Where social trust leads, corruption is absent

Denmark emerges as the top country for the the highest level of social trust and the lowest rate of corruption on global indexes. A closer look at social interactions and tradition reveals why Denmark retains such a high standing.

Active trust amongst citizens, political administrations, and businesses leads to low levels of corruption and safe environments in Denmark. Photo: Peter Seeba

Active trust amongst citizens, political administrations, and businesses leads to low levels of corruption and safe environments in Denmark. Photo: Gram Mulling

By Muyu Xu

Due to low levels of abuse of power in politics and business, marginal rates of secret dealings and bribery, high levels of transparency within the public sector, and active social trust, Denmark once again has received the highest ranking in the 2013 Corruption Perception Index (CPI) published by Transparency International. This is the eighth time Denmark gained the highest rank (2013, 2012, 2010, 2008, 2007, 1999, 1998, 1997) since the start of the CPI study in 1995, along with four other Nordic countries, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland.

Denmark On Top

It is not uncommon to find unsupervised, covered carriages with sleeping infants in gardens, offices, and patios in Denmark. In some countries leaving a child unattended may seem alarming, but in Denmark it is natural for parents not to disturb a sleeping child, demonstrating how safe the environment is and the trust Danes have for their fellow citizens. Walking along the streets in Denmark, local boutiques and large brand name stores place commodities outside the shop without close supervision or security cameras to prohibit theft. Even in banks, it is rare to see guards. Denmark and many Nordic countries have low crime rates and citizens feel it is their civic duty to follow the rules.

High cost of breaking rules might explain this phenomenon, but Professor Gert Tinggaard Svendsen from Department of political science and Government of Aarhus University offers a new perspective to explain the low corruption levels in Denmark and social trust. “Social trust and corruption always follow each other. The country with high level of social trust often has low level of corruption,” professor Svendsen argued.

According to data from ASEP/JDSystem three Nordic countries, Sweden, Denmark and Finland, were top on the list of Interpersonal Trust worldwide research for the last 30 years. In 2008, within the European countries, the social trust measure from European Values Survey (EVS) and the measurement of the percentage of people expressing a high level of trust in each other, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden ranked the highest with a score from 88.8 to 79.7, while Greece, Portugal, and Turkey ranked in the bottom scoring 40.4, 38.1 and 23.5 respectively.

It is hard to examine whether high social trust creates low levels of corruption or the other way around. Here, Professor Svendsen suggested to look through the history of Nordic countries. Social trust, deriving from specific trust, which requires “face-to-face” interaction within exclusive groups, is expanded to the trust people have of other people without having any direct knowledge of them. In other words, the level of social trust manifests to what level people trust strangers and to what extent people cooperate with others.

It is only possible with a long history of political stability and transparency within government administrations. Combating corruption in Denmark began in the 1660s when king Frederick III started to recruit bureaucrats with merit and intelligence rather than family background and introduced harsh sanctions against corruption simultaneously. This anti-corruption tradition of the Fredrick III era has remained an integral part of the Danish natural character well into 2014.

Transparent Government Administrations

In Denmark, anti-corruption is not a top priority on government agendas, but the government continues to have transparent administrations and social environments, both in political systems and the public sector. However, the state does not manage every faction of political life; rather, it leaves ample space for voluntarily social members to manage public affairs. The strong culture in public administration, which dates back to the 19th century when cooperative association became popular in this new civic society, is part of the Danish tradition. Yet, there isn’t one single association dedicated to anti-corruption in Danish society. Anti-corruption is embedded within the daily life of people in Denmark. Normally, it is the duty of every social sector to fight against corruption and set rules within their own system.

The Danish Family Planning Association (DFPA) is a private, non-governmental organization (NGO) without religious or political affiliations in Denmark. In addition to issues such as sexuality, pregnancy, contraceptive methods, and sexually transmitted diseases, anti-corruption is also a main objective they are concerned about in order to promote transparency and democratic control within the organization and, thus, to be responsible for its partners and donors. Anyone related to the organization has the right and duty to report any suspicions or rumors in regard to cases of corruption.

According to the study of the Danish National Integrity System (NIS), Danish institutions have relatively few formal rules of integrity and anti-corruption, whereas there are strong practices of integrity in Denmark. Both private and public employees can obtain advice and counseling as whistleblowers, which further reveals how Danes can feel trust in the workplace. The media also plays an important and effective role in the cases of anti-corruption. “Many cases of suspected fraud start in the media, and are subsequently taken up by the National Audit Office, the Parliamentary Ombudsman or the Fraud Squad,” stated by the Executive Summary of the NIS (Denmark).

Corruption and Social Wealth

Corruption is often considered as being a negative manifestation of social capital, it not only affects the efficiency and the quality of the public administration, but also slows the economy, as more efforts are made by a third party, such as the government requiring more costs. But in Denmark, anti-corruption systems maintain a minimum level of cost in social expenditure. Meanwhile, low levels of corruption and well-functioning public sectors make it easy for foreign investors to establish and run businesses in Denmark. The Ease of Doing Business rankings in 2014, published by World Bank Group, shows that Denmark ranks number five in the world among 189 countries in being the best place to do business.

Mayor of Aarhus, Jacob Bundsgaard, discussing corruption policies in Denmark. Photo: Giselle Garcia

Mayor of Aarhus, Jacob Bundsgaard, discussing corruption policies in Denmark. Photo: Giselle Garcia

The Mayor of Aarhus, Jacob Bundsgaard states, “Corruption is not the problem foreign businesses need to consider. Meanwhile, low levels of corruption also create low transaction cost in business. There is a strong trust among the administrations, companies, and customers, which increases credibility and reduces precaution.” In Aarhus, a number of international businesses have decided to establish themselves outside of Denmark or expand their activities, which is partly attributes to the low level of corruption in Denmark. The strong credibility within the society decreases the cost of building trust between business and customers. Also, low corruption eliminates a lot of unnecessary expenses and transactions. According to Transparency International’s 2013 report, Denmark got 314.20 billion USD in GDP, ranking 34th in the world; while the Mudi Index shows Denmark ranked 134 of total 199 countries in areas regarding the unemployment rate in 2013.

Danish Model

The Danish government also launched a Zero-Tolerance Policy in 2010 toward corruption in overseas business development. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark is a globally operating organization working for Denmark’s interests and values in relation to the surrounding world. In their anti-corruption policy, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark is determined to maintain the highest standards of integrity and work ethics among their staff and across all areas of activities.

However, when expanding business into some areas where corruption is latent roles, Danish companies are in a dilemma. Professor Jørgen Dige Pedersen from the Department of political science and government at Aarhus University expressed his concern about the trend, “sometimes Danish companies have the advantages to use more money in foreign markets than their local available, and find they can bribe people to get what they want easily. Especially when companies don’t know the rules of the regulations, they tend to follow the locals behaviors as paying bribery in order to get the contract.” It can sometimes be difficult to keep the Danish anti-corruption model outside Denmark.

As low corruption is part of Denmark’s history and tradition, all the state components, political parties, public system, private sectors are in an agreement that corruption is absolutely intolerable.

The construction of the Danish labor market and trade unions in Danish history is an example of how companies, political administrations, and the people work together regardless of their respective ideologies. All national decisions were based on compromise, which is a tradition that is followed today even during the economic crisis.

Mayor Bundsgaard and Professor Pedersen both affirm the importance of teaching anti-corruption in public education. The better education people receive, the more competencies they have to look through complex of decision processes. Professor Pedersen mentions, “It might take generations in order to fully educate population to realize their right and to learn their expectation from the state.” Except for schooling, family influence and social influence in anti-corruption are also importance for anti-corruption education, especially the anti-corruption model function of the government and leading businesses.

The case of Denmark undoubtedly indicates the significant roles that the history and tradition play, which might be hard for other countries to emulate. “It takes a long time to accumulate social trust –about 1000 years in the case of a Scandinavian country like Denmark. It may, however, take a radical government, such as the Nazi regime, a very short time to destroy it” Professor Svendsen states in his research paper “Explaining the Emergence of Social Trust: Denmark and Germany”.

If you’d like to learn more, refer to the following readings:
1. Jensen, M.F. (2013): Korruption og embedsetik: Danske embedsmænds korruption i perioden 1800. University Press of Southern Denmark

2. Svendsen, G.T. (2014): Trust. Aarhus University Press, Denmark.

Muyu is a Chinese journalist, who previously studied journalism in China and Sweden. She is currently enrolled in Erasmus Mundus Journalism Master’s program at the Danish School of Media and Journalism.