which has been exploited time and again to justify corrupt practices.

Ask the anthropologists

Anthropologists have long studied this ambiguity. So much so that rather than giving strict definitions for the word “gift” and “bribe”, researchers generally prefer to examine these concepts from the people’s perspective rather than from their own observational lens.

In other words, a gift/bribe is what the local actors believe that it is, not the anthropologist. Therefore, what is often a clear-cut definition of a bribe and considered illegal by the authorities, is often regarded as gift giving and a morally justifiable act by an individual.

This persistent ambivalence, whether you’re studying ancient or contemporary cultures, is due to the fact that a gift and a bribe are very similar in nature. According to anthropologists, at their core, both a gift and a bribe trigger reciprocity, regulate the exchange process and enforce a quid pro quo. In short, a gift and a bribe basically involve the same type of social behaviour.

Reciprocity and the creation of debt

This is why we fret about gifts. Anthropologists together with sociologists believe that despite claims that gift giving is perceived as an altruistic act, it always triggers a return or, at the very least, a feeling of obligation by the recipient of the gift to repay the favour.

It’s why ancient Romans carried out sacrifices to the gods in exchange of favourable outcomes; it’s why many French detested the “gift” of financial aid by the USA after World War II; and it’s why we tell our children they might not get their Christmas gifts if they misbehave (every parent, everywhere).

Dimitri Mortelmans, sociology professor at Antwerp University in Belgium, explains that there is far more to gifting than meets the eye. He explains that when we give someone a gift, we are communicating to the receiver that we are placing a value to that relationship, a value that will shape the participants’ present and future expectations and behaviour.

In order not to cause strain or awkwardness, gifts must be repaid in some way. This means that giving a gift inevitably creates a ‘debt’. “There’s a debt-balance that people (adults) keep, silently, with each other, within their relationships,” he adds.

Each individual must repay the gift in a roughly equal way; to give too little shows that you undervalue the relationship, but to give too much can cause embarrassment.

“If you give an extraordinarily expensive gift, you also create an extraordinary imbalance. In the long term, something will go wrong with that relationship,” says Mortelmans.

Gifts and bribes in the private sector

In theory, exchanging corporate gifts has the same function as individual gift giving. It sends a message of goodwill and aims to develop a reciprocal bond between business partners. In some instances, the complete denial of a corporate gift exchange may well be perceived as an insult while in others, gift giving is simply an integral part of a company’s marketing strategy.

These exchanges are normally heavily regulated by the organisation’s code of conduct, providing guidelines as to what gifts are deemed acceptable and requiring that the exchange be officially recorded. The key element here is transparency.

In practice, this is not what happened at one of the world’s largest electrical engineering companies Siemens , where between 2001 and 2007 the company made approximately 4,283 corrupt payments to officials around the world in order to gain advantages over competitors, their anti-corruption rules existing only on paper.

Siemens is hardly an isolated case.  We only have to think of the extravagant “gifts” offered to physicians by pharmaceutical companies, including all expenses paid trips to conferences, in exchange for prescribing the company’s new drug.

This practice was so pervasive that it led to The Physician Payments Sunshine Act in the US – a 2010 healthcare law that was passed in order to increase transparency of financial relationships between health care providers and pharmaceutical manufacturers.

Gifts and bribes in the public sector

As with private companies, there are numerous instances whereby gift exchanges are common in the public sphere. Who can forget former US President Barack Obama’s iPod gifted to Queen Elizabeth II?

Some countries also have documents that are designed to guide the diplomat or official in question as to what constitutes a suitable gift to give and more importantly, what is an acceptable gift to receive.

In Malta, we are not short of guidelines. Buried deep within the archives of the Malta public service website is a document titled ‘Code of Ethics for Employees in the Public Sector’ that was issued by the Office of the Prime Minister in 1994.

There is a section dedicated to the acceptance of gifts and benefits, and the four points state clearly what behaviour is to be expected from a public service employee with regards to gifts. One paragraph seems especially relevant:

17.  As a general rule a line may be drawn in situations where a gift could be seen by others as either an inducement or a reward which might place an official under an obligation.

A more recent document is the Public Administration Act (Chapter 595 of the Laws of Malta). It states:

9.  Public employees and Board members shall:

d)  Refuse any gift, payment, compensation, privilege or any form of solicitation unless, where gifts are concerned, they are token in nature and are not such as to serve as an inducement or influence the execution of the duties of a public employee or Board member, now or in the future.

And yet here we are. Our political and administrative history is replete with examples of public officials who have accepted wildly inappropriate gifts only to deny there was a quid pro quo.  Even, if legal definitions may sometimes be incompatible with individual views of what constitutes a bribe, we must still acknowledge that gift giving creates a debt, so where is the line drawn?

If a public official accepts a coffee, is he indebted to his host and to what extent? What about a lavish lunch or a hamper during the holiday season? How indebted is a political party to a business when accepting ‘donations’?

How obliged would a prime minister in office or any other senior government official, feel towards a businessman that has given him gifts worth tens of thousands of euros? And how has that businessman created an imbalance in their relationship?

We have all heard about the gifts given to former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat by the main suspect in the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia – Yorgen Fenech.

Muscat was ‘gifted’ a number 17 edition of a Bvlgari watch with an estimated value of €12,000 to €17,000. Fenech also gave Muscat three bottles of Pétrus, a Bordeaux red wine valued at some €5,000. And those are only the gifts that made the headlines after Fenech’s arrest. Who else thought it was a good idea to give ‘gifts’ to the prime minister in office at the time and what was expected in return?

When is a gift a bribe? If the gift places a public official under any undue obligation and if its receipt is not transparent, for those who wish to see it, the answer seems pretty clear.

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